reflexive-verbs-german

Master the Selves: A DIY Guide to German Reflexive Verbs

Everyone talks to themselves.

It’s okay, you can admit it. Whether you voice your thoughts aloud or keep them confined to the space between your ears, you participate in a lot of self-talk.

We all do it!

But did you know that in German, you can—and often have to—talk about yourself out loud?

Yes, it’s true!

The way to do it is through reflexive verbs, a kind of verb that allows you to reference yourself—or other selves—with the help of a reflexive pronoun.

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves (see what we did there?). Before we delve further into the selves, let’s take a look at why they matter in German.
 


 

Learn a foreign language with videos

Why You Should Learn German Reflexive Verbs

You will—and probably already have—come across German reflexive verbs quite often in your studies. A few of them are commonplace and describe some of the daily tasks we complete. German reflexive verbs may even be in your daily reading. But if you don’t know how to recognize them, you won’t be able to appreciate their value.

Reflexive verbs are also crucial to referencing the self—and others—in order to express the proper sentiment. We’ll get into this more as we go through the basics and examples of German reflexive verbs.

But know that reflexive verbs and their corresponding pronouns build upon the knowledge base you’ve hopefully already established when it comes to the accusative and dative cases. And like always, adding a new component to your German grammar toolbox will aid your German-speaking self in attaining fluency.

Master the Selves: A DIY Guide to German Reflexive Verbs

The Basics of German Reflexive Verbs

Let’s take it back to basics here by starting in English. Verbs, in English, are only reflexive when they’re paired with a reflexive pronoun. Those pronouns are words that we’ve been using a lot in this article so far, such as themselves and ourselves.

For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, “The dog licks him.” It’s also grammatically correct to say, “The dog licks himself,” but the addition of –self adds a whole new meaning. And in the second sentence only, the verb “to lick” becomes reflexive.

In German, it’s much easier to recognize reflexive verbs. Although some verbs that aren’t commonly used reflexively can be used as reflexive verbs in some cases, you’ll encounter the designated reflexive verbs far more often.

So what does a reflexive German verb look like? Well, like all German verbs, there will be an infinitive. This infinitive form of the verb will be accompanied by a reflexive pronoun, typically written as sich. A common German reflexive verb is sich waschen, which means “to wash oneself.”

That brings us to the case of German reflexive verbs. These verbs can be accusative and/or dative, depending on the context of the sentence. It’s important to know the case of the verb so that you can choose the correct reflexive pronoun, which, of course, refers back to the subject of the sentence.

How to Determine the Correct Reflexive Pronoun

As we mentioned, the reflexive pronoun must refer back to the subject of the sentence. You wouldn’t say, “Ben washes Ben,” you’d say, “Ben washes himself.” The word himself is the reflexive pronoun.

In German, reflexive pronouns reflect the case of the reflexive verb. Some reflexive verbs have a determined case, while others can change between accusative and dative depending on what’s going on in the sentence.

We’ll touch more on that in a second but first, here’s a list of the accusative and dative reflexive pronouns you’ll use:

Accusative Reflexive Pronouns

  • myself: mich 
  • yourself (informal): dich
  • himself/herself/itself: sich
  • ourselves: uns
  • yourselves: euch
  • themselves: sich
  • yourself (formal): Sich

Dative Reflexive Pronouns

  • myself: mir
  • yourself (informal): dir
  • himself/herself/itself: sich
  • ourselves: uns
  • yourselves: euch
  • themselves: sich
  • yourself (formal): Sich

As you can see, the only difference between the two sets of reflexive pronouns lies in the “myself” and “yourself (informal)” forms. Mich changes to mir and dich changes to dir. The rest stays the same, which makes it much easier to memorize.

That being said, don’t confuse these reflexive pronouns with accusative and dative personal pronouns, which aren’t reflexive.

How to Structure and Conjugate German Reflexive Verbs

Like any other German verb, reflexive verbs have an infinitive form, which is conjugated to the subject. However, though the conjugated verb takes the second position, as is normal, the reflexive pronoun follows directly after. Let’s take a look at some examples to get a better idea of this word order.

Accusative Reflexive Verbs and Pronouns

The verb sich duschen means “to shower.” It’s an accusative reflexive verb. If we wanted to say, “I showered yesterday,” we’d use ich and the corresponding accusative form of the “myself” reflexive pronoun to complete the sentence. After conjugating duschen to the ich form, say in simple past, we’d have:

Ich duschte mich gestern. (I showered yesterday.)

But let’s say you wanted to tell someone, “They showered yesterday,” so that they need to shower again today. We can use the same sentence structure, but just replace the subject and reflexive pronoun, and conjugate the verb duschen to the “they” plural form:

Sie duschten sich gestern. (They showered yesterday.)

Dative Reflexive Verbs and Pronouns

In the dative case, the formula is similar. Except for the reflexive pronoun and the addition of a direct object, the sentence structure stays relatively the same. We need the dative forms of the reflexive pronoun, rather than the accusative forms. Let’s use sich etwas brechen, or “to break something,” as an example since it’s dative.

Ich brach mir das Bein heute Morgen. (I broke my leg this morning.)

Again, we use the simple past tense of brechen, conjugated to the ich form, and place the corresponding dative reflexive pronoun directly after the reflexive verb.

Notice, however, that we didn’t use mein Bein. This is because the reflexive pronoun mir indicates whose leg it is that was broken. Directly translated, the German sentence above reads, “I broke myself the leg today morning.”

It’s a bit like a sentence map, where the speaker points back at themselves and to the specific body part to let the audience know what the action is referring to.

It can be a bit tricky to get used to first, but you’ll get it with practice. And just remember not to use a possessive pronoun when indicating a direct object with German dative reflexive verbs.

Determining Between Two-way German Reflexive Verbs

As we mentioned before, some German reflexive verbs can be both accusative and dative, depending on the context of the sentence. Let’s clarify that a bit more.

Here to help us again is our old friend, sich waschen, meaning “to wash oneself.” This verb can be either accusative or dative. One way to tell the difference between these two forms is to locate an indirect object. If there is an indirect object present, the reflexive verb is being used in the dative case; when no indirect object is present, the reflexive verb is accusative.

For example:

Ich wasche mich. (I wash myself.)

Ich wasche mir die Hände. (I wash my hands.)

The first sentence uses the accusative reflexive pronoun mich because there is no indirect object present. The ich, or “I,” is doing the washing to mich or “myself,” but there’s nothing else receiving the action.

However, in the second sentence, die Hände or “the hands” are the direct object, while “myself” or mir is the indirect object.

This one is hard to translate fully into English. The sentence “I wash my hands” takes “my hands” as the direct object, but in German, we have to include the self-referencing mir, which shows whose hands are being washed. Since “the hands” are already the direct object, mir must take the dative case.

A Note About Separable Prefix Reflexive Verbs

Separable prefix reflexive verbs behave just as typical separable prefix verbs, only the reflexive pronoun follows the conjugated part of the verb—and then the prefix.

For example, take a look at this sentence using sich hinlegen, which means “to lie down.” It’s an accusative separable prefix reflexive verb.

Ich lege mich hin. (I lie down.)

Though the sentence technically translates to “I lie myself down,” we don’t often include the “myself” part when speaking in English. We just say that we’re going to lie down and leave it at that.

The verb “to imagine something,” or sich etwas vorstellen, works in a similar way, though it’s a dative separable prefix reflexive verb:

Sarah stellte sich ein Einhorn vor. (Sarah imagined a unicorn.)

If you’d like to add a few German reflexive verbs to your vocabulary studies, check out this list of common reflexive verbs. Remember to include the case in your memorization practices, as well.   

Where to Find Resources to Practice German Reflexive Verbs

Practice is the key to improvement, so check out these online resources for further instruction and practice exercises:

reflexive-verbs-german

  • Complete FluentU’s lesson on reflexive verbs. FluentU takes a step back from the traditional textbook approach to learning grammar topics like German reflexive verbs. In addition to providing videos, FluentU also offers downloadable audio dialogues and transcripts to use later when you are offline. Plus, the program provides plenty of tools, which can be used to actively practice your German vocabulary and grammar, like multimedia flashcards, running vocabulary lists and more.

 

Taking about yourself out loud or in your head in German should be a bit easier now that you know about the German reflexive verbs. Learning is all about exploring the world around you—and within you as well.


Rebecca Henderson holds a degree in German and Creative Writing. She is the editor behind The Kreativ Space and hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.   
 

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.

Experience German immersion online!

Comments are closed.