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Verbs Often Used Reflexively

Lesson 8 in the 'Real Spanish Grammar' Series

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Excerpt from brief biography: En el año 496 A.D., el Papa Gelasio decidió que el día 14 de febrero sería el día en el que se honraría a San Valentín. Poco a poco el día 14 de Febrero se iba convirtiendose en una fecha en la que se intercambiaba mensajes de amor, y San Valentín se convirtió en el patron de los enamorados.

Source: "Historia de San Valentín" on the website of Madrid-based Euroresidentes. Retrieved Feb. 8, 2013.

Suggested translation: In the year 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius decided that Feb. 14 would be the day on which St. Valentine would be honored. Little by little Feb. 14 became a date on which love messages were exchanged, and St. Valentine became the patron saint of those in love.

Key grammatical issue: This passage has five reflexive verbs, although none of them would normally be translated as reflexive verbs in English:

  • "Se honraría," meaning "would be honored," is an example of a reflexive verb in Spanish functioning as the equivalent of the English passive voice. In the passive voice, it is not explicitly stated who is performing the verb's action.
  • "Se iba convirtiendose" is an unusual "double reflexive." "Se iba" is an imperfect-tense form of ir used in a passive way. It is not uncommon to follow ir with a gerund (a type of verb form ending in -ndo that is usually similar to "-ing" verbs in English) to indicate that action takes place over time. In this case, however, that gerund is of the verb convertirse, which is usually part of the phrase "convertirse en," meaning "to change into."
  • "Se intercambiaba," meaning "was exchanged," is another passive-type usage, this time from the verb intercambiar. Note that it is not explicitly stated who is exchanging love messages. The use of the singular here rather than the plural is apparently a typographical error.
  • "Se convirtió en" is the phrase "convertirse en" used in the preterite tense.

It would a mistake to translate any of these verbs as reflexive verbs in English. We simply don't talk about messages "exchanging themselves," and we very seldom speak of something "converting itself" when talking about ordinary change. But in Spanish the reflexive is quite common.

Other notes on vocabulary and grammar:

  • Although the abbreviation A.D. is sometimes used in Spanish, it is more common to use d.C.
  • In standard Spanish, the title papa (pope), the honorific san (Saint) and the month febrero would not be capitalized here. It is correct, however, that the definite article is used before personal titles such as "papa."
  • The verbs sería and honraría are in the conditional tense.
  • El que and la que are relative pronouns often meaning "which," as they do here. Each of them refers to a preceding noun. The masculine el que is used because it refers to the masculine día, and the feminine la que is used because it refers to the feminine fecha.
  • Enamorados is a plural past participle. It comes from the verb enamorar, which means to cause someone to fall in love.
  • The fourth-from-last word, patrón, should have a written accent on its second syllable.
Real Spanish Grammar
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