When you learn Spanish and you hear the term, “reflexive verbs,” what comes to mind?
Do you immediately think of an example of a reflexive verb? Or does the term fill you with dread because you'd really rather not think about the rules of grammar…in any language?
No matter how you react when you hear the term—or if you have no idea what it even means—there's no need to panic. You've probably been using these verbs already, especially if you've made it to an intermediate level of Spanish.
Reflexive verbs are such a big part of everyday Spanish that chances are good you know some already…even if you don't know exactly why they work that way.
You might not have many issues using them. But you probably have questions, especially when it comes to new verbs or more complicated sentences.
Answering those questions is the goal of this post. I'll go over five common questions with you:
You can find the answers to many of these questions in my Fluent Spanish Academy video all about reflexive verbs in Spanish, or you can scroll down to read more.
By the end of this post, you'll know everything you need to use Spanish reflexive verbs fluently and confidently.
Before jumping into Spanish reflexive verbs, let's take a step back and review a few parts of speech so this article will make total sense.
Verbs are words that express action. In Spanish, they end in –ar, –ir, or –er before being conjugated to match the subject.
The subject of a sentence is the person, place, or thing that is doing something. Identifying the subject is especially important in Spanish because the verb conjugation will change depending on the subject.
Pronouns are words that take the place of a noun in a sentence. In the following example, ella takes the place of “Maria” in the second sentence:
Maria tiene que ir a la escuela hoy. Ella se olvidó sus libros en el aula.
Those three parts of speech are all you need to know to understand reflexive verbs.
As for Spanish reflexive verbs, they're a special type of verb that direct back to the subject.
You can see an explanation right there in the name: reflexive verbs and pronouns reflect back to the subject who is doing the action. For this reason, the conjugation always matches the subject of the sentence:
Nos fuimos el concerto temprano. (We left the concert early)
In Spanish, there are five reflexive pronouns:
Note that se can function as a second- or third-person pronoun (usted or él/ella) as well as a singular or plural pronoun (usted/ustedes or ellos/ellas).
In this example, both the verb conjugation (fuimos) and the reflexive pronoun (nos) match the subject (we). That's why it's so important to know exactly what the subject is in any given sentence.
Here's a list of some of the most common reflexive verbs in Spanish:
Some reflexive verbs are always reflexive, while others have both reflexive and non-reflexive forms, which I'll talk about next.
There are five basic categories of reflexive verbs: routines, motion, emotions, reciprocals, and verbs that are always reflexive.
Whether or not a verb is reflexive changes the meaning of the sentence. So it's a good idea to know whether you want the reflexive form or not.
Por ejemplo: Start by identifying the subject in the following sentence:
Me desperté a las ocho. (I woke up at 8.)
The subject is “I”, so the reflexive verb is conjugated in the first person (desperté). I am waking up myself, so the reflexive pronoun is me.
However, if I woke up someone else, that changes which verb form I need:
Desperté a los niños a las ocho. (I woke up the kids at 8).
The verb is still conjugated in the first person because I am still the subject of the sentence. In this case, however, the verb is no longer reflecting back to the subject, so I don't use the reflexive form.
And what if the children woke themselves up? I'd go back to using the reflexive form:
Los niños se despertaron a los ocho. (The kids woke up at 8.)
In the examples above, the reflexive pronouns were all placed directly in front of the reflexive verb. This is the common and correct placement in many situations, but not all.
In reality, you have two options for pronoun placement.
Reflexive pronouns come before the verb, compound tense, or construction in all tenses or moods except affirmative commands.
In these examples, notice that the reflexive pronoun comes before the entire verb phrase in cases where estar or haber form the complete conjugation:
In a few instances, the reflexive pronoun is actually attached to the end of the reflexive verb itself:
You probably noticed that the last two examples, the gerund and infinitive, are variations of similar sentences from Option 1. That's because with gerunds and infinitives, you can choose between either placement option.
The key to truly mastering reflexive verbs in Spanish is to know the difference between reflexive and non-reflexive versions of the same verb.
“Get bored” doesn't exist in Spanish, so aburrir/aburrirse is a great example for you to look at:
Te aburrías con las clases. (You get bored with these classes.)
In this example, the boredom reflects back on you. You are getting bored, so the reflexive verb (aburrirse) is appropriate here.
On the other hand, if you want to say that the class itself is boring, that does not require the reflexive form of the pronoun:
La clase te aburriría. (The class is boring you.)
In this example, the class is the subject and a pronoun isn't needed to reflect back to the subject at all.
Here's another set of examples, showing how you would decide whether or not the reflexive form is called for:
In the case of acordar and acordarse, the meaning changes completely whether or not you use the reflexive form of the verb. Acordar means to agree. Acordarse, on the other hand, means to remember.
Here are a few more verbs that have completely different meanings in their reflexive forms:
In Spanish, many verbs are more literal than in English.
Nos encontramos literally means “to find each other”, whereas in English we would say “we met up” instead.
Many of these distinctions come with practice and exposure to plenty of authentic Spanish conversations.
You'll soon be able to pick out reflexive verbs in real time. They will become second nature to you, and you'll be able to use and understand them without having to think about it beforehand.
After reading this article, do you feel more confident about using and understanding Spanish reflexive verbs? Which other aspects of Spanish grammar do you find tricky? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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