17.2.1 exercise: distinguishing between the se passivo and se impessoal

The passive voice, "The car was repaired", is seldom used in Portuguese because there is an alternative, the se passivo and the se impessoal, see 17.1. If we want to be precise however only the se passivo is a substitution for the passive voice. Both construction requires a transitive verb with a direct object, that becomes the subject of the passive voice or the se passivo. In both cases the subject is the goal of the action described by the verb, in the first case, an unknown executer performs this action and in the second case the subject performs this action on itself, what is only possible from a grammatical perspective, but not in reality.

The se impessoal is something completely different. In this case se is not a reflexive pronoun but an indefinite pronoun and the executer of the action described by the verb. The se passivo can be translated in English with the passive voice, the se impessoal can be translated with a corresponding indefinite pronoun like one or with a noun like people that embraces an undefined group. In English we can translate as well with an indefinite pronoun in this case. That is not possible in Portuguese, because there is no indefinite pronoun like the indefinite pronoun one in English. In the se impessoal se corresponds to one, but only in this context.

se passivo: As maçãs se comem.
literaly: The apples eat themselves.
translation with one: One eats apples.
translation with the passive voice: Apples are eaten.

It is said very often that the passive voice and a construction with one are equivalent. It can be questioned that this is true. Let's compare the following sentences.

The cars are repaired.
One repairs cars.

Intuitively, a very bad basis for any discussion, this author would say that there is a difference between these two sentences and the same difference exists between the passive voice and the se passivo in Portuguese. However this is only a "feeling". Let's say all the trucks of a haulage company got destroyed by a hail shower. The hailstones were so thick, that all the windschields get broken. Let's assume that the haulier has not been broken by such a stroke of fate and that he continues to run his company and gets the trucks repaired. In this case it is more likely, that is what the author assumes, that he says "The trucks will be repaired" and not "One repaires the trucks". The author of these lines would say that the indefinite pronoun is used if an action is performed regularly by anybody, but not if it is performed in a special situation. A construction with an indefinite pronoun is more abstract, the subject is more abstract, than in the case of a structure with the passive voice.

Furthermore the passive voice can have the meaning of an order.

order <=> description of the way something is done
1) That's the way it is done!
2) One does it that way.

In 1) we have kind of an order. Someone constates with emphasis how things should be done. In 2) this emphasis is missing. Someone only constates that normally things are done in a certain way, but perhaps the author suffers from a kind of autosuggestion. However there is another argument. In the case of a se passivo it is not even possible to add the executor of an action. In passive voice this is possible: The house was built by my grandfather.

concrete context <=> abstract context
1) Os carros são reparados pelos mecânicos.
2) Reparam-se os carros. ( who ????)

In case 1) the author is mentioned and we can assume that the mechanics are more or less known and that the assertion refers to a concrete situation. In case 2) we describe more an action that is normally performed by everybody.

The transformation rule we find in any grammar book only works if there is an executer in the active sentence. The executer of the active sentence, who is the subject as well of the active sentence is added by the preposition por and the direct object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence. That's the way it works in English as well.

transformation rule
direct object in the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence
active sentence => os carros is direct object Os mecânicos reparam os carros.
passive sentence => os carros is subjectOs carros são reparados pelos mecânicos.

If in the active sentence there is someone who executes the action described by the verb we can't leave that out or to be more precise, we can leave that out, but than we change the meaning of the sentence. Since we can only add the executor in the passive voice, the passive voice is the only transformation possible. (Although we rarely would do that. If there is an executor, there is no need to put the sentence in passive voice. We put a sentence in passive voice, if there is no executer.) What we have to understand however is that the subject governs the verb. If the subject is in plural, the verb has to be in plural as well and if the subject is in singular, the verb has to be in singular as well. (O carro é reparado pelos mecânicos. <=> Os carros são reparados pelos mecânicos.)

If we want to understand the transformation rule in case that there is no executer we have to start with an indefinite noun as the subject.

transformation with an abstract subject
One repaires cars.
Reparam-se carros.
literally: Cars repairs themeselves.

This transformation rule has to be understood in detail, otherwise one risks to confuse the se passivo with the se impessoal, what would lead to errors. Even if this is not a big deal in Portuguese, because nowadays the wrong version is accepted, it is useful to understand it if someone wants to learn Spanish or Portuguese.

In the active sentence the cars were the direct object and in passive voice they became the subject, govern therefore the verb. In this case the subject is in plural and therefore the verb has to be in plural as well. In singular it would be "Repara-se o carro / Se repara o carro" <=> "The car is repaired / One repairs the car". The subject of the sentence applies the action described by the verb to itself, in other words it repairs itself. Unfortunately that happens never in reality, but grammatically it is correct. Since it is carros, plural, the sentence ""Repara-se carros" would be incorrect or at least, in Portuguese, questionable. In the case of a se passivo the se is a reflexive pronoun, although this is nonsense from a logical point of view.

The se impessoal is something completely different although it is often confused, even by native speakers, with the se passivo. If we have an intransitive verb, a verb that doesn't have a direct object that can become the subject of the passive sentence, a transformation to passive sentence is not possible. The only transformation possible is with an indefinite pronoun, however there is no definitive pronoun in Portuguese that corresponds to the English one. ("One has to be careful.") In this case only se is possible and this se is an indefinite pronoun in this circunstances that corresponds to the English indefinite pronoun one.

se impessoal impessol in case of an intransitive verb
In this city one lives well with little money.
Nesta cidade se vive bem com pouco dinheiro.

To live is an intransitive verb, there is nothing that could become the subject of the sentence. We have to introduce an artifical subject if there is none and this artificial subject is one and one requires always the 3rd person singular.

(One may wonder why we can't use another indefinite pronoun, anybody for instance: In this city anybody lives with little money; or everybody: In this town everybody can live with little money. This is not possible, nor in English nor in Portuguese, because anybody and somebody underline an aspect that doesn't make sense here. Anybody underlines the arbitrarity, "Anybody can do that, that is not difficult", and somebody underlines the aspect that there may exist someone who is the target or the executor of an action, but this person is unknown, "I guess that somebody knows that". All these inherent meanings, the same is true for any other indefinite pronoun, don't make any sense in this context. However we see what we see very often. The brain has its own ideas how to verbalize the world in these ideas are the same in all languages, although it is sometimes hard to grasp the subtile meanings.)

Most of all brasilians linguists tend to accept the use of an se impessoal instead of a se passivo. They argue that sometimes the se pessoal is the better solution although wrong from a grammatical point of view. Let's have a look at this example.

transformation with a se impessoal in the case of ambiguity
=> Meaning: A lot of journalists were seen.
1) One saw a lot of journalists.Viu-se muitos reporters

2) O lot of journalists saw themselves.

Muitos reporters viram-se.

To see is a transitive verb and there is a direct object, the journalists. We can therefore transform the sentence to a se passivo and we get "Muitos reporters viram-se". However this sentence is ambiguous. It can mean "One saw a lot of journalists" or "A lot of journalists saw themselves". In this case the construction with a se impessoal is the better solution, because the meaning is clear

In brasilian Portuguese there is a tendency to accept both construction, se impessoal and the se passivo, as equivalent.

indifference between se impessoal and se passivo
"se impessoal": Ouviu-se ruídos durante toda a noite. The whole night some strange noises were heard.
se passivo: Ouviram-se ruídos durante a noite.
"se impessoal": Recitou-se versos de Pessoa. Verses of Pessoa were recitaded.
se passivo: Recitaram-se versos de Pessoa.
"se impessoal": Vende-se casas. Houses are sold.
se passivo: Vendem-se casas.

A more detailed discussion about the topic could be find here: se apassivante / se impessoal (II) [Sintaxe / Pronomes]. If on takes a closer look on websites dealing with this problem, for instance Ainda sobre se, sujeito passivo e sujeito indeterminado, one will find that the se impessoal can always substitute the se passivo.

However some discussions are useless as well. There exists as well a debate whether the sentence "Trata-se dum problema familiar", "It's a family problem", is a se pessoal or a se passivo. The answer is simple. It is neither a se pessoal nor a se passivo, it is just a reflexive pronoun. Tratar-se, to be about, is a reflexive verb. The se belongs to this verb. The family problema is not the subject of the sentence and therefore it is not a se passivo nor a se pessoal because in both cases we need a subject. In this sentence there is none. The family problem is a direct object and the subject is already expressed by the verb. That's common in roman languages. If the subject would be a personal pronoun there is no need to mention it. If we translate the sentence in English, we have to mention it and the subject is it and this it refers to something outside the sentence.

Linguists say very often that the se impessoal and the se passivo is something that developed in the 13th century. This is something that the author doesn't believe. First of all you have this construction as well in german, although it works only with some verbs an not in general. Furthermore the English construction "It sells well" goes in the same direction. The it sells actually nothing. And last not least a construction that corresponds to nothing in the human brain, doesn't correspond to the way the human brain wants to verbalise the reality, woudn't be stable. A linguistic structure can't show up from nowhere. If there is nothing coresponding in the human brain, any structure will disappear as soon as it appeared.

Grammar is always a superficial analysis, describes the results of forces, but not the forces that produced this result, what is the really interesting part. All the academic study is dedicated to this irrelevant part. To say it more clearly. The academic linguists are a bunch of idiots. It doesn't make any sense to study the result of something. The interesting part are the causes that produced this result.

Decide in the following sentences whether the construction is a se passivo or a se impessoal. (We disregard in this exercise that in Brasilian Portuguese we can subistute the se passivo by a se impessoal.) In Brasilian Portuguese the se can be put before the verb or added with a hyphen after the verb. We use both versions in this exercise.

SE-IM => se impessoal
SE-PA => se passivo

Trabalha-se muito. SE-PA
One works a lot.
A casa vendeu-se. SE-PA
The house was sold.
As casas venderam-se. SE-PA
The houses were sold.
Precisa-se de vendedor. SE-PA
Sales job offered
No Brasil se vai à praia somente no verão.SE-PA
In Brasil people go to the beach in summer.
Nesta taberna se come bem. SE-PA
In this restaurant one eats well.
Aqui não se fuma. SE-PA
Smoking not allowed.
Se robava a amigos como a enemigos.SE-PA
Friend and ennemies were robbed.
Pelo que se sabe, ele ainda está aqui.SE-PA
What is known until now he is still there.
Deixem mostrar-vos como se faz.SE-PA
Let me show you how to do this.

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