Reflexive verbs are used to indicate an action that is done to someone, and that someone is also the doer of the action – in other words, reflexive verbs are used when the subject of a verb is also its object. Examples of reflexive verbs include any kind of hygiene, like washing yourself, combing your hair, brushing your teeth, etc., or any other action in which the subject is the recipient of that action, like getting sick, getting up, looking at yourself, and so on. These special verbs are used in tandem with reflexive pronouns, which are used to put the action back on the doer, and without them, the verb has a completely different meaning, all of which we will discuss today.
Knowing when exactly to use reflexive verbs may take some practice to get down, because they sometimes have different wordings when used in English. However, there are no complicated conjugations to memorize, and if you have the basic Spanish tenses down, then you can easily apply that knowledge to the reflexive verbs. If you’d like to familiarize yourself with more basic Spanish skills, this article on the best ways to learn Spanish, in addition to this course on Spanish for Beginners, should give you a good foundation to work with.
Intro to Reflexive Verbs
Before we get into a deeper discussion of these verbs, let’s first start with a list of some of the most commonly used reflexive verbs found in Spanish. There are many more out there, but the following ones are used much more often than the other, more obscure ones. You may notice that if you take away the -se ending, these verbs already exist in a slightly different form (irse – se = ir (to go)). Once the -se, which is a reflexive pronoun, is added to the ending of these verbs, they become reflexive, and the action happens to the subject, and has a slightly different meaning than its shorter version. If you’d like to be able to speak some Spanish today, this course on quick Spanish will get you started ASAP.
- acostarse (to go to bed)
- afeitarse (to shave)
- bañarse (to bathe)
- comerse (to eat)
- despertarse (to wake up)
- dormirse (to go to sleep)
- ducharse (to take a shower)
- enojarse (to get mad/angry)
- irse (to go away/to leave)
- lavarse (to wash)
- meterse (to get in)
- ponerse (to put on)
- quedarse (to put on)
- secarse (to dry)
- sentarse (to sit down)
- sentirse (to feel, as emotion, or illness)
Note: The verbs irse and comerse should not be confused with yourself going or eating oneself. They simply emphasize the action: irse means “to go away”, and comerse means “to eat enthusiastically”, or “to gobble up”. For a more casual look at Spanish, this course on beginner Spanish with Ana will ease you into the language.
The following verb phrases are always reflexive:
- arrepentirse (to repent)
- atreverse a (to dare)
- darse cuenta de (to realize)
- jactarse de (to boast)
- quejarse de (to complain about)
- suicidarse (to commit suicide)
Conjugating Reflexive Verbs
Luckily there aren’t many special rules to remember when conjugating these verbs. The only thing that may trip people up is the reflexive pronoun. Let’s begin by showing which reflexive pronouns are associated with which parts of the conjugation:
- yo me
- tú te
- él/ella/ud. se
- nosotros nos
- vosotros os
- ellos/ellas/uds. se
Now that you know when to use which pronouns, next we’ll deal with the actual verb:
- First, simply conjugate the verb, without the -se ending, as you normally would, in the tense that best fits the situation.
- Next, add the appropriate reflexive pronoun to the beginning of the verb.
For example, if you would like to say that you bathe yourself (bañarse) now in the present tense, simply combine the first person singular form for both the pronoun, which is “me” (the reflexive pronouns do not change with tense – always match it up with the subject), with the first person singular form of the verb in the present tense: baño, to get me baño (I bathe myslef). To say “He bathed himself”, use the “se” pronoun (for él), and the third person singular of the preterite tense (bañó): él se bañó.
Object Pronouns vs. Reflexive Pronouns
One potentially confusing aspect of this lesson is that object pronouns used are the same as the reflexive pronouns (me, te, se, and so on). The way to tell if the example is reflexive or not is to see if the verb’s conjugation matches the pronoun used. Also, the meanings of these two uses are completely different, and if the subject is not doing the action to themselves, then it is NOT reflexive.
Example: me enfermo vs. te enfermo
Here, the first form of enfermar (to get sick) is reflexive. The pronoun (first person singular) matches the verb’s conjugation (also, first person singular) to make the phrase “I am getting sick.” The second verb has second person singular object pronoun (te), with a first person singular form of the verb, translating to “I am getting you sick.”
When to Use Reflexive Verbs
Now that you know that reflexive verbs are used strictly to describe actions that happen only to the subject, let’s move on to when these verbs are used in Spanish. Like we said at the beginning of the article, using a reflexive verb doesn’t always directly translate into English as “someone did something to themselves”, and as a result, it may be tough for non-native Spanish speakers to know exactly when to use the reflexive form of verbs. If you’d like to learn more about how to Speak this language more naturally, this course on conversational Spanish will have you speaking like a native in no time.
Anytime a person takes part in person hygiene or grooming, the reflexive form of the verb is used. In English, we don’t necessarily say “I myself brushed my teeth”, but it is implied in Spanish. Actions such as brushing (cepillarse), shaving (afeitarse), bathing (lavarse), showering (ducharse), combing (peinarse), getting dressed (vestirse), drying off (secarse), getting ready (arreglarse), and putting on makeup (maquillarse) all require reflexive pronouns.
Note: when discussing hygiene, remember that body parts do not employ the use of possessive pronouns, such as mi (mine), tu (yours), su (his, her’s, its), etc., but rather definite articles (el, la, los, las).
Reflexive verbs also convey a change in emotion, with the pronoun emphasizing the personal emotion. Verbs such as aburrirse (to become bored), asustarse (to become scared), alegrarse (to become happy), enamorarse (to fall in love with), enojarse (to get mad), irritarse (to become irritated), calmarse (to become calm), preocuparse (to worry), and others indicate a change in emotion.
One rarely used, but interesting, instance that uses reflexive verbs, the reflexive passive is used to indicate an occurrence without indicating who or what was responsible for the occurrence. Example: Se habla espñol aquí. (Spanish is spoken here.)
Other Self Actions
Finally, reflexive verbs are used for any other actions that the subject does to him or herself, like getting into something (meterse), putting something on (quedarse), and getting up (levantarse).
Surely, all the only children out there will love the Spanish reflexive verbs: they’re all about ME! Like we said, it’s not too confusing to grasp this concept, it’s a cinch to conjugate, and it’s quite a useful verb form. Make sure you casually drop it next time you’re speaking with a native speaker if you want to impress them. If you really wanna blow their top, check out this course on beginner to expert Spanish, which covers a lot of ground in español.