Learning Spanish can be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to aspects of grammar like reflexivity. Thankfully, reflexive verbs aren’t all that complicated. If you know how to say what your name is (for example, me llamo Chad), you’ve already figured out the basics. They’re worth taking a closer look at, though: used incorrectly, reflexive verbs can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
This article will walk you through what reflexive verbs are, how they work in Spanish, and why you need to know them.
What is a reflexive verb?
You probably know that a verb is an action word, like “go”, “see”, or “do”.
A reflexive verb is a special type of verb used when the subject of the sentence performs the action on themselves. For example, some reflexive verbs in English are waking (yourself) up, showering (yourself), and worrying (yourself) about something.
In other words, to figure out whether or not a verb is reflexive, you usually just need to think about whether or not the person performing the action is also the person who is affected by the action.
If they are, you can make the verb reflexive by adding the correct reflexive pronoun. When you’re learning new verbs, you may notice some of the infinitive forms end in “se”, like conocerse, irse, bañarse, and afeitarse. The “se” on the end of each verb indicates that it’s a reflexive verb.
The 6 Reflexive Pronouns in Spanish
Pronouns are words that take the place of other nouns — I, you, he, she, and so forth — and there are several different types of them. You’re already familiar with Spanish’s subject pronouns like yo, tú, or nosotros, but to correctly use reflexive verbs, you also need to learn how the reflexive pronouns. These extra pronouns aside, reflexive verbs conjugate just like normal ones.
A few things to keep in mind:
- While there are 8 reflexive pronouns in English (words like “myself” and “yourself”), there are only 6 in Spanish. Él, ella and usted, and their plural forms, all share one pronoun.
- Reflexive pronouns usually go right before the conjugated verb.
- Subject pronouns can be omitted or placed before a reflexive pronoun.
Yo - Me
The reflexive pronoun me corresponds to the subject pronoun yo.
- Yo me afeito cada mañana. - I shave (myself) every morning.
- Yo me acostumbro a la comida aquí. - I’m getting (myself) used to the food here.
Tú - Te
The reflexive pronoun te corresponds to the subject pronoun tú.
- ¿Te casas con él? - Are you marrying (yourself) (with) him?
- ¿A qué hora te levantas? - At what time do you get (yourself) up?
Él/Ella/Usted - Se
The reflexive pronouns él, ella and usted all correspond to the subject pronoun se.
- Mi novia se muda a otra ciudad. - My girlfriend is moving (herself) to another city.
- Él se sienta ahí. - He is sitting (himself) down over there.
Nosotros - Nos
The reflexive pronoun nos corresponds to the subject pronoun nosotros.
- Nos desayunamos juntos. - We have (ourselves) breakfast together.
- Nos damos cuenta de la diferencia. - We realized the difference (for ourselves).
Vosotros/Vosotras - Os
The reflexive pronoun os corresponds to the subject pronoun vosotros. Vosotros is used mostly in castellano (Spanish from Spain), so don’t worry too much if you haven't encountered it yet.
- ¿Os mareáis en los aviones? - Do you get (yourselves) dizzy in airplanes?
- ¿Os maquilláis todos los días? - Do you put makeup on (yourselves) every day?
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes - Se
Just like their singular counterparts, the third person plural subject pronouns ellos, ellas and ustedes all correspond to se.
- Ellos se olvidaron de mi cumpleaños. - They forgot (themselves) about my birthday.
- Ellas se preocupan de su salud. - They worry (themselves) about his health.
Types of Reflexive Verbs
There are three different types of reflexive verbs, and while they all have different uses, they share the same reflexive pronouns.
It’s also worth remembering that each language makes sense of the world a bit differently. While it makes sense to us English speakers that lavarse is reflexive, because you’re washing your own body, it might be a bit harder to wrap your head around other verbs like desayunarse (to eat breakfast) or olvidarse (to forget). You’ll get better at figuring out when you do and don’t need a reflexive verb as you learn more Spanish, so for now, just do your best.
Reciprocal Reflexive Verbs
These reflexive verbs describe when two people or groups of people are performing the same action. Most of the time, they are performing the actions on each other instead of on themselves.
- Juan y su hermano se despiertan cada día. - Juan and his brother wake each other up every day.
Natural Reflexive Verbs
Natural reflexive verbs always have se on the end of their infinitive forms. Typically, these words clearly involve the subject of the sentence performing an action on themselves.
- Yo me desvisto cada noche. - I undress (myself) every night.
Some verbs have both a reflexive and non-reflexive form, each with a slightly different meaning. For the most part, you’ll just have to learn these as you encounter them.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo llamo a mi madre. - I call my mom.
- Reflexive: Me llamo Pedro. - I call (myself) Pedro.
10 Common Reflexive Verbs with Example Sentences
Let’s take a closer look at ten of the most common reflexive verbs by discussing their meanings, whether or not that meaning changes when using the non-reflexive form, and reviewing some more examples.
Despertar, which means “to wake up”, has both a reflexive and non-reflexive form. The reflexive form describes waking yourself up and the non-reflexive form describes you waking someone else up or something else waking you up.
- Reflexive: Yo me despierto a las 7 de la mañana. - I wake (myself) up at 7 am.
- Non-Reflexive: El ruido de la calle me despertó anoche. - The noise from the street woke me up last night.
Cepillar also has similar meanings whether used as a reflexive or non-reflexive verb. It means “to brush”, and you can determine which form to use based on what is being brushed.
- Reflexive: Yo me cepillo los dientes. - I brush (myself) my teeth.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo cepillo mis zapatos. - I brush my shoes.
Bañar means “to bathe” in most cases, but can also mean “to swim” in Spain. Looking at who is bathing or swimming can help you choose whether or not to use the reflexive form.
- Reflexive: Siempre me baño por la mañana. - I always bathe (myself) in the morning.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo nunca baño a mis perros . - I never bathe my dogs.
The non-reflexive form of alegrar means “to make someone happy”, while the reflexive form, alegrarse, means to become happy yourself.
- Reflexive: Me alegro mucho de que estés aquí. - I (myself) am very happy that you’re here.
- Non-Reflexive: Me alegra tu visita. - Your visit makes me happy.
Asustar in its non-reflexive form means “to scare”, but when used as a reflexive verb, it’s meaning becomes “to get scared”. The main thing to remember here is who is getting scared and who is doing the scaring. If it’s the same person doing both, use the reflexive!
- Reflexive: Me asusto por todo. - I get (myself) scared of everything.
- Non-Reflexive: Los perros me asustan. - Dogs scare me.
The reflexive and non-reflexive forms of this verb actually have two distinct meanings. Divertir in its non-reflexive form means “to entertain”, while divertirse means “to enjoy oneself”.
- Reflexive: Yo divierto a mis padres. - I entertain my parents.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo me divierto en la fiesta. - I’m enjoying myself at the party.
Ir and irse are another example of a verb’s non-reflexive and reflexive forms having completely different meanings. Ir by itself simply means “to go”. Irse, on the other hand, means “to leave”.
- Reflexive: Me voy. - I’m leaving.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo voy a la playa. - I go to the beach.
You use ocuparse when you want to say that someone is taking care of or worrying about something. The non-reflexive form, ocupar, has a totally different meaning - “to occupy”.
- Reflexive: No te preocupes. - Don’t worry (yourself).
- Non-Reflexive: Ellos ocupan importantes posiciones políticas. - They occupy important political positions.
Similar to some of the other verbs on this list, volver and volverse have very different meanings. The non-reflexive form, volver, means “to return” and is similar to the verb regresar. The reflexive form, volverse, means “to become”.
- Reflexive: Me vuelvo loco cuando te veo. - I become/go crazy when I see you.
- Non-Reflexive: Yo vuelvo a tu casa. - I return to your house.
The final verb on this list has somewhat similar meanings in both its reflexive and non-reflexive forms. Poner means “to put” and ponerse means “to put on (oneself)”.
- Reflexive: Yo me pongo un vestido. - I put a dress on (myself).
- Non-Reflexive: Él pone la comida sobre la mesa. - He puts the food on the table.
Reflexive verbs are very common in Spanish, and after reading this article, you’ll start noticing them everywhere. Using reflexive and non-reflexive verbs correctly can take your Spanish to the next level and help you get your point across clearly in conversations.