Understanding Spanish Reflexive Verbs

By Anthony / December 16, 2016

I am going to be 100% honest and admit that reflexive verbs still get me. Many times I forget to add the reflexive pronoun when I am talking, which sometimes can cause a little confusion to the listener. My mistakes are not because I never properly learned how to use the verbs, I simply forget to tack on that pesky pronoun because we don’t have anything like reflexive verbs in English.

Hopefully, I didn’t scare you with my honesty because learning reflexive verbs is not as hard as it may seem. With this step by step instruction you will be a master at reflexive verbs in no time. Hey, maybe you can even help me brush up on those pesky reflexive pronouns.

What are Reflexive Verbs?

In a nutshell, reflexive verbs are used when we talk about actions we do to and for ourselves.

For example:

  • Brushing one’s teeth.
  • Washing one’s hands.
  • Getting dressed.
  • Brushing one’s hair.

Reflexive verbs have 2 pieces:

  1. The infinitive part of the verb, which when we conjugate it, tells us who is doing the action.
  2. The reflexive pronoun, which tells us who is receiving the action of the verb.

—Take a look:

Let’s use the verb LAVARSE (to wash/clean oneself). The “se” on the end is the reflexive pronoun. In addition to conjugating the verb, we have to change the pronoun.

If I want to say that I wash my face, I would say:

Me lavo la cara

So What are the Reflexive Pronouns?

Now Let’s Put it All Together….

Let’s use the following sentence to see how to not only how to conjugate the verb, but how to use the reflexive pronoun as well:

      Pepita washes herself every morning.

  • —Step 1 – Decide the Subject (Pepita)
  • —Step 2 – Conjugate the Verb for that Subject (lava)
  • —Step 3 - Choose the Appropriate reflexive pronoun (Se)
  • —Step 4 - Place the Reflexive Pronoun BEFORE the Verb

      Pepita se lava cada mañana

The biggest thing to remember is that you can’t translate a sentence that uses a reflexive verb word for word. If you do it won’t make sense. See what happens when I translate (word for word) the above sentence:

      Pepita herself washes every morning

Obviously, this makes no sense in English. We need to read it as Pepita washes herself every morning. Remember to keep this in mind when you are using reflexive verbs when reading, writing and speaking in Spanish.

Reflexive Verbs Have Multiple Uses

As I mentioned before, reflexive verbs are used when an action is performed by the subject to him/herself. These verbs are also used for emotional responses and to add emphasis as well.

Emotional responses

The best way to translate this into English is “becoming something (sad, happy) or “making you feel” a certain way (bored, agitated).

For example:

      Te alegras de salir con amigos (it makes you happy to hang out with friends)

      Me aburro de las conferencias largas (I get bored with long lectures)

To Add Emphasis (Emphatic Pronoun)

You can use a reflexive pronoun to put emphasis on a particular noun.

For example:

      The teacher (herself) attended the class

The teacher is the noun being emphasized in the sentence so we use an emphatic pronoun.

      El profesor se asistió a la clase

Meaning Change

Sometimes In Spanish a reflexive verb changes the meaning of a word or sentence. This can be confusing to an English speaker because the sentence or word no longer makes sense. In some cases, the reflexive verb and it’s non reflexive counterpart, have such different meanings that they have separate entries in a dictionary. Let’s look at some examples:

dormir (to sleep)

dormirse (to fall asleep)

llevar (to carry)

llevarse (to take)

volver (to return)

volverse (to turn around)

If you are new to learning Spanish, just remember that a reflexive verb is an action that you do to or for yourself. You can build on this as you get more comfortable with the language. If you are more advanced, practice using reflexive verbs to add emphasis.

Remember that learning Spanish is all about the practice! Test out your new reflexive verb skills in conversations or writing. The more and more you use them, the more comfortable you will become with them. They really are not as bad as they seem, I promise!

Questions? Please submit your questions below in the comment box. We are here to help!

About the author


Coffee drinker, Spanish speaker, habitual traveler, taking life one beautiful day at a time.


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