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Reflexive Verbs and Pronouns

An Introduction

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El  perro se mira.

The dog looks at himself.

Original photo by Storm Farm used under terms of Creative Commons license.

I hit myself. Bill hurt himself. They saw themselves. Did you find yourself?

What do the above sentences have in common? Obviously, they all have pronouns that end in "-self" (or "-selves"). Less obviously, but as a corollary, they all use pronouns that stand for the subject of the sentence. In other words, the subjects and objects of the verbs in the above sentences refer to the same person.

Another way of putting this might be that the subject of each sentence is engaging in some action that affects the same person or persons.

If you can comprehend that, you understand the basic concept behind the grammar of reflexive pronouns and verbs in Spanish. Reflexive pronouns in Spanish are closely related to direct and indirect-object pronouns, following the same rules of word order and using most of the same pronouns.

Here are the reflexive pronouns in Spanish with a simple example of each and a translation:

  • First-person singular: me — myself — Me oí. I heard myself.
  • Second-person singular familiar: te — yourself — Te oiste. You heard yourself.
  • Second-person singular formal, third-person singular: se — yourself, himself, herself, itself, oneself — Ella se oyó. She heard herself. Èl se oyó. He heard himself. ¿Se oye usted? Do you hear yourself?
  • First-person plural: nos — ourselves — Nos oímos. We heard ourselves.
  • Second-person plural familiar: os — yourselves — Os oísteis. You heard yourselves.
  • Second-person plural formal, third-person plural: se — yourselves, themselves — Se oyeron. They heard themselves.

One major difference between Spanish and English in this matter is that in Spanish many verbs exist only or primarily in the reflexive form. As far as I know, only one English verb shares this characteristic: "to perjure oneself."

Examples of verbs that exist primarily or frequently in the reflexive form are acostarse (to go to bed), divertirse (to have a good time), ducharse (to take a shower), enamorarse (to fall in love), enojarse (to get angry), levantarse (to get up), sentarse (to sit down), sentirse (to feel), and vestirse (to get dressed).

It is also common to use the reflexive form when performing some action on a part of the body. Examples include secarse el cabello (to dry one's hair) and lavarse las manos (to wash one's hands). Note that the infinitive form of reflexive verbs is usually stated by placing -se at the end of the infinitive.

Note that for many of these verbs it is not necessary to translate the reflexive pronoun into English. Se acostó a las nueve, she went to bed at 9. Me siento triste, I feel sad. But with many verbs, especially those that are less frequently used in the reflexive, the pronoun must be translated. ¿Te ves en el espejo? Do you see yourself in the mirror? And in still other cases, you can translate with or without translating the pronoun. Se vistió en su coche, he got dressed in his car, or he dressed himself in his car.

Sometimes, the reflexive can be translated using "each other" when in the plural form. Nos miramos, we looked at each other. Se escucharon, they listened to each other (or to themselves, depending on the context). Romeo y Julieta se amaron, Romeo and Juliet loved each other. As usual, context should be a key guide when translating to English.

In some cases, putting a verb in the reflexive form can make it more intense, as we do sometimes in English by adding a particle. For example, ir means "to go," but irse is usually translated "to go away." Similarly, comer means "to eat," but comerse might be translated as "to eat up," as in se comió cinco tacos, he ate up five tacos.

Often in Spanish the reflexive form is used where in English we would use a passive form of a verb. Se cerró la puerta. The door was closed (a literal translation would be "the door closed itself"). Se perdieron los boletos, the tickets got lost.

Final note: Sometimes in English we use the reflexive pronouns as a means of emphasizing the subject rather than as a true reflexive, as in the sentence, "I myself performed the task" or "I performed the task myself." In such cases, the reflexive form should not be used in the Spanish translation. The first sentence would typically be translated using mismo: Yo mismo hice la tarea. The second sentence also could be translated by looking at its meaning: Hice la tarea sin ayuda (literally, "I did the task without help").

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