To Do Unto Yourself: Italian Reflexive Verbs

Learn how to use and distinguish the reflexive verbs and mode

Woman sitting on Arno river bank
Sto cercando un posto dove sedermi un attimo. - I’m looking for a spot where I can sit for a while. Emma Innocenti / Getty Images

Reflexive verbs, or verbi riflessivi, as they are called in Italian, are a subset of intransitive verbs of the pronominal family whose action is carried out by the subject and received by the subject. Think of washing yourself or getting dressed.

Reflexive verbs do not have any direct object (other than themselves); their infinitives are distinguished by the ending in -si; they conjugate with the auxiliary essere; and they avail themselves of little pronouns called reflexive pronouns to do their work (and which help you recognize them).

What Is Reflexive

Reflexive verbs or verbs used reflexively have the subject as object; in other words, the action falls back on the subject itself. Among the verbs that are considered to be classic direct reflexive verbs (or directly reflexive) are:

alzarsi to get up 
chiamarsi to call oneself
coricarsi to lie down
farsi la doccia  to shower (oneself)
lavarsi to wash oneself 
mettersi  to place oneself (not to put on)
pettinarsi to comb oneself
pulirsi to clean oneself 
sbarbarsi  to shave oneself 
sedersi to sit 
spogliarsi to undress oneself 
svegliarsi to wake up 
vestirsi to dress oneself 
voltarsi to turn oneself around 

Many so-called reflexive verbs are verbs that can be used reflexively but that also can be used transitively, with a direct object. In fact, when you look up a verb in a good Italian dictionary, you will often find listed transitive, reflexive, and intransitive non-reflexive uses of the verb. Those matter because in non-reflexive mode, a verb does not use the reflexive pronouns and may use avere instead of essere to conjugate its compound tenses (remember the ground rules for the choice of the auxiliary verb).

For example, among the verbs in the table above, you can chiamare yourself (mi chiamo Paola) or you can call your dog, in which case the verb is transitive; you can vestire yourself, but you can also dress your child. It is about who sustains the action of the verb at that moment.

So, another way to think of "reflexive" is as a verb's way of being or being used.

How Do Reflexive Verbs Work?

In compound tenses, verbs in reflexive mode use the auxiliary verb essere; otherwise they conjugate like any fellow non-reflexive verb, except for the use of the reflexive pronouns mi, ti, si, ci, vi, and si , which all verbs used in reflexive mode must take. Those pronouns express the "to myself/to yourself" connection that in transitive verbs is expressed with direct objects and their pronouns, and that in intransitive verbs is expressed with indirect objects and their pronouns (some of which are the same as reflexive pronouns).

In the tables below are the present and passato prossimo conjugations of three reflexive verbs, with their pronouns, to illustrate how they work:

Presente Indicativo
  Alzarsi
(to get up)
Sedersi 
(to sit)
Vestirsi 
(to dress oneself)
io mi alzo mi siedo  mi vesto 
tu ti alzi ti siedi  ti vesti 
lui, lei, Lei si alza si siede si veste 
noi ci alziamo ci sediamo  ci vestiamo 
voi vi alzate vi sedete  vi vestite 
loro, Loro si alzano si siedono si vestono
Passato Prossimo Indicativo
  Alzarsi
(to get up)
Sedersi 
(to sit)
Vestirsi
(to dress oneself)
io  mi sono alzato/a mi sono seduto/a mi sono vestito/a
tu ti sei alzato/a ti sei seduto/a ti sei vestito/a
lui, lei, Lei  si è alzato/a si è seduto/a si è vestito/a
noi  ci siamo alzati/e ci siamo seduti/e ci siamo vestiti/e
voi  vi siete alzati/e vi siete seduti/e vi siete vestiti/e
loro, Loro si sono alzati/e si sono lavati/e si sono vestiti/e

For example:

  • Mi alzo presto per andare a scuola. I get (myself) up early to go to school.
  • Ieri Carla si è alzata tardi. Yesterday Carla got up late.
  • Gli atleti si vestono in palestra. The athletes get dressed at the gym.
  • Oggi ci siamo vestiti male. Today we dressed badly.
  • Mi siedo un attimo. I am going to sit for a minute.
  • Le bambine si sono sedute sul prato. The little girls sat on the lawn.

Note that, as usual, with all verbs that take essere as their auxiliary, in compound tenses the past participle behaves much like an adjective and must agree in gender and number with the subject/object.

Also, note that in the infinitive, the imperative, and the gerund, the reflexive pronouns get attached to the end of the verb:

  • Non ho voglia di alzarmi. I don't feel like getting up.
  • Vestitevi! Dress yourselves (get dressed)!
  • Sedendomi ho strappato il vestito. Sitting down, I tore my dress.

Test the Reflexive

The test of whether a verb is directly reflexive (or being used in true reflexive mode) is that you must be able to substitute the reflexive pronoun with "oneself": sé stesso. For example:

  • Mi lavo: I wash myself. Who are you washing? Myself. Lavo me stesso.
  • Giulia si veste: Giulia dresses herself. Who is she dressing? Herself. Veste sé stessa.

This is important because Italian can be a bit reflexive pronoun-crazy, as famous grammarian Roberto Tartaglione puts it, putting "ourself" everywhere. Because of the use of pronouns, reflexiveness can be deceptive: Here are sub-categories of verbs that are not considered direct reflexives (and, by some, not reflexive at all).

Intransitive Indirect Reflexive

There is a large group of verbs that are intransitive (much like any verb of movement or verb such as morire or nascere) and pronominal, that use reflexive pronouns, and have the infinitive in -si, and are considered to be inherent but not direct reflexives.

The action of these verbs does, indeed, not transit (there is no direct object outside of the subject itself) and it involves the subject to some degree or in some part (and in fact many grammarians call them riflessivi indiretti); yet, the subject is not really the object of the action. These verbs behave entirely like reflexive verbs though the pronominal part is just considered inherent to the verb. Among them are:

abbronzarsi to tan
accorgersi to notice something
addormentarsi to fall asleep 
annoiarsi to get bored 
arrabbiarsi to get angry
divertirsi to have fun
inginocchiarsi to kneel 
innamorarsi  to fall in love
lagnarsi to complain 
nascondersi to hide 
pentirsi to repent 
ribellarsi to rebel
vergognarsi to be bashful 

So, with accorgersi, for example, you are not noticing yourself; with pentirsi, you are not repenting yourself of yourself; but you use them and conjugate them as direct reflexive verbs:

  • Anna si addormenta presto la sera. Anna falls asleep early in the evening
  • Mi sono innamorato di Francesca. I feel in love with Francesca.
  • Luca si è accorto di avere sbagliato. Luca noticed that he was wrong.
  • Mi pento di avere urlato. I repent (regret) having screamed.

Reciprocal Reflexive

Among the reflexive verbs (or pronominal verbs that behave like reflexives) are reciprocal verbs, whose action occurs and mirrors between two people. In reciprocal mode (they can also, some of them, be transitive or reflexive), these verbs work like reflexive verbs and follow the same rules. Among the common reciprocal verbs (or verbs used in reciprocal mode) are:

abbracciarsi to hug each other 
aiutarsi to help each other 
amarsi to love each other 
baciarsi to kiss each other 
conoscersi to know each other (or to meet)
piacersi  to like each other 
salutarsi  to greet each other 
sposarsi to marry each other 

For example:

  • Gli amici si conoscono bene. The friends know each other well.
  • Gli amanti si sono baciati. The lovers kissed.
  • Ci siamo salutati per strada. We said hello on the street.

Note that, in the third person plural, sometimes there can be some ambiguity of meaning between reciprocal and reflexive. For example, Le bambine si sono lavate can mean that the girls washed each other or washed themselves together; Mario e Franca si sono sposati could mean that they married each other or married other people independently.

If it is ambiguous, you can add tra loro, or a vicenda, or l'uno con l'altro, or l'uno l'altro to make sure it is a reciprocal action:

  • Le bambine si sono lavate a vicenda/l'una l'altra. The girls washed one another.
  • Mario e Franca si sono sposati tra loro/insieme. Mario and Franca got married to each other.

False Reflexives

In other verbal constructions, verbs that are merely pronominal intransitive (and sometimes even transitive) are often used conversationally in reflexive or what appear to be reflexive constructions.

Mi sono rotto un braccio, for example, means, "I broke my arm." The mi makes it look like you broke your arm yourself, perhaps willingly (and sometimes that might truly be the case), and while some part of you is involved and is the object (your arm), in truth it is at best an indirect reflexive. The verb is, in fact, transitive. Another way of saying it would be, Ho rotto il braccio cadendo per le scale: I broke my arm falling down the stairs.

The pronominal forms andarsene (to take oneself away) and curarsi (to treat or take care of something or of oneself) are other good examples of pronominal non-reflexive verbs.

Another example: La carne si è bruciata means, "the meat burned itself." This is actually a passive construction rather than reflexive (it does not pass the reflexive test, la carne ha bruciato sé stessa).

In Italian it is also common to use a transitive verb pronominally with essere just to accentuate the involvement of self in the experience. For example, Ieri sera mi sono guardata un bellissimo film. That just means that you watched a great movie, but the mi pronoun and the making it reflexive makes the experience seem particularly delicious. The same with, Ci siamo mangiati tre panini ciascuno (we ate ourselves three sandwiches each), or, Mi sono comprata la bicicletta nuova (I bought mysef a new bike). It just makes the subject's involvement so much greater, though the subject is definitely not the object.

Remember, do the test: if the subject is not the object, the verb is not reflexive.

Buono studio!