Spanish reflexive verbs: how and when to use them
The Spanish language can be complex, but once you understand how it works, it gets easier. Many new learners to Spanish who haven’t studied other romance languages are confused by reflexive verbs. The infamous se or me before or after a verb. Read on to see that it’s actually much easier than you think!
What is a reflexive verb?
A reflexive verb, simply put, is when both the subject AND the object of a sentence are the SAME. Essentially, a person is performing the action on oneself.
Some examples of reflexive verbs are: cansarse, ducharse, despertarse, vestirse. In English, a reflexive verb can be demonstrated by the pronouns myself, yourself, herself etc, but that is not always the case.
What’s a subject and what’s an object? Well, the subject is the protagonist of the sentence – whether it’s a person, place or thing – that is doing the action. The object is the person, place or thing that receives the action performed by the subject.
To understand better, let’s look at an example:
She washes the dishes
object: the dishes
In Spanish, you can translate this sentence the same way:
Ella lava los platos.
object: los platos
So where do these reflexive verbs come in? Take a look at this next example:
She washes herself.
object: she (herself: same as the subject)
SHE is both the object AND the subject of the sentence. In English, reflexive verbs are demonstrated with pronouns like myself, himself, ourselves. In Spanish, they already come packed into the verb: caerse, acordarse, mirarse.
In Spanish, we can make the same sentence as the one above:
Ella se lava.
object: ella (se: part of the reflexive verb lavarse)
Here, se shows that she is doing the action to herself.
Sometimes, even in English, the object is not always evident. For example:
I get dressed.
verb: get dressed
object: I (myself)
Although there is no pronoun myself, we still know that to get dressed implies that the action is done to oneself.
In Spanish, you have to memorize the verbs that imply the action is done to oneself. Vesitrse translates to get dressed.
Yo me visto.
object: yo (me: part of the reflexive lavarse)
It makes quite a lot of sense to include the reflexive pronoun within the verb itself!
How do you conjugate a reflexive verb in Spanish?
Each pronoun (yo, tú, él, ella etc) has its own reflexive pronoun. They are: me, te, se, nos, os, se.
The se you see at the end of the Spanish verb in the infinitive shows you immediately that it is a reflexive verb and must be conjugated accordingly.
|Yo||me||llamo.||I am called.|
|Tú||te||duchas.||You take a shower.|
|Él||se||confunde.||He gets confused.|
|Ella||se||despierta.||She wakes up.|
|Usted||se||acostumbra.||You (formal) gets used to (something).|
|Vosotros/as||os||cansais.||You (plural) get tired.|
|Ellas/ellos/ustedes||se||sientan.||They sit down.|
When a verb is conjugated (as in the above table) the reflexive pronouns come before the verb:
Yo me acuesto después de comer.
I lie down after I eat.
Él se llama Rodrigo.
He is called Rodrigo.
In instances where the verb is in the imperative form (an order, request or command), the reflexive pronoun will come attached to the end of the verb:
Bañate antes de que nos vayamos.
Take a shower before we go.
If a sentence already has a conjugated verb, you can either put it before the main conjugated verb verb OR attach it to the end of the reflexive verb:
Ramona va a dormirse pronto esta noche.
Ramona se va a dormir pronto esta noche.
Ramona is going to sleep early tonight.
Deberíais callaros al entrar a una iglesia.
Os deberíais callar al entrar a una iglesia.
You should be quiet when entering a church.
In the first example, the main verb ir (va a) is already conjugated as “she is going to”. Just as in English, you leave the second verb in the infinitive form: she is going to sleep. You wouldn’t say “she is going to sleeps”. In this case, you can put se either before the conjugated verb (va a) OR attach it to the infinitive form as dormirse.
Common Reflexive Verbs in Spanish
There are many reflexive verbs in Spanish; some with different classifications in their meanings. There are some reflexive verbs that show that an action is done to oneself or by oneself:
- cepillarse (brush one’s teeth or brush one’s hair)
- levantarse (to get up)
- vestirse (to get dressed)
There are reflexive verbs that can show a change of physical, social, emotional or perceptive state:
- bajarse: to go down (physical)
- mojarse: to get wet (physical)
- casarse: to get married (social)
- graduarse: to graduate (social)
- calmarse: to calm oneself (emotional)
- divertirse: to have fun (emotional)
- acostumbrarse: to get used to (perceptive/mental)
- darse cuenta: to realize (perceptive/mental)
Some show a reciprocal action that requires another person to take part in the action such as:
- amarse (this one can be to love oneself or each other)
- conocerse (to meet or know yourself or each other)
- pelearse (to fight with each other).
We hope this has helped clear up any doubts. If you’d like to learn more and take some Spanish classes in Barcelona, check out the courses we offer!