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Introduction to Reflexive Verbs

Spanish for Beginners

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Cat in mirror.

El gato se ve. (The cat sees himself.)

Photo by Christian Holmér; licensed via Creative Commons.

A verb is used reflexively when the subject of the verb is also its object. As you will soon see, verbs are often used the same way in English. What can make reflexive verbs (sometimes called pronominal verbs) frustrating for beginning Spanish students is that a reflexive verb is often called for in Spanish when a different way of wording things is used in English.

An example of a simple sentence using a reflexive verb is "Pedro se lava" (Pedro is washing himself). In that sentence Pedro is both the subject (the one doing the washing) and the object (the person begin washed). Note that the reflexive pronoun (in this case se) typically precedes the verb (although it can be attached to infinitives).

A full explanation of all the uses of reflexive verbs is beyond the scope of this lesson. However, as a beginner you should have at least a basic understanding of the ways reflexive verbs are used so you can understand them when you see or hear them. Here are the main ways such verbs are used:

The verb's subject is acting on itself: As in the example above, this is the most straightforward use of reflexive verbs, and it is certainly the most common way they are used in English. As explained in the lesson on reflexive pronouns, in plural form the pronoun can often be translated as "themselves" or "each other," depending on the context. Some examples:

  • Puedo verme en el espejo. I can see myself in the mirror.
  • ¿Qué te compraste? What did you buy yourself?
  • Se estaban admirando. They were admiring themselves. Or, they were admiring each other.
  • Pablo se habla. Pablo talks to himself.

Verbs used only in the reflexive form: Some verbs in Spanish are used only in the reflexive form, and they may or may not be translated to English using a reflexive construction. In dictionaries, such verbs traditionally are listed with a se at the end of the infinitive, as in abstenerse, which means "to abstain."

  • Me abstengo de votar. I am abstaining from voting.
  • Teresa se arrepentió de sus errors. Teresa regretted her errors.
  • Me resigno a no tener dinero. I am resigning myself to having no money.

Reflexive usages commonly translated in a nonreflexive way: Some Spanish verbs make perfect sense when understood in a reflexive way, but we typically don't translate them that way into English. For example, levantar means "to lift," while its reflexive counterpart, levantarse, could be understood to mean "to lift oneself," but is usually translated as "to get up."

  • Quiero bañarme. I want to take a bath. Literally, I want to bathe myself.
  • ¡Siéntate! Sit down! Literally, seat yourself!
  • Voy a vestirme. I am going to get dressed. Literally, I am going to dress myself.
  • Me afeito cada mañana. I shave every morning. Literally, I shave myself every morning.
  • Patricia se acercó la casa. Patricia approached the house. Literally, Patricia brought herself closer to the house.
  • Se llama Eva. Her name is Eva. Literally, she calls herself Eva.

Verbs used reflexively with a change in meaning: Making a verb reflexive can change its meaning in ways that aren't always predictable. Sometimes the difference in meaning is subtle. Following are some common examples; not all possible meanings of the verbs are included.

  • abonar, to pay money; abonarse, to subscribe (as to a periodical)
  • abrir, to open; abrirse, to open up (in the sense of confiding in someone)
  • acordar, to agree, to decide; acordarse, to remember
  • acusar, to accuse; acusarse, to confess
  • callar, to be quiet; callarse, to become quiet
  • cerrar, to close; cerrarse, to close oneself off emotionally
  • combinar, to combine; combinarse (plural forms), to take turns
  • dormir, to sleep; dormirse, to fall asleep
  • ir, to go; irse, to go away
  • llevar, to carry; llevarse, to take away
  • poner, to put; ponerse, to put on, to wear
  • salir, to leave; salirse, to leave unexpectedly, to leak

Adding emphasis with reflexive verbs: Some verbs can be used reflexively to add emphasis. The distinction isn't always readily translated to English. For example, "comí la hamburguesa," means "I ate the hamburger," but the reflexive form, "me comí la hamburguesa," could be translated the same way, or perhaps as "I ate up the hamburger" or "I ate the whole hamburger." Similarly, "piénsalo" might be translated as "think about it," whereas "piénsatelo" might be translated the same way or as "think about it thoroughly."

The "reflexive passive": Often, particularly with inanimate objects, the reflexive form is used to indicate an occurrence without indicating the person or thing responsible for that occurrence. Such uses of the reflexive are typically the equivalent of passive verb forms in English, as in the following examples:

  • Se cerraron las puertas. The doors were closed.
  • Se habla español aquí. Spanish is spoken here.
  • Se venden recuerdos. Souvenirs are sold, or souvenirs for sale.

Reflexive forms to indicate emotional reaction: Emotional reactions are often indicated by reflexive verb forms. For example, enojar means "to anger." In the reflexive form, enojarse means "to become angry" or "to be angry." Thus, "se enoja contra su amigo" could be used to say, "he gets angry at his friend." Among the many verbs used in such a way are aburrirse, "to be bored"; alegrarse, "to be happy"; dolerse, "to be hurt"; emocionarse, "to be excited"; horrizarse, "to be horrified"; and sorprenderse, "to be surprised."

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