Verbs That Change Meaning in Reflexive Form

Differences Can Be Subtle

shrine of Guadalupe
Muchos creen que se apareció la virgen María en México. Many believe the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico. Photo by Wallack Family; licensed via Creative Commons.

Often, the difference in meaning between a simple verb and its corresponding reflexive verb (formed in the infinitive form by adding the suffix -se) is slight, even nonexistent. For example, the verb desayunar typically means "to eat breakfast," while desayunarse has little, if any, discernible difference in meaning. Sometimes, however, the difference in meaning is substantial — enough so that it is listed separately in the dictionary, and sometimes so that its meaning isn't readily predictable if you know the meaning of the root verb.

Following are among the verbs with significantly different meanings in the reflexive form. This list is far from complete, and only the most common English translations are included here. Note also that usage of these verbs can vary with region, and that some speakers may use some verbs in the reflexive form as a way to change emphasis rather than to make a clear change in meaning:

acusar (to accuse), acusarse (to confess or admit): Acusaron a Mónica de "arreglar" los resultados. They accused Monica of "cleaning up" the results. Me acuso de ser drogadicto. I admit to being a drug addict.

aparecer (to appear), aparecerse (to appear, often said of a supernatural event): El hombre más buscado apareció en la fotografía. The most-wanted man appeared in the photograph. Muchos creen que se apareció la virgen María en México. Many believe the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico.

cambiar (to change), cambiarse (to switch to a different item, such as changing clothes or moving to a different house): Hay tres libros que cambiaron mi vida.

There are three books that changed my life. Nos cambiamos de compañía telefónica. We're switching to a different telephone company.

dormir (to sleep), dormirse (to fall asleep): Dormía en el interior de un auto de un amigo. He would sleep in a friend's car. Se durmió una noche escuchando la radio. He fell asleep one night listening to the radio.

ir (to go), irse (to go away): Fue a la cárcel por "lavar" dólares. He went to jail for laundering dollars. Mi niña se fue a la mar a contar olas. My girl went away to the sea to count the waves.

llevar (to carry), llevarse (to take): ¿Qué llevaba la doctor Blanco en la bolsa? What is Dr. Blanco carrying in her purse? El ladrón se llevó dos obras de Picasso. The thief took two works of Picasso.

ocurrir (to occur or happen), ocurrirse (to have a sudden idea): Nos ocurre exactamente lo mismo que explica Sandra. The same thing happens to us that Sandra talks about. Una idea se me ocurrió mientras estudiaba biología. An idea occurred to me while I was studying biology.

parecer (to seem like), parecerse (to look physically like): La situación de Bolivia no es lo que parece. The situation in Bolivia isn't what it seems like. El desierto de Arizona se parece mucho al de Zacatecas. The Arizona desert looks a lot like Zacateca's.

poner (to put), ponerse (to put on, such as clothing): Lo analizará y lo pondrá en la categoría correcta. He will analyze it and put it in the correct category. No me pondré nunca una gorra de béisbol. I will never put on a baseball cap.

salir (to leave), salirse (to leave unexpectedly or quickly, to leak): Ernesto salió por los cayos al norte de Cuba.

Ernesto left by way of the keys to the north of Cuba. Un avión con 62 ocupantes se salió de la pista del aeropuerto. A plane with 62 on board unexpectedly left the runway.

saltar (to jump), saltarse (to jump over, to skip an event or avoid an obligation): Las focas, los delfines, y las ballenas saltan frecuentemente. Seals, dolphins and whales often jump. Más chinos se saltan la ley del hijo único. More Chinese are ignoring the one-child law.

volver (to return), volverse (to turn around, to make an unexpected return): Los secuestrados volvieron a casa. The hostages returned home. Las "abejas asesinas" de Sudamérica se volvieron más fuertes. The South American killer bees returned stronger.