Using se debe/se puede to say You must/you can (impersonal sentences)

In Spanish we use the impersonal pronoun se with the modal verbs deber and poder to express "you must [do something]" or "you can [do something]" in an impersonal way. In English you could also say "one must" or "one can" but this is more formal.

Se debe + infinitive of main verb

Se puede + infinitive of main verb

The modal verbs will always take the 3rd person singular form of the present.

This type of impersonal sentence where the subject is not specific but rather refers to people in general is used with intransitive verbs, i.e. verbs with no direct objects, like dormir, ir, descansar, pasear...

Have a look at the following examples:

En esta aldea tan tranquila se puede descansar estupendamente.
In this quiet village you can have a fabulous rest. (impersonal: one can rest)

Para tener una buena relación con la pareja se debe dialogar mucho.
To have a good relationship with your partner you need to talk to each other a lot. (impersonal: one needs to talk)

There are transitive verbs that may be used sometimes with no mention of a direct object. In this case the impersonal form "se debe/se puede" can also be used.

Read and listen to these examples:

En mi colegio se puede leer en silencio en la biblioteca.
In my school you can read in silence in the library. (impersonal: one can read)

No se debe fumar para gozar de buena salud.
You must not smoke to enjoy good health. (impersonal: One must not smoke)

Remember all modal verbs are followed by an infinitive.

Although this type of impersonal sentence seems very similar to the "passive se" sentences, this type cannot be turned into a "normal" passive sentence with "ser + participle".

For example:

No se debe fumar. (You must not smoke)

Fumar no es debido.

See also Using se debe/n and se puede/n + infinitive to say you must / you can (passive)

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

Para tener una buena relación con la pareja se debe dialogar mucho.
To have a good relationship with your partner you need to talk to each other a lot. (impersonal: one needs to talk)


No se debe fumar para gozar de buena salud.
You must not smoke to enjoy good health. (impersonal: One must not smoke)


En esta aldea tan tranquila se puede descansar estupendamente.
In this quiet village you can have a fabulous rest. (impersonal: one can rest)


En mi colegio se puede leer en silencio en la biblioteca.
In my school you can read in silence in the library. (impersonal: one can read)


Q&A Forum 1 question, 1 answer

What'a the difference between this lesson and a previous one

Hola

I'm confused as to why this lesson exists. Doesn't this one Using se debe/n and se puede/n + infinitive to say you must / you can (passive) already cover it??

thanks

Asked 3 days ago
InmaKwiziq language super star

Hola Pippy

They are very similar but not talking exactly about the same thing.

One lesson is about using "Se debe/se puede +infinitive". Here you only use these forms in the 3rd person singular (debe/puede) and they are used with intransitive verbs (no direct objects):

Aquí en este restaurante se puede fumar. Here in this restaurant one can smoke.

The other lesson using "Se debe/se deben/se puede/se pueden + infinitive" is about a form of Passive sentence. It is like when you say "En este bar se sirven paellas todos los domingos" (In this bar paellas are served every Sunday), but with modal verbs deber or poder, for example:

En este bar no se pueden beber bebidas alcohólicas.

In this bar alcoholic drinks cannot be drunk.

You need to make the modal verb poder agree with "bebidas alcohólicas" (plural noun) -> se pueden

These structures are very similar and sometimes they are actually translated the same in English, but in Spanish they are either impersonal sentences or passive sentences and the important part is the agreement, as explained before.

I hope this clarified it for you

Saludos

Inma

What'a the difference between this lesson and a previous one

Hola

I'm confused as to why this lesson exists. Doesn't this one Using se debe/n and se puede/n + infinitive to say you must / you can (passive) already cover it??

thanks

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