Mastering Reflexive Verbs in Spanish: A Step-by-Step Tutorial

If ‘me lavo’, ‘te levantas’, or ‘nos acostamos’ leave you puzzled, then don’t worry. Reflexive verbs can seem complicated, but they’re much more logical than you may think. 

Reflexive verbs intertwine actions with their subjects, and this article is your definitive guide to understanding how they work, how to conjugate them, and when to use them in conversation.

I’m James from Learn Spanish With James, and I’m about to help you master the use of reflexive verbs in Spanish. 

If you are learning Spanish, check out the Learn Spanish With James Podcast. Just search Learn Spanish With James from wherever you get your podcasts.

Get FREE Access to Award Winning Spanish Course

Reflexive Verbs – Key Takeaways

  • Reflexive verbs in Spanish are actions performed and received by the subject, indicated by the ‘-se’ ending (e.g., ‘ducharse’ to shower oneself), and are in contrast to non-reflexive verbs where the action is directed towards others.
  • Reflexive verbs are conjugated by removing the ‘-se’ ending and adding the appropriate reflexive pronoun before the verb, which matches the quantity and persona of the subject (e.g., ‘Yo me lavo’). 
  • Irregular reflexive verbs may have stem changes but maintain consistent reflexive pronouns.
  • Reflexive pronouns are generally placed before conjugated verbs, but can also attach to infinitives, gerunds, and affirmative commands. 
  • Many common verbs in Spanish have reflexive forms, crucial for everyday communication (e.g., ‘levantarse’ for getting up, ‘acostarse’ for going to bed).

Understanding Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

Have you ever wondered why we say “I wash myself” instead of “I wash me”? This is exactly where reflexive verbs come into play.

Reflexive verbs in Spanish express actions that the subject carries out on themselves. For example, the Spanish verb ‘ducharse,’ translates to ‘to shower oneself’.

Reflexive verbs communicate actions directly affecting the subject, such as ‘levantarse’ (to stand up). In this case, the subject ‘stands themselves up’.

On the other hand, non-reflexive verbs usually signify actions directed towards a distinct object or individual.

For instance, in the sentence ‘Sandra baña a su perro’, Sandra (the subject) is bathing her dog (the direct object).

Here, the action of bathing is directed towards a different entity, not the subject itself. 

So, understanding the difference between reflexive and non-reflexive verbs is key to mastering the reflexive form.

Get FREE Access to Award Winning Spanish Course

Identifying Reflexive Verbs

You might wonder, how do we recognize reflexive verbs? It’s quite straightforward. Look for the tell-tale ‘-se’ ending in their infinitive form. This little particle is our signpost that we’re dealing with a reflexive verb.

For instance, ‘despertarse’ is to wake up, ‘cepillarse’ equates to brushing oneself, and ‘vestirse’ signifies getting dressed. 

Just remember, if you spot a verb with an ‘-se’ at the end, it’s time to put your reflexive hat on!

The Role of Reflexive Pronouns

In Spanish, reflexive pronouns are what truly animate reflexive verbs. They express that the subject of the verb is also the object or beneficiary of the action, ensuring our sentences make perfect sense.

So, when we say ‘Yo me peino’, the reflexive pronoun ‘me’ reflects the action of combing back onto the doer, making it clear that the subject ‘Yo’ is combing their own hair.

Bear in mind, the reflexive pronouns must match the subject in terms of both quantity and persona. 

So, ‘Yo me peino’ but ‘Nosotros nos peinamos’. And when it comes to body parts and clothing, possessive adjectives are commonly replaced by definite articles. So, we say ‘Me lavo las manos’ (I wash my hands) and not ‘Me lavo mis manos’.

Additionally, reflexive pronouns are also used to denote reciprocal actions among multiple subjects, expanding their use beyond individual self-referential actions.

Understanding the correct reflexive pronoun to use in these situations is essential for clear communication, especially when dealing with subject pronouns.

Conjugating Reflexive Verbs: A Comprehensive Guide

After understanding the basics of reflexive verbs and pronouns, we can now delve into the realm of conjugation. The good news is that conjugating reflexive verbs in Spanish is pretty straightforward.

All we need to do is start with the infinitive form, remove the reflexive ending ‘se’, and then conjugate the verb according to its subject. The reflexive pronoun, which must agree with the subject of the sentence, is then added before the verb.

So, ‘lavarse’ becomes ‘Yo me lavo’, ‘Tú te lavas’, and so on. The key is to remember that the reflexive pronouns remain consistent across tenses, so whether you’re talking about the past, present, or future, the rules remain the same.

Regular Reflexive Verbs

When it comes to regular reflexive verbs, the conjugation follows the normal patterns of -ar, -er, and -ir verbs. The verb we’ll focus on is “lavarse” which means “to wash oneself”. Let’s explore its conjugation process. You first remove the ‘-se’ ending, leaving you with ‘lavar’.

Then, you conjugate ‘lavar’ as you would any regular -ar verb, and add the corresponding reflexive pronoun before the verb.

So, in the present tense, ‘lavarse’ becomes ‘Yo me lavo’, ‘Tú te lavas’, ‘Él/Ella/Usted se lava’, ‘Nosotros nos lavamos’, ‘Vosotros os laváis’, and ‘Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes se lavan’.

This holds true for other regular reflexive verbs such as ‘levantarse’ (to get up) or ‘acostarse’ (to lie down).

The reflexive pronoun is placed before the conjugated verb, and the verb itself follows the standard conjugation rules for -er and -ir verbs respectively. So, ‘acostarse’ in the present tense becomes:

  • ‘Yo me acuesto’
  • ‘Tú te acuestas’
  • ‘Él/Ella/Usted se acuesta’
  • and so on.

It’s all about remembering the regular conjugation patterns and matching the reflexive pronoun to the subject.

Get FREE Access to Award Winning Spanish Course

Irregular Reflexive Verbs

Conversely, irregular reflexive verbs present a slight deviation from the norm. 

They may have changes in the stem when conjugated, but the reflexive pronouns remain consistent with the subject of the sentence. To conjugate reflexive verbs, especially irregular ones, it’s important to understand these nuances.

For instance, the verb ‘despertarse’ (to wake up) becomes ‘Yo me despierto’, ‘Tú te despiertas’, ‘Él/Ella/Usted se despierta’, and so on. 

The same rules apply to ‘acostarse’ (to go to bed) and ‘despedirse’ (to say goodbye) where the ‘o’ in the stem changes to ‘ue’ and ‘e’ to ‘i’ respectively in the conjugation.

But remember, no matter how irregular the verb may be, the reflexive pronouns stay steadfast, always aligning with the subject.

Placing Reflexive Pronouns Correctly

Having conjugated our reflexive verbs, the question arises – where should the reflexive pronouns be placed? 

The general rule of thumb is that reflexive pronouns are placed before conjugated verbs. So, ‘Yo me lavo’, ‘Tú te peinas’, ‘Él se afeita’, and so on.

However, there are times when the reflexive pronoun can also be attached to the end of infinitives, gerunds, or affirmative commands. 

Let’s further investigate these pronoun placements.

Before Conjugated Verbs

As we’ve mentioned, reflexive pronouns are usually placed immediately before the conjugated verb, whether in affirmative or negative sentences. 

So, ‘Yo me lavo’ translates to ‘I wash myself’, and ‘Yo no me lavo’ means ‘I do not wash myself’.

Even in perfect tenses, the reflexive pronoun precedes the auxiliary verb, as in ‘Ya me había mudado’, which means ‘I had already moved’. 

This placement makes it clear who is performing the action on whom, providing clarity in communication.

Attached to Infinitives and Gerunds

But what about when we’re dealing with infinitives or gerunds? There’s flexibility here. 

Reflexive pronouns can be attached to the end of infinitives or gerunds, as well as used in affirmative commands.

So, ‘Voy a lavarme la cara’ means ‘I am going to wash my face’, and ‘Estoy bañándome’ translates to ‘I am bathing myself’.

And in the case of affirmative commands, the reflexive pronoun must be attached directly to the verb, as in ‘Duermete temprano’, which means ‘Go to sleep early’.

This flexibility in reflexive pronoun placement adds to the richness and versatility of the Spanish language.

Get FREE Access to Award Winning Spanish Course

Common Reflexive Verbs for Everyday Use

Equipped with the fundamentals of reflexive verbs, it’s time to apply our acquired knowledge. 

Approximately 154 out of the 523 basic and common Spanish verbs have reflexive forms often used in conversation.

These Spanish reflexive verbs are essential components of everyday language, used to express personal experiences, daily routines, and emotions. 

They give us a way to express actions we perform on ourselves, whether it’s ‘acostarse’ (going to bed), ‘afeitarse’ (shaving), or ‘alegrarse’ (getting happy).

Let’s examine the most common reflexive verbs, categorized into daily routines, personal care, and emotions and feelings.

By exploring these categories, you’ll gain a wider understanding of reflexive verbs and how they are used in everyday Spanish. 

You’ll also begin to recognize these commonly used reflexive verbs in conversations, enhancing your Spanish fluency.

Daily Routines

Reflexive verbs are a staple when it comes to describing daily routines. 

From ‘despertarse’ (to wake up) to ‘dormirse’ (to fall asleep), these verbs depict actions one does to oneself, reflecting the change in meaning from the non-reflexive ‘despertar’ (to wake someone up) and ‘dormir’ (to sleep).

Other examples include ‘lavarse los dientes’ or ‘cepillarse los dientes’ for brushing one’s teeth, and ‘peinarse’ for combing or styling hair.

By incorporating these verbs into your vocabulary, you’ll be better equipped to discuss your daily routines in Spanish.

Personal Care

Reflexive verbs also come in handy when talking about personal care. Activities such as:

  • ‘bañarse’ (to bathe)
  • ‘ducharse’ (to shower)
  • ‘lavarse’ (to wash)
  • ‘cepillarse los dientes’ (to brush one’s teeth)
  • ‘peinarse’ (to comb one’s hair)

all incorporate reflexive verbs. 

Notice how the reflexive pronoun ‘se’ in these verbs implies that the action is being done by the subject to themselves. 

By using these verbs, you can precisely describe personal care activities in Spanish.

Emotions and Feelings

One of the most beautiful aspects of reflexive verbs is their ability to express the dynamic nature of emotions and feelings. They intensify the action of the verb or convey a sense of ‘getting’ or ‘becoming,’ making them perfect for expressing how we feel.

Key reflexive verbs used to express emotions include:

  • ‘sentirse’ (to feel)
  • ‘alegrarse’ (to get happy)
  • ‘emojionarse’ (to get excited)
  • ‘sonreírse’ (to smile)
  • ‘reírse’ (to laugh)

The reflexive nature of these verbs enhances their meanings, allowing us to express our emotions in a more nuanced way.

Get FREE Access to Award Winning Spanish Course

Reflexive vs. Non-Reflexive Verbs: Differences and Nuances

Although reflexive verbs form a significant part of Spanish, they aren’t necessarily the sole means of expressing an action. 

Non-reflexive verbs, where the subject acts upon a different object, have their own place in the language.

For instance, consider the sentence ‘Yo lavo el coche’ (I wash the car).

Here, ‘lavo’ (wash) is a non-reflexive verb with the car being the object that’s washed. 

But when the subject and the object of the verb are the same, that’s when we bring in the reflexive verbs, like ‘Yo me lavo’ (I wash myself).

Interestingly, some verbs can be both reflexive and non-reflexive, with the reflexive usage frequently changing the verb’s meaning.

For instance, ‘poner’ (to put) can become ‘ponerse’ (to put on), and ‘bañar’ (to bathe someone) can change to ‘bañarse’ (to bathe oneself) when used reflexively.

Understanding these nuances is vital for mastering reflexive verbs.

Verbs with Dual Usage

Many Spanish verbs have dual identities, occurring in both reflexive and non-reflexive forms, each imparting a unique nuance to the verb’s connotation. For instance:

  • ‘dormir’ (to sleep) becomes ‘dormirse’ (to fall asleep)
  • ‘lavar’ (to wash) changes to ‘lavarse’ (to wash oneself) when used reflexively
  • ‘ponerse’ can mean either ‘to put on’ or ‘to become’ depending on context
  • ‘levantarse’ may also imply ‘to rise up against’ in different scenarios.

Understanding the dual usage of these verbs can greatly enrich your Spanish communication skills.

The Verbs That Are Always Reflexive

Then, there exist the outliers in the realm of verbs – those that are always reflexive. These verbs always use a reflexive pronoun and do not have a non-reflexive form. Verbs such as:

  • ‘burlarse’ (to make fun of)
  • ‘quejarse’ (to complain)
  • ‘arrepentirse’ (to regret)
  • ‘atreverse’ (to dare)

fall into this category. These inherently reflexive verbs are integral to the Spanish language and require practice and familiarity with their meanings and applications.

Tips for Mastering Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

Perfecting reflexive verbs in Spanish is akin to learning a dance – it involves grasping the steps and practicing until they become instinctive.

One of the most important tips is to understand the difference between reflexive and non-reflexive versions of the same verb.

To improve proficiency in using reflexive verbs, you can:

  • Practice conjugating reflexive verbs in various tenses
  • Listen to native speakers
  • Read authentic Spanish texts
  • Engage in regular conversations that involve discussing personal care, daily activities, and emotions to practice the use of such verbs in realistic contexts.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Much like any dance, there are common blunders to sidestep.

Use of a reflexive pronoun with a direct object

A common mistake is using reflexive pronouns with direct objects when they are not necessary.

For example, ‘Yo me baño a mi perro’ should be ‘Yo baño a mi perro’ without the reflexive pronoun.

Misplacing a reflexive pronoun

Another common error is misplacing the reflexive pronoun, which can result in incorrect sentences. (For example: “Ella lava se las manos.” instead of “Ella se lava las manos.” (She washes her hands.)

Understanding the appropriate position for a reflexive pronoun is crucial for proper language use. 

Don’t get this confused with Portuguese, where the personal pronoun moves within the sentence. This sentence structure differs from Spanish.

Practice and Immersion

Keep in mind, perfection comes with practice. Engage in regular conversations, listen to native speakers, read authentic texts, and participate in speaking exercises to improve your proficiency in reflexive verbs.

By combining different learning activities, you can reinforce your understanding and application of reflexive verbs, leading to improved fluency.

Therefore, don’t hesitate to utilize those reflexive verbs – embrace them, practice them, and observe your Spanish language skills thrive!

Final Thoughts

Mastering reflexive verbs is a fundamental step that should not be overlooked. They offer a unique way to express actions performed on oneself, making them essential for describing personal experiences, daily routines, or feelings.

These verbs are present in everyday language, and understanding them can significantly enhance your ability to describe actions that are performed by the subject upon themselves, which is a frequent occurrence in daily communication.

Grasping the nuances of reflexive verbs and their conjugation, knowing when and how to use reflexive pronouns, and understanding the difference between these and non-reflexive verbs will not only become more proficient in the language but also gain a deeper appreciation for the richness and flexibility of Spanish.

What is the rule of reflexive verbs?

The rule of reflexive verbs is that the subject performs the action on itself, reflecting back to the subject. For example, “se laver” (to wash oneself) implies that the subject is washing themselves.

What are the 6 reflexive pronouns in Spanish?

The 6 reflexive pronouns in Spanish are “me,” “te,” “se,” “nos,” “os,” and “se.” These are used to indicate that the subject of the sentence is also the recipient of the action.

How do you know if a verb is reflexive or non reflexive?

You can tell if a verb is reflexive if the subject and the object are the same, meaning the subject is doing something to itself. If the subject is acting upon someone or something else, then the verb is non-reflexive.

What is a reflexive verb in Spanish example?

Reflexive verbs in Spanish are used when the subject and the object of the action are the same. For example, “cansarse” (to get tired), “ducharse” (to shower), “despertarse” (to wake up), and “vestirse” (to dress oneself).

How are reflexive verbs conjugated?

When conjugating reflexive verbs, start with the infinitive form, remove the ‘se’ ending, and then conjugate the verb according to its subject. It’s a simple process that allows you to use reflexive verbs correctly in sentences.

Online Spanish Courses & Grammar Courses

Spanish verb conjugation can be tricky, but with the right resources, you can master all verb forms easily. For a full list of Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Courses, check out this full list of online Spanish courses

I put this list together myself, and it comprises a mixture of courses that offer Spanish grammar practice for all levels, conversational practice, listening and writing exercises in Spanish, free Spanish courses, and a whole lot more. 

The fastest way to learn Spanish and its irregular verbs is to test a mixture of Spanish resources and choose the course that coincides most with your learning style. 

In addition to online Spanish courses, on this site you will find a wide range ofSpanish podcasts, Spanish apps, Spanish YouTube channels, and both online and physical Spanish language schools.

Get FREE Access to This Award Winning Spanish Course
Man smiling for portrait in blue jumper

About James – Or Should that be Santiago?

My name is James. I am a Brit with a love for the Spanish language. I have lived in Spain, Argentina, and Costa Rica, and I have been teaching Spanish for over a decade. This site will show you how to master the elements of Spanish grammar that often dishearten learners. I hope you enjoy the site and find it useful.

If you are interested in taking your Spanish to the next level, check out the Courses section for a full list of the Spanish courses I suggest. All reviews are based on my personal opinions.