Saturday, June 20, 2020

Sp. olvidar and Eng. oblivion, Part 2

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is part 2 - Go to Part 1

How to use the verb olvidar


The verb olvidar presents some complications from the perspective of an English-speaking learner of Spanish, not because of its meaning and contexts of use, which are quite close to those of Eng. forget, but because of the grammatical constructions they are found in, which differ somewhat. So let us look first at how forget works in English before tackling olvidar. English forget is primarily used as a transitive verb in which the ‘forgetter’ is the subject of the ‘forgotten’ is the direct object, e.g. I forgot the keys or I forgot her name. In these examples, the direct object is a noun phrase (the keys, her name, namely, a noun with various modifiers attached to it.

The ‘forgotten’ (thing) may also be an event, coded as a sentence introduced by the conjunction that, as in I forgot that she was there, or a question introduced by an interrogative pronoun, as in I forgot when her birthday was. The complement may also be action to be performed, which is coded by a verb phrase preceded by the preposition to, as in I forgot to call my mother. All of these phrases or clauses are performing the same function as the keys in the earlier sentence and, thus, it can also be seen as the direct object of the sentence, even though they are not nouns.



Direct object



her name

My mother 


that I was coming



to call me

The complement of forget may also be an ‑ing verb phrase, as in I forgot meeting her mother or I forgot having met her mother. The English verb forget can also be used in an intransitive construction which instead of a direct object, has a prepositional phrase complement introduced by the preposition about, e.g. I forgot about the keys. Note that with this construction, the complement may not be a tensed clause. Thus you cannot say in English things like *I forgot about that I knew her (cf. Sp. Me olvidé de que la conocía). An tenseless ‑ing clause may follow the preposition, however, as in I forgot about seeing her there, I forgot about having seen her there, or with a different ‘subject’, I forgot about her having seen me there.

Dictionaries differ somewhat as to how many senses they postulate for the verb forget and how the senses are divided. We can say, however, that the following are the four most common senses that have been proposed for English forget, all of which are also senses of Sp. olvidar:

  • ‘not recall/remember; fail to remember facts, information, etc.’, e.g. I forget her name, I forgot our appointment
  • ‘neglect to do because of failing to remember’, e.g. I forgot to call my mother
  • ‘unintentionally/inadvertently leave behind’, e.g. I forgot my umbrella (in the car)
  • ‘put out of one’s mind, stop thinking about’, e.g. I forgot my ex-girlfriend very fast

All of these senses apply to transitive forget. In addition, some dictionaries give an intransitive forget, with two senses. In one of them, forget is used without an explicit direct object, though one is ‘understood’ (Sp. sobreentendido), e.g. Let’s forgive and forget (COED). Some grammarians (and dictionaries) like to think of such uses in which there is not an explicit direct object (but there is an implicit, understood one) as intransitive, but not all do.

In addition, as we saw earlier, forget can be used with an about phrase as its complement instead of with a direct object and, by definition, the lack of a direct object makes the use intransitive. Often times, a transitive sentence and a version with about are quite synonymous, e.g. I forgot our anniversary vs. I forgot about our anniversary (cf. Sp. Olvidé nuestro aniversario vs. Me olvidé de nuestro aniversario). There are some uses for forget about, however, that cannot be paraphrased with transitive forget, e.g. With those grades, forget about going out this weekend! (Sp. … olvídate de salir este fin de semana, … ni se te ocurra pensar en salir este fin de semana). The American Heritage Dictionary defines the ‘forget about’ sense as ‘to fail or neglect to become aware at the proper or specified moment: forgot about my dental appointment’. Other dictionaries remind us that forget about can be used with other senses too, such as primarily the ‘put out of one’s mind’ sense, typically in imperatives, such as in Forget about your girlfriend or Forget about going to the beach today. (Some dictionaries, such as Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, split this last sense into several sub-types.)

Going back to olvidar, we find that ever since early Spanish times, this verb has been used in two major ways. In one, the ‘forgetter’ is the subject and the ‘forgotten’ is the direct object, just like in the case of the English verb forget, e.g. Juan olvidó las llaves ‘Juan forgot the keys’, Olvidé su nombre ‘I forgot her name’. With this use, the object may also be a tensed clause introduced by the conjunction que, as in Olvidé que iba a llover ‘I forgot (that) it was going to rain’ or an embedded question, e.g. Olvidé cuándo ibas a llegar ‘I forgot when you were going to arrive’. When what’s forgotten is doing something, then the complement is a verb phrase with the verb in the infinitive, e.g. Juan olvidó llamar a su madre ‘Juan forgot to call his mother’.

The senses of the verb olvidar are pretty much the same ones that we saw for forget above. Note, however, that to translate some senses of Eng. forget, Spanish speakers may prefer to use verbs other than olvidar, such as no recordar or no acordarse (de) ‘not remember’, e.g. Eng. I forget what that’s called vs. Sp. No recuerdo cómo se llama eso or No me acuerdo de cómo se llama eso, which are much preferable to something like *Olvido cómo se llama eso, which is not a grammatical sentence, or like ?Olvidé cómo se llama eso, which is grammatical, but definitely odd sounding. (Note that the asterisk * in front of a sentence indicates that it is not grammatical or acceptable and the question mark ? indicates that it is questionable.)

But, as we saw, the simple transitive construction (subject-verb-object) with olvidar is not the most common one we find this verb in. There are other constructions, three in number, that are much more commonly used with olvidar than the plain transitive construction. All of them involve the use of reflexive pronouns, but they are rather different uses of the reflexive pronoun. In one, a so-called ethical dative pronoun is added, which since it refers to the same person as the subject, is a reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, etc.), as in Juan se olvidó las llaves en el carro ‘Juan forgot his keys in the car’ (cf. Yo me olvidé las llaves en el carro ‘I forgot my keys in the car’). As we will see below, this construction, as just exemplified, can only be used when the ‘inadvertently leave behind’ sense of olvidar, reflecting a lapse of memory.[1]

Secondly, there is what might seem to be a variant of this construction in which the object (the forgotten thing) is not coded as a direct object but, rather, as a propositional phrase with the preposition de ‘of’, e.g. Me olvidé de las llaves ‘I forgot about the keys’. This is equivalent of the forget about intransitive construction in English. This construction cannot be used with the ‘leave behind’ sense of olvidar, just like forget about cannot have this meaning either in English. Thus, you cannot say I forgot about the keys in the car with the meaning ‘I left the keys behind inadvertently in the car’, but only with a meaning that the forgetting happened in the car. 

Thirdly, olvidar is used in a grammatical construction known as the accidental reflexive construction, in which the thing ‘forgotten’ is the subject (not the direct object), the ‘forgetter’ is an indirect object (not the subject), and the verb is reflexive, e.g. A Juan se le olvidaron las llaves ‘Juan forgot the keys’. Note that the verb here agrees with las llaves, which is thus the subject of the clause and not the object, despite coming after the verb, which is where the direct object typically goes. In the next two sections we will look at these constructions in more detail.

Transitive construction

Juan olvidó las llaves (en el carro)

Juan olvidó llamar a su madre

Transitive construction
with reflexive ethical dative

Juan se olvidó las llaves (en el carro)

(*Juan se olvidó llamar a su madre)

Intransitive (de) construction
with reflexive pronoun

Juan se olvidó de las llaves (*en el carro)

Juan se olvidó de llamar a su madre

Accidental reflexive

A Juan se le olvidaron las llaves (en el carro)

A Juan se le olvidó llamar a su madre

Table 180: Constructions in which the verb olvidar is used

The ethical dative construction with olvidar

As we just saw, a sentence such as Me olvidé las llaves seems to contain what is known as an ethical dative or indirect object of interest, which in this case must be the same entity as the subject of the verb. The ethical dative is nothing more than a ‘redundant’ object pronoun added to a regular sentence, adding a nuance to its meaning. The ethical dative exists in English, but in more limited contexts than in Spanish and it is used with fewer verbs. Thus, for instance, Spanish uses the ethical dative with olvidar, but English does not use it with forget.

An example of an ethical dative in English would be I bought me a new pair of shoes or I bought myself a new pair of shoes, with a reflexive pronoun. In Spanish this would come out as (Yo) me compré un par de zapatos nuevos. The me here is a reflexive indirect object, so that if the subject was third person, the pronoun would be se, e.g. Mi hermano se compró un par de zapatos nuevos ‘My brother bought himself a new pair of shoes’. The meaning that the indirect object me (the ethical dative) adds to this sentence that makes it different from I bought a pair of shoes is pretty much the difference that the ethical dative adds to the equivalent Spanish sentence: Someone did something and this affected them in some (usually) positive way.

As we said, the ethical dative is used with many Spanish verbs whose English counterparts would never use one, such as the verb comer ‘to eat’, e.g. (Yo) me comí diez tacos ‘I ate ten tacos (and it felt satisfied)’ or Me subí tres montes en un día ‘I climbed three mountains in one day (and I feel very proud of it)’. In the case of olvidar, adding an ethical dative to the sentence (Yo) olvidé las llaves en el carro results in (Yo) me olvidé las llaves en el carro. When the subject is third person, the reflexive pronoun is se, of course: Juan olvidó las llaves en el carro changes to Juan se olvidó las llaves en el carro. The latter sentence, with an ethical reflexive dative, is more common than the former one without in Spanish. 

However, there are some restrictions as to the use of the ethical construction with transitive olvidar. As we mentioned earlier, it seems to work only with the ‘inadvertently leave behind’ sense of the verb olvidar, and then only if the direct object is a thing as opposed to a person. For all other senses of this verb, one of the other options must be used instead: transitive olvidar, intransitive olvidarse de, or else the accidental reflexive construction that we will see below. On the other hand, olvidarse de, just like of forget about in English, cannot be used with the ‘inadvertently leave behind’ sense of forget, but only with the ‘fail-to-remember’ sense. Thus, Me olvidé de las llaves can mean either ‘I forgot about the keys’, but also ‘I forgot (to bring) the keys’. But you cannot say, for example, *Me olvidé de las llaves en el carro, meaning ‘I forgot the keys in the car’, that is, saying where you forgot the keys. For that you need to use the transitive construction: (Me) olvidé las llaves en el carro.


Transitive ethical construction  

Intransitive/de ethical construction

I forgot the keys

  Me olvidé las llaves

(Me olvidé de las llaves)

I forgot my friend

 ?Me olvidé mi amigo
 *Me olvidé a mi amigo

Me olvidé de mi amigo

I forgot you.

 *Te me olvidé / *Me te olvidé

Me olvidé de ti.

Moving now to the olvidarse de form of this verb, it might seem that it is a mere extension of transitive olvidarse, with an ethical-dative, resulting from the mere changing of the direct object noun phrase for a prepositional phrase complement with the preposition de. A rather different analysis seems to be in order for olvidarse de, however, one in which the added reflexive pronoun is not an ethical dative at all but rather a different type of reflexive, perhaps of the type that is used to render transitive verbs intransitive in Spanish, resulting in so-called pronominal verbs (Sp. verbos pronominales).

Spanish uses reflexive morphology as a way of rendering a transitive verb, one with a subject and a direct object, into an intransitive verb, one with a subject but not direct object. The following are three representative examples:

  • from transitive abrir, used to describe that someone opens something, as in Juan abrió la puerta ‘Juan opened the door’, we get intransitive abrirse ‘to open (up)’, as in La puerta se abrió or Se abrió la puerta, in which la puerta is the subject, not the direct object

  • from transitive ahogar ‘to drown’, used to describe that someone causes someone else to drown, we get intransitive ahogarse ‘to drown’

  • from alegrar ‘to cheer’, used to express that someone or something cheers someone else up’, as in Tú me alegras ‘You cheer me up’, we get intransitive alegrarse ‘to cheer up’, Yo me alegro ‘I’m glad, I’m cheerful’.

Thus, for example, the sentence La puerta se abrió is not a normal (literal) reflexive transitive sentence for the door is not opening itself, and the sentence El bañista se ahogó ‘The swimmer drowned’ is not a true reflexive either, since the swimmer did not cause his own drowning (thus, you cannot say El bañista se ahogó a sí mismo, lit. ‘The swimmer drowned himself (on purpose)’). Rather, the swimmer is the patient of the drowing event, and it is the subject of the sentence only because the verb is intransitive by virtue of having made so by the reflexive construction. Since an intransitive verb must have a subject, and no direct object, the only event participant, the door or the swimmer, must be the subject.

Of the three verbs above, the last one is the most similar to olvidar since alegrarse may also take a complement prepositional phrase with the preposition de. However, things are also somewhat different since with alegrarse de, the object of the proposition de refers to the same thing as the subject of alegrar, not to its direct object, as in the case of abrir and ahogar, and furthermore it only works when the object of de is a clause, not a noun phrase, e.g.

  •  Transitive (the subject typically comes after the verb, but it could come before):
    • Me alegran tus cartas ‘Your letters make me happy’
    • Me alegra que vengas a verme ‘Your coming to see me makes me happy’
  •  Intransitive with de (it only works if the object of the preposition is a clause):
    • *?Me alegro de tus cartas ‘I’m glad about your letters’
    • Me alegro de que vengas a verme ‘I’m glad about your coming to see me’

As we can see, Me alegro de tus cartas is either ungrammatical or at the very least a rather odd-sounding sentence in Spanish, which means that there are important restrictions on how alegrarse de may be used.

So, could olvidarse de be derived from olvidar by means of the intransitivizing reflexive morphology that is used to make verbs pronominal in Spanish? The fact that alegrarse de is intransitive would seem to warrant such an analysis. On the other hand, there is a big difference between this olvidarse and the other pronominal verbs that we have seen, such as abrirse, ahogarse, and alegrarse, namely that the subject of these other verbs is what would have been the object of the transitive counterparts of these verbs, whereas the subject of intransitive olvidarse de is the same as the subject of transitive olvidar and transitive olvidarse (with an ethical dative). This makes olvidar(se de) a rather unusual verb.

Finally, let us note that there is a context in which olvidar cannot be used without an overt direct object, even if such an object is implied. In this context, only olvidarse can be used, as in the following context:

“¿Trajiste las llaves?”     Did you bring the keys?

“No, me olvidé.”           No, I forgot.

“*No, olvidé.”                [not possible]

Note that it is not possible to translate I forgot as Olvidé in such a context in which there is no overt direct object but only an implied one. If there is no overt object (the forgotten thing), even if there is one implicitly (such as las llaves or traer las llaves in the preceding context), the verb olvidar must be conjugated pronominally, with a reflexive pronoun.

The accidental reflexive construction with olvidar

Still, neither one of these sentences is probably the most common way to use the verb olvidar. It is a well-known fact that Spanish is much more reluctant than English to have human subjects to whom something happens or who experience something, that is, subjects which are semantically ‘experiencers’, as opposed to subjects that do something and are thus semantically ‘agents’. When something happens to a person, Spanish prefers to code the phrase referring to that event participant as an indirect object, the prototypical ‘experiencer’, not as a subject, the prototypical ‘agent’. This preference manifests itself most clearly with the verb gustar which is equivalent but not synonymous with the English verb to like. This verb codes the ‘liker’, an ‘experiencer’, as an indirect object and the ‘liked’ as the subject. So, actually, it is best not to say that gustar means ‘to like’ but rather that Spanish uses the verb gustar when English would use the verb to like. The verb gustar means literally something like ‘to please’ or ‘to cause pleasure or delight’, which explains why the source of delight is the subject and the recipient the indirect object.

This whole thing can be quite difficult for an English speaker to relate to at an intuitive level. Matters are complicated further by the fact that with gustar and others that work like it, such as molestar ‘to bother’ and interesar ‘to interest’ and importar ‘to matter’, the most common placement in the sentence for the subject is after the verb and not before it, e.g. Me gusta el chocolate ‘I like chocolate’. Here el chocolate is the subject, but its ‘normal’ position is after the verb, which is the normal position of the direct object in English (as in I like chocolate). This is confusing for speakers of English who are learning Spanish, since in English subjects must always come before the verb.

In Spanish, verbs that express involuntary events expressing things such as someone dropping, breaking, forgetting, or running out of something, tend not to be coded as transitive events that consist of a subject + verb + direct object. These are involuntarily events that happen to people, not volitional actions in which people are volitional agents. The earlier example Olvidé las llaves ‘I forgot the keys’ is an exception to this but, as we said, that is not the most common way to use this verb. English, on the other hand, is much less reluctant to use this structure, cf. I dropped my keys, I broke my arm, I finished the milk, I forgot to call you.

So, what does Spanish use instead of a transitive sentence to express the equivalent of those English sentences? The most common solution is a grammatical construction in which an intransitive (or ‘intransitivized’) verb is used in which the subject codes the thing that undergoes the ‘accident’ (or involuntary event) is the subject, but which typically comes after the verb (as with gustar and verbs like gustar), and the person that experiences the ‘accident’ is coded as the indirect object (also like with gustar and verbs like gustar. The following are typical examples of coding of events in which something happens to someone:



A Juan le tocó la lotería (= Juan ganó la lotería)

 Juan won the lottery

A Juan le quedan dos cervezas

 Juan has two beers left

Note that in the case of the first example, a synonymous alternative exists in which the coding is more like what we would expect in English.

Very often in this type of sentence the verb is pronominal, that is, conjugated as a reflexive verb. This can be because of one of two possible reasons, having to do with the functions that ‘reflexivity’ has in Spanish. One of them is that, as we saw in the preceding section, by making a verb pronominal (‘reflexive’), Spanish can turn a transitive verb into an intransitive one. Thus, the verbs romper ‘to break’, acabar ‘to finish’, or olvidar ‘to forget’, which are inherently transitive, they are rendered intransitive by conjugating them as if they were reflexive (with reflexive pronouns added). That is the standard way to make a transitive verb intransitive in Spanish, as we can see in the following examples:

Transitive sentence
(with subject and direct object)

Intransitive sentence

(with subject and no direct object)

Juan abrió la puerta

‘Juan opened the door’ (voluntary) 

Se abrió la puerta / La puerta se abrió
‘The door opened’

Juan acabó la leche

‘Juan finished the milk’ (voluntary)  

Se acabó la leche / La leche se acabó

‘The milk ran out’

Juan rompió la lámpara

‘Juan broke the lamp’ (voluntary)

Se rompió la lámpara / La lámpara se rompió

‘The lamp broke’

Juan perdió el libro

‘Juan lost the book’ (involuntary)

Se perdió el libro / El libro se perdió

‘The book got lost’

Table 181: Transitive sentences and pronominal intransitive counterparts

Note that English typically does not make any changes to a transitive verb such as open or break to turn it into an intransitive one. By making the ‘object’ the subject and placing it before the verb, the same result is accomplished in English grammar, a process known as conversion (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.7).  Note also that in Spanish, the subject may come either before or after the verb having to do with factors that are not related to grammar but rather to ‘information-flow’ or ‘discourse-pragmatic’ factors, such as topic and focus.[2] In some cases, English does not render a transitive verb intransitive by conversion and it uses other mechanisms, such as using the verb get and the verb’s past participle, so that transitive lose turns into intransitive get lost. With some verbs, a lexical solution is found to render a transitive verb into its intransitive counterpart, as in the case of the verb finish, whose intransitive version is a totally different verb, such as the intransitive phrasal verb run out, e.g. I finished the milk vs. The milk ran out.

Spanish makes great use of this mechanism, namely conjugating transitive verbs pronominally (as reflexives) to turn transitive verbs into intransitive ones. The following are some very common examples:


Intransitive (‘reflexive’)

levantar ‘to lift, raise’  

levantarse ‘to get up, rise’

lavar ‘to wash’

lavarse ‘to wash up, etc.’

confesar ‘to confess’

confesarse ‘to go to confession’

Table 182: Transitive verbs and intransitive reflexive counterparts

Spanish has another, less common use for the reflexive ‘construction’, namely, to turn an intransitive verb that expresses an imperfective event into an also intransitive verb that expresses a perfective event. An imperfective event is one such that is temporally unbound, such as the one expressed by the intransitive verb caer ‘to fall’, in which the event is seen as a protracted one whose beginning and end are not relevant to what is being expressed, as in the sentence La lluvia cae del cielo ‘The rain falls from the sky’. The falling here is seen as a continuous, ongoing event. A perfective event, on the other hand, is one in which the whole event is seen as a whole, bounded in time, or one in which either the beginning or the end (or both) is highlighted.

By turning an intrinsically imperfective verb like caer into a ‘reflexive’ one, Spanish turns this verb into one that focuses on the beginning of the event, which is invariably brief and thus time-bound, e.g. Juan se cayó al suelo ‘Juan fell (down) to the floor’. Note that English may accomplish the same result by optionally adding the adverbial down, forming the phrasal verb fall down (cf. Part I, Chapter 4, §4.12.2). Another very common Spanish verb that does this is ir ‘to go’, an intransitive verb that turns into irse when conjugated pronominally, which means ‘to take off, leave, go away, etc.’, e.g. Juan va a su casa después del trabajo ‘Juan goes home after work’ vs. Juan se va a su casa a las cinco ‘Juan leaves for home at five’.

These uses of the reflexive construction are extensions of what can be called true reflexives, those in which the reflexive expresses an action performed by the same entity that the action is performed on and thus contrasts with non-reflexive transitive actions. Thus, for example, Yo me veo en el espejo ‘I see myself in the mirror’ is a true reflexive, for the ‘seer’ and the ‘(thing) seen’ are the same entity. A non-reflexive equivalent would be Yo te veo en el espejo ‘I see you in the mirror’. Non-true reflexive verbs are known as pronominal verbs (Sp. verbos pronominales) or verbs used pronominally (reflexively).

So, what does all this have to do with olvidar? It has to do with a grammatical construction typically known as the accidental reflexive construction, which is used to indicate that an event happened to someone unintentionally or accidentally without them having any responsibility for it happening. Such a construction is really nothing more than a variant of the construction that we have already seen, one which expresses that something happened to someone by coding the relevant object (or person) involved in the event as the subject of an intransitive (or intransitivized) verb and the person (or object) that this happened to (the ‘accidental event’) as an indirect object. Crucially, the intransitive verb of this construction is always reflexive, something that is explained by one of the two uses of the reflexive that we just saw. The following are examples of the accidental reflexive construction in which the original verb is transitive:


Involuntarily (‘accidentally’)

Juan rompió su brazo

‘Juan broke his arm’ (on purpose)

A Juan se le rompió el brazo

‘Juan broke his arm’ (involuntarily)

Juan acabó la leche

‘Juan finished the milk’ (on purpose)  

A Juan se le acabó la leche

‘Juan ran out of milk’ (involuntarily)

Juan quemó los libros

‘Juan burned the books’ (on purpose)

A Juan se le quemaron los libros

‘Juan’s books burned down’ (it happened)

Table 183: Transitive sentences and equivalent ones with the accidental reflexive construction

The following are examples in which the verb’s ‘pronominality’ (‘reflexivity’) codes the suddenness (perfectivity) of the situation. Since the verb in these cases is intrinsically intransitive (cannot have a direct object), there is no voluntary version of the event:

Intransitive reflexives without experiencer

and with an experiencer

Las llaves se cayeron / Se cayeron las llaves      

‘The keys fell (down)’

A Juan se le cayeron las llaves

‘Juan dropped his keys’ (involuntarily)

El gato se escapó / Se escapó el gato

‘The cat ran away’

A Juan se le escapó el gato

‘Juan’s cat ran away on him’

El tren se fue / Se fue el tren

‘The train took off’

A mí se me fue el tren

‘The train took off without me’

El libro se perdió / Se perdió el libro

‘The book got lost’

A ti se te perdió el libro

‘You lost the book’

Table 184: Sentences with accidental reflexive construction and versions without experiencer

Note that this construction only seems to work if the subject is third person and thus the reflexive pronoun is se. Thus, if the subject is second person, one may not just add an indirect object to it. Thus, for example, you cannot add an indirect object to pronominal (‘reflexive’) (Tú) te perdiste ‘You got lost’ to indicate that someone lost you. In other words, you cannot say *Te le perdiste, *Le te perdiste, meaning something like ‘S/he lost you’. To express that meaning, the transitive construction must be used, cf. Te perdió.[3]

The verb perder ‘to lose’ works pretty much like olvidar. One may say Perdí las llaves ‘I lost my keys’, in which the ‘loser’ is the subject and the ‘lost thing’ is the direct object. But it is more common in Spanish to use the accidental reflexive construction, resulting in the synonymous sentence Se me perdieron las llaves. Notice that in this case we could not use the ethical dative construction, that is, we cannot say *Me perdí las llaves. The ethical dative can only be used with perder when it is used with the sense of missing a chance to witness something, as in Me perdí el partido ‘I missed the game’.  This dative reflexive in a transitive sentence with a direct object (el partido) should not be confused with a regular reflexive that makes perder intransitive (pronominal) as perderse, which translates as to get lost, as in Me perdí en el bosque ‘I got lost in the forest’.

One way in which olvidar is different from the other verbs that use the accidental reflexive construction, such as perder, is that with olvidar there are no versions without an ethical dative parallel to those with an ethical dative, such as those we saw in Table 184 above. Thus, although we have a sentence Se perdió el libro ‘The book got lost’ from which the sentence Se me/te/le perdió el libro ‘I/you/he/she lost the book’ is derived, there is no equivalent Se olvidó el libro meaning ‘The book got forgotten’. Note that Se olvidó el libro is an actual Spanish sentence, but it can only be one in which the se is not an intransitivizing reflexive pronoun, but rather an ethical dative reflexive pronoun. A version of that sentence with an overt subject would be Juan se olvidó el libro ‘Juan forgot the book’ (the first-person equivalent would be Yo me olvidé el libro ‘I forgot the book’, se above). In theory, in the sentence Se olvidó el libro, the se here could also be a passive se or an impersonal se, the kind found in sentences such as Se venden libros ‘Books are sold’ (passive se) or Se vende libros ‘They sell books’ (impersonal), but that is a forced interpretation that does not seem to occur in real speech, perhaps because the ethical dative interpretation is so strongly associated with reflexive pronouns that accompany the verb olvidar.

To summarize, sentences such as Olvidé las llaves en casa ‘I forgot my keys at home’ or Olvidé su nombre ‘I forgot her name’, with a construction analogous to the English one involving forget in which the ‘forgetter’ is the subject and the ‘forgotten’ is the direct object, are not very common in Spanish. Although they are grammatical, they sound rather formal or aseptic. There are two more common alternative constructions, namely the ethical dative construction, as in Me olvidé las llaves en casa, and the accidental reflexive construction, as in Se me olvidaron las llaves en casa.

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[1] The term ethical dative (Sp. dativo ético) is inherited from Latin grammar, cf. Lat. datīvus ēthĭcus. We could translate this term more meaningfully as ‘dative or indirect object of interest’.

The Latin noun datīvus refers to ‘a case of nouns and pronouns indicating an indirect object or recipient’ (COED) (Eng. dative, Sp. dativo).  The Latin adjective ēthĭcus/a/um is related to the English noun ethic ‘a general idea or belief that influences people’s behaviour and attitudes’ (LDCE) and ethics ‘a system of accepted beliefs which control behaviour, especially such a system based on morals’ (in Spanish both nouns translate as ética). This Latin noun is a loanword from Ancient Greek adjective θικς (ēthikós) ‘of morals’ derived from the noun θος (êthos) ‘character, moral nature, custom, habit’ (expanded form of θος éthos) by means of the adjective forming suffix‎ ‑κός (-ikós).

The term ethical dative now refers to an event participant with a personal interest or emotional involvement in the event. So, for instance, in the sentence, Se me cayó el huevo ‘The egg fell’, the indirect object (dative) me indicates that the action affected me or happened to me.

Latin borrowed its grammatical terminology from Greek. The term datīvus, derived from the verb dāre ‘to give’, is a calque from Ancient Greek δοτκή (dotikḗ) ‘dative case’, a reduction of the phrase δοτικ πτσις (hē dotikḕ ptosis) ‘grammatical case of giving’, ultimately derived from the adjective δοτκός (dotikós) ‘of giving, inclined to give, giving freely’.

Greek (and, therefore, Latin) recognized different types of uses for the dative grammatical case or endings, namely the following (using their Latin names): dativus finalis ‘dative of purpose’, dativus commodi sive incommodi ‘dative of benefit or harm’, dativus possessivus ‘dative of possession’, dativus ethicus ‘ethic or polite dative, dative of interest’, dativus auctoris ‘dative of agent’, dativus instrumenti ‘dative of instrument’, dativus modi ‘dative of manner’, and dativus mensurae ‘dative of measurement’.

[2] English speakers learning Spanish have a difficult time recognizing a post-verbal noun as the subject since in English the subject (almost) always comes before the verb, no matter what. In Spanish, on the other hand, post-posed subjects are very common in certain Spanish constructions, such as the one we just mentioned, but also in subordinate clauses, such as adverbial clauses, e.g. Cuando llegó Juan ‘When Juan arrived’, and adjective (relative) clauses, e.g. El día que llegó Juan ‘The day Juan arrived’.

[3] Note that some verbs may show some laxity in this regard, at least for some speakers, so that some speakers may accept Te le escapaste as meaning ‘Yo escaped/ ran away from him’ or Me te escapaste meaning ‘You escaped/ran away from me.’

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