Introduction to Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

They’re not always translated as English reflexive verbs

mirror image picture for lesson on Spanish reflexive verbs
Se ve en el espejo. (She sees herself in the mirror.).

Camdiluv / Creative Commons

A verb is used reflexively when the subject of the verb is also its direct object.

An example of a simple sentence using a reflexive verb is "Pedro se lava" (Pedro is washing himself). In that sentence Pedro is both the subject (the one doing the washing) and the object (the person begin washed). Note that the reflexive pronoun (in this case se) typically precedes the verb (although it can be attached to infinitives).

More so in Spanish than in English, reflexive verbs (verbos reflexivos) are also known as pronominal verbs (verbos pronominales).

Key Takeaways: Spanish Reflexive Verbs

  • The subject and direct object of a reflexive verb is the same. For example: "She is watching herself in the mirror."
  • Not all Spanish reflexive verbs are translated as reflexive in English.
  • Reflexive verbs in Spanish can be used for emphasis or to avoid saying who is performing the verb's action.

Here are the main ways such verbs are used:

Verb’s Subject Acting on Itself

As in the example above, this is the most straightforward use of reflexive verbs, and it is the most common way they are used in English. In plural form the pronoun can often be translated as "themselves" or "each other," depending on the context. Some examples:

  • Puedo verme en el espejo. (I can see myself in the mirror.)
  • ¿Qué te compraste? (What did you buy for yourself?)
  • Se estaban admirando. (They were admiring themselves. Or, they were admiring each other.)
  • Pablo se habla. (Pablo talks to himself.)

When a verb expresses the action of two or more nouns acting on each other—as in "se golpearon" for "they were hitting each other"—it can also be called a reciprocal verb.

If it necessary to clarify or emphasize that two subjects are acting on each other, a word or phrase such as mutuamente or el uno al otro (with possible changes in number and gender) can be added:

  • Se ayudaron el uno a la otra. (They helped each other.)
  • Mi amiga y yo nunca nos vemos mutuamente. (My friend and I never see each other.)

Verbs Used Only in the Reflexive Form

Some verbs in Spanish are used only in the reflexive form, and they aren't always translated to English using a reflexive construction. In dictionaries, such verbs traditionally are listed with a se at the end of the infinitive, as in abstenerse, which means "to abstain."

  • Me abstengo de votar. (I am abstaining from voting.)
  • Teresa se arrepentió de sus errors. (Teresa regretted her errors.)
  • Me resigno a no tener dinero. (I am resigning myself to having no money.)

English has very few verbs that have only a reflexive use. The most common one is "perjure," as in "He perjured himself."

Reflexive Verbs Translated as Nonreflexive Verbs

Some Spanish verbs make perfect sense when understood in a reflexive way, but we typically don't translate them that way into English. For example, levantar means "to lift," while its reflexive counterpart, levantarse, could be understood to mean "to lift oneself," but is usually translated as "to get up."

  • Quiero bañarme. (I want to take a bath. Literally, I want to bathe myself.)
  • ¡Siéntate! (Sit down! Literally, seat yourself!)
  • Voy a vestirme. (I am going to get dressed. Literally, I am going to dress myself.)
  • Me afeito cada mañana. (I shave every morning. Literally, I shave myself every morning.)
  • Patricia se acercó la casa. (Patricia approached the house. Literally, Patricia brought herself closer to the house.)
  • Se llama Eva. (Her name is Eva. Literally, she calls herself Eva.)

Verbs Changing Meaning in Reflexive Form

Making a verb reflexive can change its meaning in ways that aren't always predictable. Sometimes the difference in meaning is subtle. Following are some common examples; not all possible meanings of the verbs are included.

  • abonar, to pay money; abonarse, to subscribe (as to a periodical)
  • abrir, to open; abrirse, to open up (in the sense of confiding in someone)
  • acordar, to agree, to decide; acordarse, to remember
  • acusar, to accuse; acusarse, to confess
  • callar, to be quiet; callarse, to become quiet
  • cerrar, to close; cerrarse, to close oneself off emotionally
  • combinar, to combine; combinarse (plural forms), to take turns
  • dormir, to sleep; dormirse, to fall asleep
  • ir, to go; irse, to go away
  • llevar, to carry; llevarse, to take away
  • poner, to put; ponerse, to put on, to wear
  • salir, to leave; salirse, to leave unexpectedly, to leak

Reflexive Verbs for Emphasis

Some verbs can be used reflexively to add emphasis. The distinction isn't always readily translated to English. For example, "comí la hamburguesa," means "I ate the hamburger," but the reflexive form, "me comí la hamburguesa," could be translated the same way, or perhaps as "I ate up the hamburger" or "I ate the whole hamburger." Similarly, "piénsalo" might be translated as "think about it," whereas "piénsatelo" might be translated the same way or as "think about it thoroughly."

The ‘Reflexive Passive’

Often, particularly with inanimate objects, the reflexive form is used to indicate an occurrence without indicating the person or thing responsible for that occurrence. Such uses of the reflexive are typically the equivalent of passive verb forms in English, as in the following examples:

  • Se cerraron las puertas. (The doors were closed.)
  • Se habla español aquí. (Spanish is spoken here.)
  • Se venden recuerdos. (Souvenirs are sold, or souvenirs for sale.)

Reflexive Forms for Emotional Reactions

Emotional reactions are often indicated by reflexive verb forms. For example, enojar means "to anger." The reflexive enojarse means "to become angry" or "to be angry." Thus, "se enoja contra su amigo" could be used to say, "he gets angry at his friend." Among the many verbs used the way are aburrirse, "to be bored"; alegrarse, "to be happy"; dolerse, "to be hurt"; emocionarse, "to be excited"; horrizarse, "to be horrified"; and sorprenderse, "to be surprised."

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Introduction to Reflexive Verbs in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Introduction to Reflexive Verbs in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Introduction to Reflexive Verbs in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 27, 2023).