It’s a fact of life: As we grow up, we have to start doing all kinds of things for ourselves.
We wash ourselves, brush our own hair, get ourselves up out of bed and do all manner of activities by ourselves, for ourselves.
In Spanish, we have a whole different class of verbs to talk about those things!
They’re called reflexive verbs. Unfortunately, just as for some of us it’s a pain to do things for ourselves, reflexive verbs can be a pain to learn. Thankfully the rules of reflexive verbs are actually very simple! Once you learn all you need to know in this ultimate guide to reflexive verbs, you’ll be set—no matter what stage you’re at.
What’s a Reflexive Verb?
A reflexive verb is a verb that refers to something the subject does to itself. Any given day is full of tasks that you need to complete “upon yourself,” such as brushing your own hair or waking yourself up. These verbs reflect upon themselves, hence they’re known as “reflexive” verbs.
Quick note: If you’d like to learn more about subjects, objects and other parts of speech in Spanish before proceeding, check out this post on the basics of Spanish structure. Now, back to the action.
The easiest way to recognize an infinitive (unconjugated) reflexive verb is that, rather ending with –ar, –ir, or –er, it’ll end with –se. For example:
lavar — to wash
lavarse — to wash yourself
The reflexive verb pattern could be explained as referring to an instance when the subject completes action on itself.
On the other hand, with a regular verb the subject completes an action on another subject or object.
Most reflexive verbs are simply regular verbs with a se added to them to indicate that the subject and object are the same. Some, however, are unable to be anything except reflexive. Consider the verb “repent” in English. Only the subject can repent, for themselves. The subject can’t repent for someone else.
Therefore, in Spanish, arrepentirse (to repent) can’t be used without the se or reflexive element. The same can be said of quejarse (to complain).
Reflexive verbs are also sometimes used to describe an emotional response. The English equivalent of this is “becoming something” (e.g., I became sad) or something “making you” feel a certain way (e.g., “I get bored” or “it makes me happy”).
In Spanish reflexive verb format that’s:
Te alegras de leer — It makes you happy to read
Me aburro de estudiar — I get bored with studying
Now that you know what a Spanish reflexive verb looks like, let’s learn how to use them.
The Ultimate How-to Guide for Using Spanish Reflexive Verbs
Using reflexive verbs in Spanish will soon become second nature—a reflex, if you will—but this will only happen if you take the time now to really learn how reflexive verbs function.
We’re going to break it all down into five neat steps for you. By the end of this post, you’ll be well on your way to conquering these pesky verbs!
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1. Know Your Pronouns
To understand how to use reflexive verbs, you’ll need to understand pronouns. Pronouns are those pesky, two- or three-letter words that reflexive verbs need to make sense. They’re the equivalents of “myself,” “yourself” and so on.
Reflexive pronouns are almost the same as indirect object pronouns.
There’s just one key difference: Instead of le or les for the third person singular and plural, reflexive pronouns use se.
1st person (yo): me
2nd person (tú): te
3rd person (él/ella/usted): se
1st person (nosotros): nos
2nd person (vosotros): os
3rd person (ellos/ellas/ustedes): se
Let’s see that in action!
The reflexive verb lavarse could be conjugated as:
Me lavo las manos (I wash my hands)
Te lavas las manos (You wash your hands)
When the subject is yo, the pronoun me is used. When the subject is tú, the pronoun te is used and so forth.
It’s good to hear these pronouns in action. The time we most often use them is when talking about our daily routines. Try this YouTube video to watch a native Spanish speaker talking about her daily routine.
2. Place Your Pronouns
One of the hardest parts of learning reflexive verbs is knowing where to place a pronoun.
They’re often the most confusing part about reflexive verbs for non-Spanish speakers, but if you know the key rules it won’t seem so hard anymore! Soon it will become second nature. Here are the 3 big rules that you need to remember about placing pronouns:
- Usually, a pronoun goes before a reflexive verb:
Formula: subject + pronoun + verb + object
Example: Yo me peino el pelo. (I brush my hair.)
Yo (subject) me (pronoun) peino (verb) el pelo (object)
- If you have two verbs next to one another, the pronoun placement is more flexible.
Formula: subject + verb + reflexive verb + pronoun
Example: Ella está peinándose. (She is brushing her hair.)
Ella (subject) está (verb) peinándo (reflexive verb) se (pronoun)
*Note that there’s an accent placed on the a. The accent should be placed on the a in –ando (in –ar verbs) and the e in –iendo (in –er and –ir verbs) when the verb and the pronoun are merged into one word.
- With a gerund like peinando, the reflexive pronoun can go before or after the verb. You could equally say:
Formula: subject + pronoun + verb + reflexive verb
Example: Ella se está peinando. (She is brushing her hair.)
Ella (subject) se (pronoun) está (verb) peinando (reflexive verb)
So, when must the pronoun go at the end of the verb?
- An infinitive reflexive must always have the pronoun at the end.
Quiero ducharme (I want to wash myself)
Antes de vestirme (before I get dressed)
- In a positive command, the pronoun must always go at the end of the conjugated reflexive verb.
¡Vístete! (Get dressed!)
- In a negative command, the pronoun must always go before the conjugated reflexive verb.
¡No te levantes! (Don’t get up!)
Ah, and now we’re on the issue of negatives. Let’s learn more about negatives.
3. Get Those Negatives Right
The no always goes before the pronoun. Imagine the formula like this:
Formula: No + pronoun + conjugated reflexive verb
Example: No me ducho. ( I don’t shower myself)
No (no) me (pronoun) ducho (conjugated reflexive verb)
The no may only go immediately before the pronoun in this case. When the pronoun is at the end of the verb, things look a little different. Consider the following.
Formula: No + verb + reflexive verb + pronoun (In this formula the reflexive verb and pronoun are merged into one word)
Example: Ella no está peinándose. (She isn’t combing herself)
Example: Ella no va a peinarse. (She isn’t going to comb her hair)
“That’s a fair few rules,” I hear you saying. Once you master them you won’t even have to think about them anymore. Just like you don’t think about how you speak in English—you just do it.
4. Nail Objects and Ownership
The detectives among you might have noticed something unexpected! The articles of objects involved in reflexive verb actions don’t change to become owned by the subject. In English we’d say “I wash my hands.”The article before hands is changed to the first person, so that the listener knows that the hands belong to us. The same could be said of many other sentences.
In Spanish, however, changing the ownership via the article isn’t necessary. You’ll instead see sentences like:
Me lavo las manos. (I wash my hands).
Look carefully, las manos hasn’t been changed to mis manos. That’s because, thanks to the reflexive verb, it’s very clear in Spanish that the subject is washing their own hands. Remember that in all constructions of Spanish sentences with reflexive verbs it’s unnecessary to reiterate ownership through articles in front of objects.
5. Conjugate with Confidence
Conjugate a reflexive verb just as you would a regular verb.
Remember that the subject is doing the verb to themselves, so you would conjugate in that form. For example, in me peino (I comb myself) the conjugation of peino is in the first person singular as is the pronoun.
You might want to practice this, so try this fill in the gaps about legendary artist Frida Kahlo to have a go at conjugating reflexive verbs.
Reflexive verbs are usually regular in their conjugation and the key rules of pronoun placements never change. If a verb refers to a subject completing an action upon themselves, it’s reflexive!
Just add se!
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