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Learning Spanish: Reflecting on Reflexive Verbs

By Curt Smothers

Spanish reflexive verbs are both similar and different from what we English speakers are accustomed to. Like English, Spanish reflexive verbs direct the action back to the subject. Unlike English, the “boomerang” effect is not always obvious. These verbs are also used to express the passive voice.

Challenge Yourself

The Spanish learner must deal with an array of grammar challenges dominated by the indispensable verb. In addition to learning the 14 (seven simple and seven compound) verb tenses (add two more for the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive!), Spanish includes a special type of verb known as the “reflexive.”

“Reflexive” means that the action of the verb is directed back to the subject. In English we say, “I wash myself.” In Spanish, they use the reflexive verb “bañarse.” Where English uses a form of the reflexive pronoun adding the suffix “-self,” Spanish forms the reflexive with its own set of pronouns that always accompany the verb. These reflexive pronouns stick like glue to the verb. They either follow the infinitive (as in “bañarse” - to wash oneself) or precede conjugated form of the verb (as in me baño - I wash myself).

They Come Complete With Their Own Set of Pronouns

These are the Spanish reflexive pronouns:

Singular forms:

me - myself

te - yourself (familiar)

*se - himself, herself, itself, yourself (formal)

Plural forms:

nos - ourselves

os - yourselves (Spain)

se - themselves, yourselves

*Don’t confuse this “se” with the indirect object pronoun “se” in sentences with both an indirect and direct object. If you see a sentence like “Se lo dio” (He told him it), the sentence cannot be reflexive because of the present of an object pronoun and the separation of “se” from the verb.

Some Examples of Reflexive Verb Placement

With the infinitive:

Queremos bañarnos. (We want to bathe ourselves.)

With the progressive:

Ellas están bañándose. (They are bathing themselves.)

(Note how the accent is applied to preserve the verb stress.)

With the conjugated form of a verb:

Ayer, él se bañó. (Yesterday, he bathed himself.)

Using the Reflexive for the Passive Voice

Passive voice is used more frequently in English than in Spanish. Spanish tends more towards the active verb (though not always). For example, “The office is closed at 5:00 p.m.” in Spanish would be, “Cerran la oficina a las cinco de la tarde.” (They close the office at 5:00 p.m.)

But here is where the reflexive verb in Spanish helps out. Using the “passive se” we can express ideas like “Spanish is spoken here.” (Se habla español aquí.) or “Oranges are sold here.” (Se venden naranjas aqui.) In the foregoing examples, we are literally saying “Spanish speaks itself,” and “Oranges sell themselves.” Obviously those translations are somewhat silly in the literal sense, but they provide a good example on how something is lost (or gained?) in translation between two languages.