How To Form Reciprocal and Reflexive Sentences in Spanish

Lack of separate pronouns can create ambiguity not present in English

Friends hugging
Los dos se abrazaron el uno a la otra. (The two hugged each other.).

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Understanding or translating reflexive or reciprocal sentences in Spanish where there are two or more subjects can be confusing because they can be ambiguous without qualifiers. Learn how these types of sentences are constructed and how to eliminate ambiguity in Spanish using two common phrases.

Why There Can Be Ambiguity in Spanish Sentences

First, let us define and expand upon what a reflexive sentence is. The pronoun se is commonly used (although it has many other uses as well) to indicate that a person is performing some type of action on or toward that person. For example, "se ve" can mean "he sees himself" and "se hablaba" can mean "she was talking to herself."

The confusion with reflexive sentences can come when the subject of such sentences is plural. See, for example, how the following Spanish sentences are ambiguous. Either of the translations given after the Spanish sentence is valid:

  • Se ayudaron. (They helped themselves. They helped each other.)
  • Se golpean. (They are hitting themselves. They are hitting each other.)
  • Pablo y Molly se aman. (Pablo and Molly love themselves. Pablo and Molly love each other.)

The same ambiguity can exist in the first and second persons as well:

  • Nos dañamos. (We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other.)
  • Nos amamos. (We love ourselves. We love each other.)
  • ¿Os odiáis? (Do you hate yourselves? Do you hate each other?)

The problem occurs because in Spanish the plural reciprocal pronouns are the same as the reflexive pronouns; they are nos in the first person, os in the second person, and se in the third person. (Note that in Latin America os is seldom used, as se is typically used in both the second- and third-person plurals.)

This is in contrast with English where the reflexive pronouns in the plural are "ourselves," "yourselves," and "themselves"—but the reciprocal pronouns are "each other" and "one another."

How To Clarify When Context Doesn’t Help

Most of the time, the context of the sentence will make clear what meaning is intended. If the context does not help, there are two very common phrases that can be used to eliminate the ambiguity.

First, the idiom a sí mismos is commonly used to indicate that a reflexive meaning is intended—in other words, that the subjects are acting on themselves rather than each other.

For example:

  • Se aman a sí mismos. (They love themselves.)
  • No pueden verse a sí mismos. (They can't see themselves.)
  • Es importante que nos escuchemos a sí mismos. (It is important that we listen to ourselves.)

If all the persons involved are female, or if the names of all subjects are grammatically feminine, the feminine form a sí mismas should be used:

  • Cómo se perciben a sí mismas las mujeres con la infertilidad? (How do women with infertility perceive themselves?)
  • Cuídense a sí mismas. (Take care of yourselves.)
  • Estas piernas robóticas son capaces de enseñarse a sí mismas a andar. (These robotic legs are capable of teaching themselves to walk.)

Second, the phrase el uno al otro, which can be literally translated as "one to the other," is the rough equivalent of "each other":

  • No debemos hacernos eso el uno al otro. (We shouldn't do that to each other._
  • Se golpean el uno al otro. (They are hitting each other.)
  • El ordenador y el monitor se necesitan el uno al otro. )The computer and the monitor need each other.)
  • ¿Os odiáis el uno al otro? (Do you two hate each other?)

El uno al otro can also be used in feminine and/or plural variations:

  • Pablo y Molly se aman el uno a la otra. (Pablo and Molly love each other.)
  • Se abrazaban la una a la otra. (The two females hugged each other._
  • No se cuidan los unos a los otros. (They (multiple persons) don't take care of each other.)

Key Takeaways

  • Reflexive pronouns are used to indicate that two or more persons or things are acting on themselves, while reciprocal pronouns are used to indicate that two or more persons or things are acting on themselves.
  • Although English has separate reflexive and reciprocal pronouns, in Spanish they are identical.
  • Spanish can use the phrases a sí mismos (or a sí mismas) and el uno al otro (with variations for number and gender) to clarify reflexive and reciprocal verbs, respectively.