Reflexivity

If a verb in its infinitive form ends with – se, it is called a reflexive verb. Some verbs are always reflexive, but almost any verb you have already learned can be used as a reflexive verb. The term reflexive indicates that the subject of the sentence both causes and receives the action of the verb. The verb lavar means to wash (something or someone else), the reflexive verb lavarse means to wash oneself.

Reflexive pronouns

In Spanish, a reflexive verb has an extra pronoun used with or without the subject pronoun that reflects the subject. The reflexive pronoun is placed in the sentence in exactly the same position as a direct or indirect object pronoun. If a reflexive pronoun is used in conjunction with a direct or indirect object pronoun (never with both at the same time), the reflexive pronoun is always first. The order of pronouns in a sentence is easily remembered with the acronym SRID:

  • Subject

  • Reflexive

  • Indirect object

  • Direct object

Although all four pronouns are never used together, whatever pronouns appear in a sentence will follow the order SRID. The subject of a sentence may be understood, but if there is a subject pronoun, it will precede all other pronouns. In the following examples, the reflexive pronouns are in bold, indirect pronouns are underlined, and direct objects are both underlined and in bold.

The sentence may have a reflexive and indirect object pronoun:

           Se me acaba la disputa. (The argument is over for me.)

The sentence may have a reflexive and direct object pronoun:

           Yo Me lavo la cara antes de dormir. Me la lavo cada noche.

The sentence may have an indirect and direct object pronoun:

            Es necesario comprar mucha medicina. Mis padres me la compran cuando estoy enfermo.

Notice in all of these examples that the order of the pronouns is consistent. Regardless of how many pronouns are used, they will always be in the SRID order: subject, reflexive, indirect object, and then direct object—all before the conjugated verb form.

When a reflexive verb is conjugated in any tense, the – se is removed from the infinitive form, and the appropriate reflexive pronoun is used to reflect the subject of the sentence. Notice in Table 1 that the reflexive pronouns are similar to direct and indirect object pronouns but are even easier to learn because the third person form of the reflexive pronoun is always se. The reflexive pronouns are listed with the subject pronouns that they reflect. Sometimes the subject pronoun is not used, but if a verb is being used reflexively, the reflexive pronoun is required.

Table 2 demonstrates how to conjugate a reflexive verb in the present tense.


Reciprocity

When plural subjects have reflexive pronouns, there are actually two possible interpretations. Reflexive pronouns can indicate that the action of the verb falls back on the subject, or reciprocity. That means the people represented by the plural subject do the action of the verb to each other. Sometimes it is obvious that the reflexive pronoun is being used to indicate reciprocity. For example:

                  Ellos se casaron el 21 de mayo.
                  They married (each other) on May 21st.

Technically, the sentence could be stating that they married themselves, but logic allows us to assume that reciprocity is indicated. The other use of the reflexive can be assumed in a sentence, such as:

                    Nosotros nos bañamos cada mañana.
                    We bathe ourselves each morning.

It is possible, but not probable, that we bathe each other. When a reflexive verb has a plural subject, there will be two possible translations, but the context of the sentence should give away the correct interpretation. This problem does not occur when the subject is singular because it is impossible to have reciprocity with only one person.

Reflexive verbs

The section on reflexive verbs is included here because reflexive pronouns are used if the verb of the sentence being conjugated is a reflexive verb. It is difficult to understand when to use a reflexive pronoun unless you understand the most common verbs that are always reflexive and how a verb that is not normally reflexive can be used in a “reflexive way” that requires a reflexive pronoun. A verb that is reflexive is not irregular. It has the same conjugation as a non‐reflexive verb except that an extra pronoun is used with it.

The closest equivalent in English would be using myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, or themselves after the verb. Another use of the reflexive is to indicate that the members of a plural subject do something to each other.

Many reflexive verbs refer to doing something to one's own body. Because the reflexive pronoun already indicates that the subject of the sentence is doing the action of the verb to him/herself, it is considered repetitive to use a possessive adjective in front of the body parts in question. The appropriate definite article is used in front of the body part instead of a possessive adjective.

                Yo me peino ( el pelo) dos veces al día.
               
I comb my hair twice a day.

                 Lupe se lava las manos antes de comer.
                 Lupe washes her hands before eating.


Verbs like caer or dormir are used reflexively to indicate that the action of the verb happened without the subject of the verb's voluntary cooperation.

             El estudiante, aburrido, se durmió durante la lección. 
             
The bored student fell asleep during the lesson.

             Yo me caí en frente de la clase.
             I fell down in front of the class.

Common reflexive verbs

Many of the verbs below are always reflexive, and some of the verbs you have seen before without the –se. When these verbs are indicating that the subject is doing the action of the verb to itself, they become reflexive verbs and require the reflexive pronoun.