Reflexive verbs use a verb and a pronoun (e.g. myself, yourself …) to describe actions and interactions.
On reflection it’s not so surprising we use them as often as we do. After all, many of our actions have effects on others, or change something about ourselves. In this section we devote ourselves (nos dedicamos) to understanding the more useful and relevant forms of verb + pronoun. In the section on ‘preferences‘ the verb gustar, which is one of the more familiar verbs using reflexive pronouns, is explained in some detail.
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In English, reflexive verbs aren’t always obvious, such as washing oneself, having a wash or washing – phrases which we use interchangeably. In Spanish these need to be expressed a little more precisely, and this is the job reflexive verbs do. Reflexives, or more correctly ‘pronominals‘, are also used to show things done to or with ‘each other’ such as ‘we agree with each other’ or ‘they fight each other’.
The reflexive object pronouns that correspond to 1st, 2nd, 3rd singular and plural are shown here, along with their translation into English depending on the way it’s being used (see below):
me – myself
te – yourself
Él/ ella/ usted (he/ she / you pol. )
se – him/her/yourself ; each other ; one another
nos – ourselves ; each other ; one another
os – yourselves ; each other ; one another
Ellos / ellas / ustedes (they/ you pol.)
se – them/yourselves ; each other ; one another
Actions to and for ‘self’
This is very much like English expressions like ‘I’ve rented myself a flat’, me ha alquilado un piso – more precisely ‘I’ve rented a flat for myself’, or to have ‘enjoyed oneself’ divertirse. The reflexive pronoun used refers both to subject and object, as in I/myself (yo/me) , or we/ourselves (nosotros /nos). Subject (who is doing) and object (who is being affected) are the same in these cases.
- Me he enseñado español – I’ve taught myself Spanish
- Van a hacerse daño – they’re going to hurt themselves (do themselves an injury)
- El se mantiene por trabajar un una tienda. – He supports himself by working in a shop.
- ¡Cuidate (bien) !– Take (good) care! Look after yourself! (cuidarse)
Reflexive or not at all
In some cases the reflexive is the only form of the verb, usually verbs with some effect on yourself. For example ‘to grumble about, whine or be dissatisfied with something is quejarse. In effect you’re grumbling to yourself rather than to another person. Similarly, you may find expressions in more formal English that almost translate into a Spanish reflexive – ausentarse, to be absent (to stay away) is equivalent to the English (and not often used) ‘to absent yourself’. Remember that in each of these cases, as in the previous examples of ‘self’, the reflexive pronoun refers to the subject.
e.g. ¡Cómo te atreves! is ‘How dare you!’
- To sit down – sentarse
- To go to bed/lie down – acostarse
- To (take a) shower – ducharse
- To worry – preocuparse
- To complain – quejarse
- To brag/to boast- jactarse
- To dare / to be insolent – atreverse
In English we use the verb ‘to get’ in the same sense as ‘to become’: to get bored, excited, annoyed, etc. In Spanish the reflexive is used to express this, for example, ‘The kids are getting excited’ would be Los niños se excitan, and ‘We’re getting bored’ is Nos aburrimos.
- El proyecto se complica – The project is getting complicated
- Tengo que arreglarme antes de la fiesta – I have to get ready before the party (organise/tidy myself up)
- No te emborrachas – Don’t get drunk! (Interestingly the verb emborrachar is to get someone else drunk!)
- Se está emborrachando / enfadando– He’s getting drunk / angry
Reciprocal actions – ‘each other’
Where, in English, we might use ‘each other’ or more formally ‘one another’, the Spanish speaker uses reflexive pronouns. For example, if you help each other, this might be expressed as vosotros os ayudáis, so ‘to help one another’ is ayudarse.
- Se motivaban realizar sus objetivos – They motivated each other to achieve their goals.
- Podemos ayudarnos – We can help each other.
These reflexives are subtly different in meaning from the original verb, such as encontrar – to find and encontrarse – to be (to find oneself) as in Me encuentré en un bar – ‘I found myself in a bar.’
- To fall asleep – dormirse (dormir = to sleep)
- To awaken / wake up – despertarse (despertar = to wake someone else)
- To get up – levantarse (levantar = to lift/raise)
- To wash (oneself) – lavarse (lavar = to wash)
- To fall down – caerse (caer = to drop)
- To approach (come near) – acercarse (acercar = to bring closer or to put (something) nearby
- To stay (or wait) – quedarse (quedar = to meet)
- To meet – reunirse (reunir = to gather)
- To leave/exit (remove oneself) quitarse (quitar = to remove, take away or detract)
- To become (turn into) – volverse (volver = to return)
- To get (become) lost – perderse (perder = to lose)
Impersonal and passive phrases
Specifically using se + 3rd person singular form of a verb, translates as the very formal ‘one’ in English , e.g. ‘one doesn’t approve of’ = ‘ isn’t approved of’, an impersonal expression because no-one in particular is the subject. In this example Lo no se aproba translates as ‘It isn’t approved of’. This usage is similar to the passive form when something ‘is, was or has been done’, e.g. a plan is developing / being developed, se desarrolla ; getting lost, perderse ; a job has been advertised, se ha anunciado.
- El libro se publicó el año pasado – The book was published last year
- Se envió ayer el correo electrónico – The email was sent yesterday
- El polideportivo se abre este fin de semana – The sport centre opens this weekend.
- No se hace en esa manera- It isn’t done that way (like that).
As you’ll see from the above examples, The Reflexive verbs take the following basic form in the infinitive : an –ar/-er/-ir verb + se , e.g. ducharse to have a shower.
For each conjugation (yo, tú, ella, etc.) , the relative pronoun (me, te, se) goes before the verb, and the main verb behaves as normal with the various tenses. So ‘she’s taking a shower’ is (ella) se ducha, and ‘we get / we’re getting bored’ is (nosotros) nos aburrimos, remembering that the personal subject pronoun in brackets is often not used. It’s worth noting that compound verbs, e.g. the preterite tenses (e.g. I have taught myself, I would have hurt myself), and present continuous (I am teaching myself) stay together, and the reflexive pronoun goes before the whole verb: Me he duchado – I’ve taken a shower ; Me estoy enseñando español – I’m teaching myself Spanish (at the moment), although Me enseño español is also equivalent in meaning. [See the sections on uses of past tenses for more detail.]
Idiomatic Uses… and Confusions
¿como se dice? … – How do you say … (decir)
This is a common and very useful phrase using a reflexive form of decir (to say/tell) as a passive : ‘how is it said?’
For example, ¿Como se dice ‘apple’ en español? How do you say ‘apple’ in Spanish? Se dice ‘manzana’.
Me gusta … I like… (gustar) Me encanta … I love… (encantar)
As you’ll see in the section on ‘to like’, these phrases are commonly used but not so straightforward. The pronouns me, te, le, nos, os, and les refer to the person ‘liking’ the subject. These aren’t the same as reflexive pronouns – using le/les not se for 3rd person and polite ‘you’. So these aren’t actually reflexive verbs. And remember gustar and encantar change with the subject, thing that ‘pleases’ or ‘enchants’ you.
For example ¿Te gusta el trabajo nuevo? Do you like the new job? Sí, me encantan los proyectos interesantes tambien. Yes, I love the interesting projects too.
Me llamo … (llamarse) I’m called / I call myself
Although you can also say ‘My name is…’ or ‘I’m…’ in many situations, llamarse is often used for introductions or when asking someone’s name.
¿Como se llama usted? – What do you call yourself? This is a reflexive verb commonly used for all ‘persons’, e.g. :
- Estas flores se llaman girasoles – These flowers are called ‘sunflowers’