When you learn Italian, you need to get your head round some grammar structures that don't have simple equivalents in English.
Picture this: You’re eating breakfast in a hotel lobby and someone asks you how your day has been so far. Let’s say they’re genuinely interested. They don’t just want to know, “My morning has been fine so far.” They really want to hear all about it.
“Well, I woke up at 7:30 when my alarm went off. I was tired! I almost fell back asleep again. When I finally pulled myself out of bed, I sat down in front of the mirror to comb my hair. Then I washed myself and got dressed.”
Now, imagine that the hotel is in Italy, so this conversation is happening in Italian.
In just that simple explanation of your morning, you would need to use six Italian reflexive verbs:
As you can see, reflexive verbs are one key to speaking Italian fluently and confidently.
Some Italian learners are a little intimidated by them at first, because these words don’t function the same way that they do in English.
But don’t be alarmed. Reflexive verbs are pretty easy once you siediti (sit yourself down) and spend some time figuring them out!
An Italian reflexive verb (verbo reflessivo) is a verb where the subject is carrying out the action on itself.
Let’s look at svegliarsi and say that the subject (person doing the action) is “me.”
Italian is cool because it has its own verb form for cases like this, which makes it less wordy than it is in English!
You can recognise Italian reflexive verbs in the infinitive form because they end in “si.”
Italian reflexive verbs are important because you need them to be able to esprimerti (express yourself) fluently.
Let’s practice conjugating Italian reflexive verbs, in other words, putting them into the right forms according to verb tenses or person.
I’ll start you off with an example in the present tense (presente). I'll use svegliarsi as our example again.
You probably recognise these verb endings from other Italian conjugations you have practiced.
might be new for you though.
Now let’s take a look at how to conjugate reflexive verbs in the past tense (passato prossimo).
In these cases, the letter at the end depends on the gender of the subject.
You’ll recognise that the two letter words at the beginnings of the phrases are the same as the ones used in the present tense.
The second word is the present tense conjugation of essere (to be).
Next up, let’s take a look at a few of the most common reflexive verbs in Italian – the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article – and see how they work in real life example sentences.
#1. svegliarsi (to wake up)
In the sentence above, a male person is saying the sentence. If the speaker were female, it would look like this:
#2. addormentarsi (to fall asleep)
#3. sedersi (to sit down)
Because the non-reflexive verb sedere (to sit) is conjugated irregularly, you also conjugate the reflexive verb sedersi (to sit yourself) irregularly in the corresponding forms. The example sentence uses the imperativo (imperative) tense, which you use to give commands or instructions.
#4 pettinarsi (to comb one’s hair)
#5 lavarsi (to wash oneself)
#6 vestirsi (to get dressed)
Looking at those examples, you probably noticed that the subject pronoun usually isn’t included.
Here's a reminder of the subject pronouns in Italian:
In almost all cases the reflexive pronouns (mi, ti, vi, ci, si) replace the regular subject pronouns. The way this works changes for different tenses and moods.
As you likely noticed in the sentence that began, “Per favore, siediti…” we did not use a reflexive pronoun beforehand. Instead, it was included at the end of the world. This is because this is a sentence in the imperative tense. It is a demand.
You need to study and practice to get the hang of the word order for all the different tenses and moods.
Language students love to complain about charts of verb conjugations. But they really are a great way to learn when you need to tackle the mechanics of a new verb form.
Spend a little bit of time looking over charts to really get this locked into your memory. It might not be the most fun, but you’ll be glad you did it. The good news is, you don't need to memorise every single reflexive verb or anything like that. Which brings me to my next point.
In this article you saw some of the most commonly used reflexive verbs. But there are plenty more out there. Don’t stress to much about learning which verbs are reflexive.
You'll meet new reflexive verbs as you practice the language, whether that's
If you master a few of the most common reflexive verbs, like the ones I taught you in this post, it’ll be easy to handle the new ones when they pop up. That's where the verb charts can help.
The rest will come with exposure to Italian, as I discovered during my Italian project this summer where I focused on input over deliberate study.
Any new form can be intimidating when you’re learning a new language. Don’t let it stress you out.
Read this article again if you need to and let the information sink in. Take your time with it and remember that practice makes perfect.
You won’t become fluent in Italian overnight. But with work and dedication you can make it happen. Reflexive verbs are just one step along the way.
When it comes to getting the essentials of Italian grammar right, nothing beats exposure to the language.
I showed it was possible during my Italian project where I didn't touch a textbook for three months, yet still managed to internalise the grammar I needed to express myself.
How did I do it? Through something called “controlled immersion” which involves getting lots of exposure to the language at the right level.
To let you experience what I achieved during my Italian project for yourself, I've created Italian Grammar Hero, a story-based grammar course, where instead of trying to memorise rules, you get the right kind exposure to the key areas of Italian grammar.
The course is for low intermediate to intermediate learners who are fed up of translating in their head. If that sounds like you, check out the course here.
Do you feel more confident about using Italian reflexive verbs after reading this post? What are the areas of Italian grammar that you still find tricky? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!
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