The Instituto de Verbología Hispánica (Hispanic Verbology Institute) includes in its online database a whopping 100,700 different Spanish verbs.
That is a lot of verbs!
On the other side of the coin, the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy’s Dictionary) includes only around 1,000 purely pronominal verbs.
The difference between the two figures is mind-blowing, but the good news is that you will not have to spend 250 years of your life learning pronominal verbs!
But… what is a Spanish pronominal verb, anyway?
Read on to learn all about them!
What Is a Pronominal Verb?
Simply put, a pronominal verb is a verb that requires a reflexive pronoun. You have probably already seen some verbs ending in -se in Spanish. Those are pronominal verbs! The -se ending of the infinitive is there just to let us know these verbs are special.
Here are some examples of pronominal verbs in the infinitive:
ducharse (have a shower)
vestirse (get dressed)
quererse (love oneself or love each other)
perderse (get lost)
If you have a look at these five examples, all of them describe an action that we either do to ourselves or that affects us directly. This is a very broad bit of knowledge about the pronominal verbs, but it will come in handy later on.
Pronominal pronouns in English
In English, if you want to make it clear that someone is doing something to themselves, you add the following pronouns:
You will not always need to add these pronouns to the sentence for it to make sense but you know you have them, and you can use them when necessary:
I just got dressed. (A neutral sentence).
Mom, I dressed myself! (Imagine a three-year-old little boy being proud of himself).
Pronominal pronouns in Spanish
However, this works differently in Spanish, and normally (but not always), verbs will either be pronominal or not. This means, for example, that the verb vestirse is a pronominal verb and every time a subject dresses themselves, you will have a pronominal conjugated verb in Spanish, no matter the context:
Acabo de vestirme. (I just got dressed.)
¡Mamá, me he vestido yo solo! (Mum, I got dressed myself!)
Pronominal verbs are much more common in Spanish than in English and there is no safe rule of thumb when trying to learn them. Some of them will make sense (vestirse, afeitarse), but others are pronominal… just because (like acabarse – to run out of, llamarse — to be called). Can you imagine saying the following in English?
I just ran myself out of milk.
I may not be a native, but it sounds super weird to me. You are not performing any action on yourself, why would you use a reflexive pronoun? And yet, this is normal in Spanish. You had better get used to this fun!
How to use Spanish reflexive pronouns
Speaking of pronouns, before telling you the different kinds of pronominal verbs we have in Spanish, let me show you something they have in common: the reflexive pronouns.
Remember that -se ending in the infinitive? Each person has its own reflexive pronoun in Spanish, just like English:
se (himself, herself, itself)
However, there is a difference between Spanish and English: Spanish reflexive verbs change their place in the sentence depending on the form of the verb!
Do not run yet! This is not as bad as it sounds.
The rules are very simple:
1. If the pronominal verb is conjugated, the reflexive pronoun precedes it:
Me llamo Franko. (My name is Franko.)
Ella se viste. (She is getting dressed.)
2. If the pronominal verb is in the infinitive, the reflexive pronoun either precedes the conjugated verb or is attached at the end of the infinitive.
You can choose where to put it (the meaning does not change), but you need to remember that you need to choose the appropriate pronoun depending on the subject of the sentence:
(Yo) me prefiero bañar por la mañana. (I prefer having a bath in the morning.)
(Yo) prefiero bañarme por la mañana. (I prefer having a bath in the morning.)
3. If the pronominal verb is in the present progressive, you can either add the pronoun before estar or attach it to the infinitive. Once again, you have to choose the pronoun bearing in mind the subject of the sentence:
(Nostros) nos estamos bañando. (We are having a bath.)
(Nosotros) estamos bañándonos. (We are having a bath.)
That is all! Now you know where to add the reflexive pronoun to every single pronominal verb. You are ready to learn all about how to use these verbs!
Master 6 Types of Perplexing Pronominal Verbs in Spanish
There are several types of pronominal verbs in Spanish, but you do not need to know them all in order to be fluent. Even us native speakers do not use all of them, and if we do, we do not do it knowingly! The topic is quite complicated and we try to avoid thinking about it if we can.
Nevertheless, there are six categories of pronominal verbs, some of which we know and use every day.
We know what a pronominal verb is, what a reflexive pronoun is and how to use a reflexive verb in Spanish. It is time now to learn the types of pronominal verbs and the differences between them.
1. Purely Pronominal Verbs
Let’s start with an easy one. Purely pronominal verbs, called in Spanish verbos pronominales puros, are a small group of verbs that only exist in the pronominal form. In other words, these verbs do not exist without a reflexive pronoun.
Here are a few examples:
arrepentirse (regret): Me arrepiento de lo que hice. (I regret what I did.)
atreverse (dare): ¿Te atreverías a saltar? (Would you dare to jump?)
quejarse (complain): ¡Deja de quejarte! (Stop complaining!)
suicidarse (commit suicide): Si conoces a alguien que piensa en suicidarse, no lo ignores. (If you know someone who is thinking about committing suicide, do not ignore them.)
2. Reflexive Verb
This second group is probably the biggest one and also the one most people think about in relation to pronominal verbs.
However, you should remember that even though all reflexive verbs (verbos reflexivos) are pronominal, not all pronominal verbs are reflexive!
Reflexive verbs are verbs that indicate that the subject of the sentence is performing the action on themselves. Because of that, the reflexive pronoun has to agree with the subject:
ducharse (have a shower): Ve (tú) a ducharte. (Go have a shower.)
peinarse (comb): (Yo) siempre me peino antes de salir de casa. (I always comb my hair before leaving the house.)
cepillarse los dientes (brush one’s teeth): Juan aprendió a cepillarse los dientes cuando tenía tres años. (Juan learned how to brush his teeth when he was three.)
As you can see, most of our everyday grooming activities are reflexive in Spanish. Do not worry—you will get used to it.
But these verbs are not always reflexive, otherwise they would be purely pronominal verbs! They can lose the reflexive pronoun and act as normal verbs if the subject of the sentence is performing the action on a different person:
Voy a bañar a mi hijo. (I am going to bathe my son.)
Dile a papá que te vista. (Tell dad to get you dressed.)
False reflexive verbs
Sometimes, just to complicate things, reflexive verbs are not real reflexive verbs. They look exactly like them, but they are not.
English has the phrase “to have something done” in order to say that someone does something for another person (like “having your nails done”), but Spanish does not.
Some Spanish verbs will just “pretend to be reflexive” but, almost always, they will be just pretending. Otherwise, you might think Spanish speakers know how to do everything! We cut our own hair, we repair our cars and we even paint our walls…
But the truth is not so pretty, after all. All those actions can, indeed, be said using a verb with a reflexive pronoun attached but we are really saying that we are “having something done”:
(Tú) deberías cortarte el pelo ya. (You should get your hair cut already.)
Notice how the subject of the above sentence agrees with the pronoun, which may make you think this person is going to cut his own hair. However, most likely he will be going to the hairdresser’s to have it cut.
Here are two more examples:
Tengo que hacerme las uñas. (I have to get my nails done.)
Nos hemos hecho una liposucción. (We have had a liposuction done.)
3. Reciprocal Verbs
Reciprocal verbs are similar to reflexive verbs but instead of doing an action to ourselves, we have two people who are doing the same action on each other.
These verbs are called verbos recíprocos (reciprocal verbs):
Nos queremos. (We love each other.)
Nos odiamos. (We hate each other.)
Cuando se encontraron, se abrazaron. (They hugged each other when they met.)
Reciprocal verbs will always happen between two or more people, so only the plural forms are used!
4. Ethical Datives or Datives of Interest
Ethical datives (dativos éticos) or datives of interest (dativos de interés) are object pronouns added to verbs in order to indicate that the subject of the sentence is somehow affected, involved or concerned by the action.
In English, this is quite colloquial:
Cry me a river.
I am going to buy me some new books.
However, in Spanish this is not only acceptable, but also mandatory sometimes if you want another person to know they are important to you:
No te me vayas a caer. (Please, do not fall.)
The me in this case does not imply that I am about to fall as well. It just means you are important to me and I do not want that happening to you. Here are two more examples:
No te nos mueras. (Do not die on us now.)
Cuídateme. (Please, take care of yourself.)
5. Pseudo-reflexive Verbs
Pseudo-reflexive verbs (verbos pseudo-reflexivos) sound more dangerous than they really are.
They are simply verbs that look like real reflexive verbs (they need reflexive pronouns), but they only describe a change in our emotions rather than an action performed on ourselves:
aburrirse (get bored): Me aburrí mucho en la reunión. (I got very bored at the meeting.)
This example does not mean I “applied boredom on myself” but only that I got bored. Have a few more:
alegrarse (rejoice, be happy): Nos alegramos mucho de verte. (We are very happy to see you.)
deprimirse (get/become depressed): Cualquiera puede deprimirse. (Anyone can become depressed.)
sentirse (feel): Ya me siento mucho mejor. (I feel much better already.)
6. Pronominal and Non-pronominal: Meaning-changing Verbs
Finally, there is a group of verbs that change their meaning (from a little to a lot) depending on whether they are pronominal or not. These verbs, when in their pronominal form, will be included in one of the categories above (i.e. this is not a true separate group of verbs), but they are unique in that they have a non-reflexive sibling.
It would take me another whole post to include all of them, but I cannot finish without giving you the most important pairs:
aburrir (bore) — aburrirse (get bored)
acostar (put someone to bed) — acostarse (go to bed)
encontrar (find) — encontrarse (be located)
levantar (lift up) — levantarse (get up)
negar (deny) — negarse (refuse to)
perder (lose) — perderse (get lost)
reunir (collect) — reunirse (gather)
volver (return from some place) — volverse (turn around)
And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes this post on pronominal verbs.
I know grammar terms are not important for everyone. Not all of you are getting ready for the DELE exam, but I am sure this post will come in handy when trying to have a conversation with your Spanish-speaking friends.
I can honestly tell you that you now know as much (or maybe even more) about pronominal verbs as an advanced native speaker, so be proud of yourself!