In today’s Spanish grammar article, we’re going to be going over one of the most difficult topics for English speakers – reflexive pronouns in Spanish.
But here’s the secret – they’re actually not difficult at all. In fact, this article is here to show you that these reflexive pronouns get a bad rep for no good reason. So it’s time to set the record straight.
So get ready to finally understand the Spanish reflexive pronouns. And when you’re done, you can send a letter of complaint to all those textbooks that make it so confusing.
Let’s dive in!
What Are Reflexive Pronouns?
Let’s start with the big question first. What exactly is a reflexive pronoun?
While you’ll find a million different conclusions online, the simplest way to understand reflexive pronouns is that it is a pronoun that agrees with the subject. In other words, both the pronoun and the subject use the same forms.
The easiest example is me lavo las manos. The “me” is in the first person singular and the “lavo” is also conjugated in the first person singular.
So, the me is a reflexive pronoun.
Many people also define reflexive verbs as a verb where the subject and object are the same. While this is true in some cases, it’s not always true.
It also might be a bit confusing as you’re trying to learn. So later in this article, we’ll go over the 5 different uses of reflexive pronouns and you’ll see how this applies.
Spanish Reflexive Pronouns
Before going any further with the conceptual understanding of Spanish reflexive pronouns, let’s look at what they are:
|Singular Reflexive Pronouns||Plural Reflexive Pronouns|
|Me (1st person)||Nos (1st person)|
|Te (2nd person)||Os (2nd person)|
|Se (3rd person)||Se (3rd person)|
Just like a personal pronoun and an indirect object pronoun, or all the other pronouns – there are different words to refer to a different subject.
So far, so good? At this point, you just need to do a small amount of memorization, so it shouldn’t be too hard!
For the vos form, you can use the 2nd person singular Te.
Reflexive Pronouns Placement
The first thing to know is how to actually place a reflexive pronoun in a sentence. Luckily, you only have two options – either at the beginning, or attaching it to the end of a verb. Here are the two different scenarios:
Placing Spanish reflexive pronouns at the beginning
Most of the time, you’re going to place the reflexive pronoun before the conjugated verb, just like you would with subject pronouns.
This is the most common way to use them and it shouldn’t take you a long time to remember. For example, you have:
- Se cepilla los dientes. – He brushes his teeth
- ¿A qué hora te levantas? – What time do you get up?
Placing Spanish reflexive pronouns at the end of a verb
You can add reflexive pronouns to the end of a verb when it is an infinitive, gerund, or an affirmative command. In all of these cases, it stays attached to the verb without any spaces, for example:
- No le gusta despertarse pronto.
- Estoy quejándome demasiado.
- Lávate las manos bien.
For verbs in the infinitive form and affirmative commands, you always need to add the reflexive pronoun to the end. However, for gerunds, you have the option of either all the way at the beginning, or all the way at the end. So, you can also write:
Me estoy quejando demasiado.
Usually this is a matter of personal preference – but there are a few restrictions on gerunds, also.
Spanish Reflexive Verbs
In a very general sense – Spanish reflexive verbs are any kind of verb that can use a reflexive pronoun. We’ll be going over all the different times when you use a Spanish reflexive verb in just a second.
Just remember that there are many types of these verbs that take Spanish reflexive pronouns – and not all of them are the same.
Need even more help with Spanish Reflexive Verbs? Make sure to check out our full guide on just the verbs if you want more practice.
When To Use Spanish Reflexive Pronouns
Now that you know what Spanish reflexive pronouns are, the next step is to understand when to use them. The next five categories are the most common ways to use a reflexive verb.
The first and most obvious use of reflexive pronouns is with… well, a reflexive verb.
In other words – the subject and the direct object are the same things. Here are a few examples of the most common reflexive verbs:
- ¿Cómo te llamas? – What’s your name?
- Me baño todos los días. – I wash myself everyday.
- Lávate las manos. – Wash your hands.
These ones are easy because they are actions you can do to yourself/your own body. For example, the first sentence literally means “How do you call yourself?”. So that “yourself” is reflexive.
Same goes for the last example. The person is washing their own hands – the person performs the action on themselves. It’s considered reflexive because they are both doing and receiving the action of the verb.
Now this next one, the term “reflexive” is a bit confusing sometimes. That’s because with the impersonal se, it can be translated a few different ways.
In general, they are very similar to the passive voice in English.
In fact, there is the impersonal se and the passive voice. While they are two different concepts – today, we’ll focus on them at the same time just for simplicity.
- Se habla español. – Spanish is spoken. (here)
- Se vende. – For sale.
- Se es más feliz sin responsabilidades. – One is happier without responsibilities.
In the first two, they are obvious examples of a passive voice in English. You might already be familiar with this usage of reflexive verbs without even knowing it!
The last example is a great use of the impersonal se. In English, you can think of it generally as “one” or the impersonal “You”.
Continually straying further from our original meaning – reciprocal verbs don’t quite work like the other types of reflexive verbs.
Instead, we use the reflexive pronoun here to demonstrate that something is happening “to each other”. So each person does the same action to the other:
- Los hermanos siempre se pelean. – The brothers are always fighting with each other.
- Nos respetamos. – We respect each other / one another.
So while the conceptual understanding of se might be a bit different here – the usage is really simple!
Now we’re moving on to the #1 most confusing part of se for students. Because with pronominal verbs, we’re completely throwing that last definition out the window.
Instead, these are verbs that use reflexive pronouns just because. Literally, that’s it!
These verbs do not exist without the reflexive pronoun. Or maybe the verb exists, but it doesn’t have the same meaning anymore. Here are a few common examples:
- No te quejes tanto – Don’t complain so much
- Se arrepintió de los lo que hizo – He regretted what he did
- Ya es la hora, me tengo que ir – It’s already time, I should leave
Quejarse, arrepentirse, and irse are all verbs that are absolutely always with their pronouns.
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So besides the fact that some verbs can’t exist without a reflexive pronoun, other verbs can have their meaning changed. For example, dormir means “to sleep”, but “dormirse” means “to fall asleep”.
And ir means “to go” but “irse” means “to leave”.
So don’t put any more thought into it – just accept that there are some verbs that just always like their pronoun friend to be with them.
Finally, usage #5 is just a bonus for you. A verb that isn’t regularly reflexive can get a reflexive pronoun added to it to make the sentence more expressive or emphatic. Check out the following examples:
- Se leyó la novela entera. – She read the whole novel
- Se comió la tarta. – He ate up the cake
You can absolutely say “leyó la novela” and “comió la tarta”, but using the pronoun makes it a bit more expressive. In English, sometimes we’ll use an extra preposition.
So it’s kind of like the difference between “I ate the cake” and “I ate up the whole cake”.
With other pronouns
When you combine reflexive pronouns with other pronouns in the same sentence, there are just a couple of things to note. There are two major things to note: order and change.
When it comes to the order, the reflexive pronoun always goes to the very beginning. It doesn’t matter if it’s before the verb or at the end, any reflexive pronoun must come first.
- Me lo comí – I ate it up
- Lávatelas – Wash them (your hands)
Next, there is a quick change you need to remember. This connects back to indirect object pronouns.
When you have an indirect object pronoun in the third person AND a direct object pronoun in the third person, you’ll change the indirect pronoun to “Se”.
While it is still an indirect object, we use the reflexive pronoun for clarity. Here are some examples:
- Se las doy – I give them to her/him
- Se lo han dicho – They said that to her/him
Tired of hearing the words “reflexive pronouns” by now? That’s understandable!
But the good news is that now you’re a complete pro! There are no verbos reflexivos that can stand in your way! So get out there and show the world your mastery of this complex topic.
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