A "reflexive" sentence is one in which the
subject does something to him/herself. Or put another way, the subject and the object of the sentence refer to the same person. The action of the verb in a reflexive sentence is "reflected" back onto the subject. Compare:
I read the book.
In the first sentence the action of the verb, reading, is passed onto an object, the book. The sentence is not reflexive. But in the second sentence, the person doing the washing and the person being washed is one and the same. The second sentence is reflexive.
In English we deal with reflexives by adding words like "himself" or "yourself" to the sentence. In Spanish we use a special class of verbs known as "reflexive verbs"
which have their own unique rules.
Spanish Reflexive Verbs
In their infinitive
form reflexive verbs end with a "-se" after the usual "-ar,"
"-er," or "-ir." For example if you look up "to shave" in a Spanish/English dictionary, you'll find "afeitarse" and you can see from its "-se" ending that it is a reflexive verb. Here are some other reflexive verbs. Notice the "-se" endings:
to wake up
to get up
to sit down
to go to bed
The "-se" at the end of each verb is something known as a "reflexive pronoun" and we'll need to pay special attention to it when we conjugate.
Conjugating Reflexive Verbs
To conjugate a reflexive verb we first take the "-se" ending and place it in front of the verb. Then we conjugate as we normally would. Here's the process for saying "I shave":
Yo se afeitar.
Yo se afeito.
Note: In English when someone says "I shave" it's understood that they're talking about shaving themselves. Rarely does anyone say, "I shave myself." But in Spanish we're a bit more explicit.
This is a good start, but we're not quite done. Just as the verb ending, "-o," needs to agree with the subject, our reflexive pronoun, se, needs to agree as well. In this case, the se needs to become me:
Yo se afeito.
Yo me afeito.
I shave. / I shave myself.
So the reflexive pronoun se becomes me when the subject is yo. What about other subjects?
Spanish Reflexive Pronouns
Here's the list of reflexive pronouns in Spanish, with subject pronouns for comparison:
él, ella, Ud.
ellos, ellas, Uds.
Therefore a complete set of sentences using
afeitarse as the verb would look like this:
Notice that with reflexive verbs the subject, the reflexive object, and the verb ending are all in agreement (because the subjects are doing the action to themselves). Some more examples:
Tú te despiertas.
You wake up.
Ella se levanta.
She gets up.
Nosotros nos sentamos.
We sit down.
Uds. se acuestan.
You go to bed.
Two things to be aware of before we get any further:
pronouns are not optional. This "extra" reflexive pronoun can be frustrating for students who are already busy enough trying to remember the verb endings and as a result it often gets ignored, but we can't just ignore the things we find difficult.
pronouns do not replace the subject. Nos is not the same as nosotros. It's not an abbreviation either.
So how do you
know if a verb is reflexive or not? Well, the idea that reflexive verbs are used when
the subject does the action to him/herself is a good starting place, but the truth
is you really need to memorize which verbs are reflexive and which ones aren't.
You won't be able to tell from context whether you need to add a reflexive pronoun
or not. For some reflexive verbs it's quite obvious why they are reflexive but other reflexive verbs may make no sense to you whatsoever.
Common Reflexive Verbs
Here's a list of commonly used reflexive verbs:
more literal translation:
to go to bed
to hurry up
to take a bath
to take a shower
to wash up
to get up
to comb one's hair
to put on
to take off
to dry off
to sit down
to get dressed
to put oneself to bed
to shave oneself
to hurry oneself
to wake oneself
to wash oneself
to raise oneself
to put onto oneself
to remove from oneself
to dry oneself
to seat oneself
to dress oneself
A few things to note from
the list above:
- Many reflexive verbs have to do with daily routine: washing,
combing, drying, etc. and many have to do with emotions.
- As mentioned before it's not obvious why some of
these verbs are reflexive; they just are. The sooner you accept that, the better
off you'll be.
- Some of the verbs
listed are inherently reflexive and can't be conjugated any other way. Some also
have non-reflexive forms that convey different meanings. Speaking of which…
Note: Ponerse means "to put on" but it can also mean "to become."
Reflexive Verbs As Intensifiers
we can add a reflexive pronoun to a verb that isn't normally reflexive to "intensify"
it or give it a stronger meaning. We can also use reflexive pronouns to convey a sense of "getting" or "becoming":
to eat up
to get angry
to go away, to leave
to carry away
to drink up, quickly
Possessive Adjective Replacement
When using reflexive verbs we frequently
omit possessive adjectives and use definite articles instead (this tends to happen with body parts and articles of clothing). The reflexive
pronoun does the job of the possessive adjective:
Yo me seco mi pelo.
me seco el pelo.
Juana se lavó
lavó las manos.
Juana washed her
Tú te pones
pones el abrigo.
You put on your jacket.
Reflexive Pronoun Placement
other pronouns, reflexive pronouns are placed before a "normal" conjugated
verb. But they can attached to present participles
and infinitives if they're available. Reflexive pronouns must be attached to affirmative commands. Some examples:
Él se viste.
He gets dressed.
Él quiere vestirse.
He wants to get dressed.
Él está vistiéndose.
Él se está vistiendo.
He is getting dressed.
The reflexive object must agree with the subject even if the verb it's attached to isn't conjugated:
Tú puedes lavarte las manos.
You can wash your hands.
Nosotros queremos acostarnos temprano.
We want to go to bed early.
Using Mismo For Emphasis
In addition to using a reflexive pronoun, we can also use a form of mismo to really emphasize the reflexive nature of an action:
¿Porqué no puedes perdonarte a ti mismo?
Why can't you forgive yourself?
Ella se cuida a ella misma.
She takes care of herself.