Grammatically, reflexive verbs describe actions where the subject and direct object are the same person or thing. This means the subject is acting upon itself. For instance: “me levanto” (I get myself up)
or “me llamo...” (I call myself...)"
This is not be confused with reciprocal verbs, whereby the subjects and objects act upon each other, not themselves. Examples being “nos besamos” (we kiss each other)
or “nos hablamos” (we talk to each other).
Subtly different, but easily confused.
Some Spanish verbs can behave both reflexively and non-reflexively.
When we use a verb reflexively, we tend to treat it as a separate verb. This means we append -se
to the end of the infinitive. For instance, llamarse
is the reflexive version of llamar.
Furthermore, when used reflexively, verbs often change their meaning. Sometimes very subtly and at other times more so. We will learn more about this shortly. Reflexive pronouns
Just when we thought we’d already covered all the different types of pronouns found in Spainsh, we discover that there are yet more!
Luckily, reflexive pronouns should feel fairly easy to understand, as they appear and function very similarly to object pronouns. Although we should always realise that, while they are similar in form to object pronouns, they are in fact a different class altogether. Reflexive pronouns
| ||Singular ||Plural |
|1st Person ||me (myself) ||nos (ourselves) |
|2nd Person ||te (yourself) ||os (yourselves) |
|3rd Person ||se (himself, herself, itself, yourself formal) ||se (themelves, yourselves formal) |
Reflexive verbs must always
use a reflexive pronoun. This is quite different to non-reflexive verbs, where the accompanying object pronouns can be optional.
This can be seen when we conjugate reflexive verbs; the pronouns are shown as part of the conjugation. If you are in any doubt about this, take a moment to check the verb conjugation tool, and check verbs such as llamar
compared to llamarse.
Reflexive pronouns follow a similar placement rule to object pronouns; whereby they usually precede the verb. When accompanying an affirmative command form such as an imperative or an infinitive, they are appended to the end. In cases where two verbs are used, then the pronoun may either precede the construction or append to either the infinitive or gerund. Using reflexive verbs
So how do we use reflexive verbs?
Probably one of the best ways to understand how and why we use reflexive verbs is to see a few examples side-by-side.
|Non-reflexive ||Meaning ||Reflexive ||Meaning |
|acordar ||to agree ||acordarse ||to remember |
|despertar ||to awaken ||despertarse ||to wake up |
|dormir ||to sleep ||dormirse ||to fall asleep |
|ir ||to go ||irse ||to leave |
|lavar ||to wash ||lavarse ||to wash oneself |
|levantar ||to raise ||levantarse ||to get up |
|preguntar ||to question ||preguntarse ||to wonder |
The above table shows us a few examples of infinitives with their respective meanings, when used both reflexively and non-reflexively. In some cases, the meanings don’t seem particularly different; yet in others, we can see the reflexive nature does significantly change the meaning.
for instance. On first inspection, the reflexive meaning seems to have changed from “to go”
to “to leave”,
which could be considered almost the opposite thing. But really, in this instance, we are actually changing our perspective on where we are going.
Consider these two extremely basic constructions:
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“Voy” ||I'm going / I'm coming |
|“Me voy” ||I'm leaving / I'm off |
In Spanish when someone asks you to “¡Ven aquí!” (Come here!)
, you usually respond with “Voy” (I’m going)
rather than “Vengo” (I’m coming)
. So we can see that even the non-reflexive usage of to go
can have a slightly nuanced meaning in comparison to English.
When we use the reflexive version irse
in the same construction. Then the meaning is nuanced further to something closer to “I’m going (away)” hence “I’m leaving”.
Adding a reflexive pronoun can also make the construction more emphatic. So, another interpretation might be: “I’m going (right now)”, which is closer to the English phrase “I’m off”.
Let’s see another example of using a verb reflexively and non-reflexively.
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“La película te aburriría” ||The movie would bore you |
|“Te aburrirías con la película” ||You would get bored with the movie |
Here we can see two statements which amount to effectively the same thing. Yet, the first construction is not reflexive because it would make you bored. Whereas in the second construction, you become bored yourself, because of it.
Notice that the reflexive construction represents an English phrase containing the word “get”. Many English expressions containing “get” or “become” often translate into Spanish using reflexive verbs.
Here are some more examples of phrases that use reflexive constructions:
Conclusion | En conclusión
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“No te enojes conmigo” ||Don't get annoyed with me |
|“Me afeito todos los días” ||I shave every day |
|“David se acaba de ir” ||David has just left |
|“David acaba de irse” ||David has just left |
|“Me baño a las sies y media” ||I have a bath at half past six |
|“David no se lavó” ||David didn't wash |
|“¿Cómo te llamas?” ||What's your name? |
|“Ella se levanta” ||She gets up |
|“Me siento triste” ||I feel sad |
|“María se lava la cara” ||María washes her face |
|“Estás despertándote tarde” ||You're waking up late |
|“Te estás despertando temprano” ||You're waking up early |
Once again, we come across a grammatical concept that whilst it does exist in English, can go largely unnoticed.
Realising when the subject of the sentence can also be the direct object is the first step to be able to use reflexive verbs correctly. Remember, a reflexive verb must have a reflexive pronoun, and this in itself can take a bit of practice.
Reflexive verbs are often summarised as conveying those actions that one does in their daily routine. Like getting oneself up, showering oneself, combing one’s hair, putting oneself to bed and so on.
But as we’ve also seen, it is possible to make constructions both reflexively and non-reflexively with more common general verbs, resulting in some interesting outcomes. This open us up to a greater world of nuance within such verbs; at times inferring a change in condition, greater emphasis or more subtle changes in meaning.