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Reciprocal and Reflexive Sentences

Phrases Can Eliminate Ambiguity


Understanding or translating reflexive or reciprocal sentences in Spanish where there are two or more subjects can be confusing because they can be ambiguous without qualifiers.

First, briefly, an explanation of what a reflexive sentence is: The pronoun se is commonly used (although there are many other uses as well) to indicate that a person is performing some action on or toward him- or herself. For example, "se ve" can mean "he sees himself" and "se hablaba" can mean "she was talking to herself."

The confusion can come when the subject of such sentences is plural. Se in such cases can mean "themselves" or "each other." (A sentence using "each other" indicates a reciprocal rather than reflexive action.) See, for example, how the following Spanish sentences are ambiguous. Either of the translations given after the Spanish sentence is valid:

  • Se ayudaron. They helped themselves. They helped each other.
  • Se golpean. They are hitting themselves. They are hitting each other.
  • Pablo y Molly se aman. Pablo and Molly love themselves. Pablo and Molly love each other.
The same ambiguity can exist in the first and second persons as well:
  • Nos dañamos. We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other.
  • Nos amamos. We love ourselves. We love each other.
  • ¿Os odiáis? Do you hate yourselves? Do you hate each other?
Much of the time, the context will make clear what meaning is intended. And if not, there are two very common phrases that can be used to eliminate the ambiguity. A sí mismos is commonly used to indicate that a reflexive meaning is intended — in other words, that the subjects are acting on themselves rather than each other.
  • Se aman a sí mismos. They love themselves.
  • No pueden verse a sí mismos. They can't see themselves.
The phrase el uno al otro is the rough equivalent of "each other":
  • No debemos hacernos eso el uno al otro. We shouldn't do that to each other.
  • Se golpean el uno al otro. They are hitting each other.
  • El ordenador y el monitor se necesitan el uno al otro. The computer and the monitor need each other.
  • ¿Os odiáis el uno al otro? Do you two hate each other?
El uno al otro can also be used in feminine and/or plural variations:
  • Pablo y Molly se aman el uno a la otra. Pablo and Molly love each other.
  • Se abrazaban la una a la otra. The two females hugged each other.
  • No se cuidan los unos a los otros. They (multiple persons) don't take care of each other.
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