Reflection on reflexive verbs in Spanish

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By Georgina Palencia.

Lee este artículo en español.

Yo me baño (I take a bath). Yo me aburro (I get bored). Yo me llamo (My name is). These are three similar reflexive structures that are totally different in essence.

First class with reflexive verbs and a new challenge begins. For teachers to explain them and for students to use them.

In Spanish, the concept of reflexive verbs varies from the traditional one. Let’s reflect on that.

While teachers think understanding our reflexive ways is very important, students think it is very complex. And that does not surprise me, for two reason.

One, because the so-called reflexive verbs are not such, but only when the subject is the same one that receives the action of the verb.

In ME ACUESTO MUY TARDE, there is reflexivity.

In ACUESTO A MI HIJA, there is none.

The verb ACOSTAR is not reflexive, but rather admits reflexivity.

When dictionaries say a verb is reflexive, it is not so. The truth is the verb can be reflexive and will have to be used with the respective pronoun. I repeat, yes and only yes, the subject – the person who performs the action – is the same as the object – who receives the action. This is the first lesson I give you.

The second reason, and lesson comes from the next question.

If the definition of reflexive is: the subject is the same person as the object, why verbs such as bored, feel, put on, worry, bother, are classified as reflexive?

It is a logical question asked by many Spanish students.

Another question about other types of verbs.

If the definition of reflexive is: the subject is the same person as the object, why are verbs such as to call oneself, to go, to take, to get in, to occupy, are classified as reflexive?

The answer can be either very complex or very vague.

The panorama could be worst when we find that there is divergence between dictionaries and authors with a number of verbs like those of the previous questions. Some of them continue to call these verbs reflexive, but others take them out of the category and call them pronominal.

To call them pronominal verbs is to create a category of verbs that need to be used with pronouns, the same pronouns we use to form the reflexives, but for types of verbs that do not respond to the concept of reflexives.

So, in our Spanish classes, we have preferred to make three distinguished categories with simple logic that always makes learning easier for our students. We have discarded the idea of ​​giving a single definition of reflexive verbs, to later expand it or make it more flexible.

1. Verbs that are or are not reflexive.

Fall asleep, shower, shave, lie down, get up, look at each other, wake up, call each other, refuse, get lost, take off, retire. Remember, as we said before, it will be reflexive only if subject and object are the same person.

2. Verbs of emotional mobilization inside the subject.

Getting bored, meeting, putting on, feeling, getting excited, surprised, excited.

This type of verb is a type of reflexive because, although it does not exactly follow the principle of the concept, the action of the verb occurs as an emotional process within the subject.

3. Verbs that change their meaning.

To go away, to take away, to get in, to take care of, to look like, to put on, to refer. Definitely, nothing is further from a reflexive than this, but what is similar is that they use the same pronouns to express reflexivity, emotionality, and even to change a meaning.

Our recommendation is:

Write down these three categories and keep them handy while you become familiar with these verb structures that often act with pronouns and when you find a new verb of this class always think about which of these three it is related to.

In fact, there are other verbs that will not exactly fit into these three categories either. But by explaining them, you will be able to justify better and understand better.

Remember Spanish is a language with a pronominal tendency. We have many pronouns and different uses of them, in fact if there is the possibility of a structure with or without a pronoun we prefer with a pronoun.

Did I explain myself? This is an example of this type of verb and a real question, so do comment here.


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