Using the German Dative Reflexive and Parts of the Body

Teenage students in classroom.
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Here we examine the dative reflexive, and particularly how it's used with the vocabulary in this lesson. Since reflexive verb forms are used frequently in German and have very practical, everyday applications, you need to learn them. Note that only two pronouns (ich and du) show any difference from the accusative reflexive forms in the dative reflexive. But since those two pronouns are very often used in the dative reflexive, it is important to know them.

Using the Dative Reflexive 

Dativ/der Wemfall
The Dative Reflexive
Nom.
pronoun
Accusative
pronoun
Dative
pronoun
ichmich (myself)mir (myself)
dudich (yourself)dir (yourself)
wiruns (ourselves)uns (ourselves)
ihreuch (yourselves)euch (yourselves)
er
sie
es
sich
(himself/herself/itself)
sich
(himself/herself/itself)
Sie
sie
sich
(yourself/themselves)
sich
(yourself/themselves)


When talking about combing or washing your hair, washing your face or brushing your teeth in German, you use the dative reflexive forms shown above. German has two reflexive forms, accusative, and dative. If you just say, "I'm washing myself." (nothing specific) then you use the "normal" accusative reflexive: "Ich wasche mich." But if you are washing your hair, instead of expressing that as English would ("my hair" = "meine Haare"), German uses the reflexive: "Ich wasche mir die Haare." (lit., "I wash myself the hair." - no possessive "my") Look at the examples below and observe how the dative reflexive functions with different pronouns (du/dir, wir/uns, etc.).

Using the Dative Reflexive in Sentences

Dative Reflexive
Sample sentences
I'm washing my hands.Ich wasche mir die Hände.
I'm combing my hair.Ich kämme mir die Haare.
He's washing his hands.Er wäscht sich die Hände.
Are you washing your hands?Wäscht du dir die Hände?
We're brushing our teeth.Wir putzen uns die Zähne.
I'm washing my face.Ich wasche mir das Gesicht.
German uses the dative reflexive to express the English possessive forms with personal toiletry verbs (comb, wash, brush, etc.). Note that only the forms dir and mir are different from the accusative reflexive forms (dich, mich). Contrast the sentences above with the accusative reflexive forms below:
I'm washing myself.
Are you washing yourself?
Ich wasche mich.
Wäscht du dich?
I'm shaving (myself).
He's shaving (himself).
Ich rasiere mich.
Er rasiert sich.
I'm getting dressed.
He's getting dressed.
Ich ziehe mich an.
Er zieht sich an.
Note that with the accusative reflexive the reflexive pronoun is the only object. (The English equivalent may not even be reflexive, i.e., there may be NO "yourself" or "myself" in the English sentence – as in "I'm shaving.") In accusative reflexive sentences the reflexive pronoun itself is the direct object, while in dative reflexive sentences something else is the direct object (hand, hair, face, etc.) 


Reflexive sentences can be in any tense. Reflexive verbs are conjugated just like any other German verb. Here are a few examples:

Dative Reflexive
Sentences in Various Tenses
I washed my hands. (past)Ich habe mir die Hände gewaschen.
I'll comb my hair. (future)Ich werde mir die Haare kämmen.
Did you wash your hands? (past)Hast du dir die Hände gewaschen?