When to use le vs. se in Spanish is a very difficult topic for many people learning Spanish. A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a customer who wrote:
I am a big fan of your products. I have purchased LSLC Levels 1 and 2. However, I have been stuck on lesson 29 of Level 1 because of something I do not understand. I would really appreciate it if you can explain this to me so that I can finally move on. In lesson 29 it says:
Instructor: Si estás hablando con la señora García ¿cómo se dice? “My sister-in-law cleaned the floors for you.”
Male Speaker: Mi cuñada le limpió los pisos.
Instructor: Ahora dile a señora García “My sister-in-law cleaned them for you.”
Male Speaker: Mi cuñada se los limpió.
So what I don’t understand is, why does the male speaker say “le” in the first line, and, then he says “se” in the second line? Please explain.”
That’s was the customer’s email.
How To Use Le vs. Se In Spanish
I am really glad he emailed me with these questions. That’s because the topic of “se vs. le” used to really confuse me. But now I can answer his question about le vs. se.
The reason why the Spanish speaker in LSLC says “le” in the first line (Mi cuñada le limpió los pisos) is because “le” is an indirect object in Spanish.
In the phrase “my sister-in law cleaned the floors for you” the indirect object is “you” since she cleaned the floors (she did not clean YOU) instead she cleaned the floors FOR you. So that’s why “le” is the indirect pronoun in this phrase.
On the other hand, if my sister-in-law had cleaned YOU then we would use the direct object pronoun “lo” or “la” instead of “le.” For example, imagine that I am speaking to a small child and I say:
Mi cuñada lo lavó. (My sister-in-law washed you.)
By the way, it is not uncommon in Medellin and other areas of Colombia (that are NOT the coastal cities of Colombia) for Colombians to use the formal word for you (usted) instead of the informal word for you (“tú) and to give commands in the “usted” form or formal way when speaking to ANYONE — including children, siblings, spouses, friends and even pets! En serio! (Seriously!)
Yesterday, I heard a “niña” (little girl) yelling “venga, venga, venga” (come, come, come – formal) instead of “ven, ven ven” (come, come, come – informal) when calling her “perrito” (puppy). Well, she didn’t address the dog by saying “usted” but she did use the formal “you” (usted) command for the Spanish verb “venir” (to come) when calling her dog. That is, she said “venga” intead of “Ven.”
In fact, while writing this email, I just heard a child in the “parque” (park) in front of my “apartamento” playing with his “amiguitos” (little friends) and he yelled “oiga” (listen – formal) instead “oye” (listen – informal).
So in Medellin and in many of the other interior areas of Colombia (as opposed to the Coastal regions of Colombia), you are likely to hear someone say to a child “Mi cuñada lo lavó” instead of “Mi cuñada te lavó” for “my sister-in-law washed you” because as a “costumbre” (custom/tradition) the formal word for “you” (usted) is commonly used in Medellin and in many of the other interior areas of Colombia.
Actually, Colombians in this case are more likely to use the Spanish verb “bañar” (to bathe) instead of “lavar” And in that case:
Mi cuñada lo bañó. (My sister-in-law bathed you).
Now where were we? Oh . . . Back to why the male speaker in the course used “le” in the first sentence instead of “se.”
“Se” is a reflexive pronoun when used WITHOUT another pronoun. So if I used the phrase the customer suggested “Mi cuñada se limpió los pisos” that does NOT mean “my sister-in law cleaned the floors for you.” The phrase would literally mean “my sister-in law the floors clean themselves.” Which makes no sense.
To answer the customer’s second question . . . why does the male speaker use “se” in the second sentence and say? “Mi cuñada se los limpió.”
The only reason is because it sounds better than saying “Mi cuñada le los limpió.” In other words, the change in the indirect object pronoun from “le” to “se” makes pronunciation easier.
In fact, try saying out loud: “Mi cuñada se los limpió” and then try saying “Mi cuñada le los limpió.”
How To Say Tongue Twister in Spanish
You will find that the first phrase (Mi cuñada se los limpió) is easier to pronounce than “Mi cuñada le los limpió.” The second phrase is almost a “trabalenguas” (tongue twister). So now you also know how to say tongue twister in Spanish.
I found a couple of articles on the Web on the topic of when “se” replaces “le” in Spanish simply because “it sounds better.” Here’s one:
Here’s another article that says “This replacement is not optional; native Spanish speakers would never say “le lo” or “les lo.”