Spanish Reflexive Verbs

This lesson is all about Spanish reflexive verbs. This is one of the more complicated lessons (but no more complicated than some previous lessons!). A reflexive verb is a verb where the action of a subject falls upon the subject itself. Many reflexive verbs are related to routines of the daily life (peinarse, acostarse, levantase, etc). You will see that many of these verbs end with the word "se", which indicates that the verbal action falls on the subject itself. 

In other words; in Spanish, when you talk about an action being performed on yourself, you show the reflexive nature of the action with a reflexive verb.

Spanish Reflexive Verbs: Actions You Perform on Yourself

Reflexive verbs indicate that the subject of the sentence has performed an action on itself. In other words, in a reflexive sentence the subject is the same as the object. Examples of reflexive actions are the following:

  • José got up
  • He put his shoes on
  • Eva got sick
  • I asked myself a question
  • The girl brushed her teeth

You may look at the last example and say, "But the object is teeth! Why should that verb be reflexive?"

In Spanish, parts of the body are never preceded by personal pronouns. In other words, you never talk about "my teeth"—you talk about "the teeth," with a reflexive verb preceding it.

For example, in English you would say:

  • I comb my hair
  • I wash my face
  • I scratch my arm

In Spanish, you would say:

  • Me peino el pelo
  • Me lavo la cara
  • Me rasco el brazo

All reflexive verbs are preceded by reflexive pronouns.

Subject: yo - Reflexive Pronoun: me

Me peino el pelo

I comb my hair

Subject:  - Reflexive Pronoun: te

Te peinas el pelo

You comb your hair

Subject: usted/él/ella - Reflexive Pronoun: se

Ella se peina el pelo

She combs her hair

Subject: nosotros/nosotras - Reflexive Pronoun: nos

Nos peinamos el pelo

We comb our hair

Subject: vosotros/vosotras - Reflexive Pronoun: os

Os peináis el pelo

You comb your hair

Subject: ustedes/ellos/ellas - Reflexive Pronoun: se

Ellos se peinan el pelo

They comb their hair

Understanding Spanish reflexive verbs: When is a verb reflexive?

If you are reading Spanish, you will know that a verb is reflexive by the ending –se tacked onto its infinitive form. Below is a list of some common reflexive verbs. Note the common –se ending.

A verb is not reflexive if it does not have the -se ending. For example, compare:

  • Me despierto. with Te despierto.

The first example is reflexive, but the second one is not! In the first example, the subject is performing the action on his/herself (e.g., I wake myself up), and the verb is despertarse. In the second example, the subject is performing the action on someone else (e.g., I wake you up), and the verb is despertar.

Now compare:

  • Te enojaron. with Nos enojamos.

Can you guess which example uses a reflexive verb and which does not?

  • The first example is not reflexive (They made you angry) and uses the verb enojar.
  • The second example is reflexive (We got angry) and uses the verb enojarse.

Some verbs are ALWAYS reflexive, like enfermarse.

Por ejemplo:

Maria se peina el pelo todas las noches.

Mary combs her hair every night.

Me lavo la cara todas las mañanas.

I wash my face every morning.

Mis padres se enojan cuando no los llamo.

My parents get angry when I don’t call them.

Francisco se cortó la mano.

Francis cut his hand.

Los niños se quemaron con los juegos pirotécnicos.

The children burned themselves with the fireworks.

Using Spanish reflexive verbs to show emotion

When a person becomes emotional, the verb used will often be reflexive. For example, if you get angry, become sad, or feel happy for someone, you will need to express yourself using a reflexive verb.

This can seem a bit confusing at first. You've learned how to use estar with descriptive adjectives to express emotions.

  • Estoy enojado... I am angry.
  • Estoy feliz... I am happy.
  • Estoy triste... I am sad.

When you say how you feel in this way, you're expressing your emotional state at that moment.

However, when you want to describe how your emotional state has changed over time or as a result of something, estar simply won't do. You'll need a reflexive verb.

  • I quickly got angry. Me enojé rápidamente.
  • It made me sad. Me puso triste.
  • It makes me happy to hear your voice. Me alegro oír tu voz.

Don't worry too much about this nuance of reflexive verbs! The more you hear verbs in action, the more you'll naturally pick up which verbs are used reflexively and which are not.


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