Reflexive pronouns are used in both Spanish and English whenever the subject of a verb is also its object. In other words, reflexive pronouns are used when the subject of a sentence is acting on itself. An example is the me in me veo (and the corresponding "myself" in "I see myself"), where the person seeing and the person seen are the same.
Verbs used with a reflexive pronoun are known either as reflexive verbs or pronominal verbs.
Reflexive pronouns are used in much the same way as direct-object and indirect-object pronouns; they typically precede the verb or are attached to the infinitive. In fact, reflexive pronouns are identical with the other object pronouns except in the third person and second-person formal. Here are the reflexive pronouns along with their English equivalents and sample sentences:
- me — myself — Me lavo. (I am washing myself.) Voy a elegirme. (I am going to choose myself.)
- te — yourself (informal) — ¿Te odias? (Do you hate yourself?) ¿Puedes verte? (Can you see yourself?)
- se — himself, herself, itself, themselves, yourself (formal), yourselves (formal), each other — Roberto se adora. (Roberto adores himself.) La niña prefiere vestirse. (The girl likes to dress herself.) La historia se repite. (History repeats itself.) Se compran los regalos. (They are buying themselves gifts, or they are buying each other gifts.) ¿Se afeita Ud.? (Do you shave yourself?)
- nos — ourselves, each other — Nos respetamos. (We respect ourselves, or we respect each other.) No podemos vernos. (We can't see each other, or we can't see ourselves.)
- os — yourselves (informal, used primarily in Spain), each other — Es evidente que os queréis. (It's obvious that you love each other, or it's obvious you love yourselves.) Podéis ayudaros. (You can help yourselves, or you can help each other.)
As you can see from the above examples, the plural pronouns in Spanish can be translated using the English reflexive pronouns or the phrase "each other." (Technically, grammarians would call such a usage of the Spanish pronoun reciprocal rather than reflexive.) Usually, context will make clear the more likely translation. Thus, while nos escribimos conceivably could mean "we write to ourselves," it most often would mean "we write to each other." If necessary, a phrase can be added for clarification, such as in "se golpean el uno a otro" (they are hitting each other) and "se golpean a sí mismos" (they are hitting themselves).
Reflexive pronouns should not be confused with English constructions such as "I myself am buying the gift." In that sentence (which could be translated to Spanish as yo mismo compro el regalo), "myself" isn't being used as a reflexive pronoun but as a way of adding emphasis.
Important note: Learning to use reflexive pronouns, especially se in Spanish, can be challenging, since they are used more frequently and for additional purposes in Spanish. This lesson, therefore, is an introduction only to those cases where reflexive pronouns are used similarly in the two languages. As you study Spanish, you will frequently come across sentences where reflexive pronouns are used but where they may not readily be translated to English reflexive pronouns.