6.1 Verbs Used Reflexively and Reflexive Pronouns

Verbs used reflexively are accompanied by an object pronoun that refers back to the subject. As you will see, this pronoun is sometimes routinely used in English, other times optional and, yet others, untranslatable. Examples of two verbs (with subject pronouns) used reflexively follow:

VESTIRSE (I)- TO GET DRESSED (TO DRESS ONESELF)

Person Singular Plural
1st me visto (I get dressed) nos vestimos (we get dressed)
2nd te vistes (you get dressed) os vestís (you all get dressed)
3rd se viste (he/she/you gets dressed) se visten (they/you get dressed)

LEVANTARSE- TO GET UP

Person Singular Plural
1st me levanto (I get up) nos levantamos (we get up)
2nd te levantas (you get up) os levantáis (you all get up)
3rd se levanta (he/she/you gets up) se levantan (they/you get up)

When reading or translating, you will have the choice of omitting or including the reflexive pronoun as appropriate, as well as some cases where two translations are possible.

Yo me levanto temprano. I get (myself) up early.
El niño se lastima cuando se cae. The child gets hurt (hurts himself) when he falls down.

If a conjugated verb + infinitive construction is present, the reflexive pronoun may precede the conjugated verb or be attached to the infinitive:

Me voy a bañar ahora.

Voy a bañarme ahora.

I’m going to take a bath now.

It is somewhat more common in dialogue to see the object pronoun before the conjugated verb. In Latin American Spanish, you are more likely to see the pronoun attached to the infinitive in written Spanish.

Some verbs are used reflexively and the pronoun is never translated. As you see below (as well as above, with vestirse and levantarse), when listed in the infinitive form, these verbs have the third person singular reflexive pronoun attached to the infinitive. Some such verbs with untranslatable reflexive pronouns are:

atreverse (a) to dare (to)
arrepentirse (ie) to repent
dignarse to deign
jactarse (de) to brag, to boast (about, of)
quejarse (de) to complain (about, of)

¡Ojo! When putting on, taking off or doing something else to one’s own clothing, in Spanish the definite article replaces the possessive pronoun before the article of clothing, as the reflexive pronoun indicates to whom the action is being done and the possessive pronoun is considered redundant. Note the following translations:

Me pongo los pantalones. I put on my pants. (Not “the pants.”)
Nos quitamos los zapatos al entrar en casa. We take off our shoes upon entering the house. (Not “the shoes.”)

The possessive pronoun is used only when the speaker is doing something to someone else’s clothing, which translates literally from English and poses no comprehension problem: Me pongo tu chaqueta, ¿está bien? (“I’m putting on your jacket, OK?”)

Vocabulario básico

Verbos:

acordarse (ue) (de)- to remember*
acostarse (ue)- to go to bed
bañarse- to take a bath, to bathe
caerse- to fall down
cepillarse (los dientes)- to brush (one’s teeth)
cortarse- to cut oneself
despertarse (ie)- to wake up
divertirse (ie)- to have a good time, to amuse oneself, to enjoy oneself
dormirse (ue)- to fall asleep
encontrarse (ue)- to be located, to be (ill or well), to find oneself (somewhere)**
irse- to go away
lastimarse- to get hurt, to hurt oneself
lavarse- to wash
levantarse- to get up
llamarse- to be called, to be named
llevarse- to carry away/ off
olvidarse (de)- to forget***
parecerse a- to resemble
perderse (ie)- to get (to become) lost
ponerse- to put on (clothing)
probarse (ue)- to try on (clothing)
quedar(se)- to stay, to be****
quitarse- to take off (clothing)
secarse- to dry (off)
sentarse (ie)- to sit down*****
sentirse (ie)- to feel*****
vestirse (i)- to get dressed

Sustantivos:

la cara- face
la cartera- wallet
el cinturón- belt
el collar- necklace (false friend)
la corbata- tie
los guantes- gloves
las medias- stockings
la moda- fashion, style
el nombre- name
el pie- foot
la ropa interior- underwear
el traje- suit
el traje de baño- bathing suit
las zapatillas- slippers

Adjetivo:

seco- dry

*Acordarse is followed by an untranslated de when an object follows: No me acuerdo de la fecha (“I don’t remember the date”).

**Encontrarse combines with the preposition con to mean “to run into” or “to meet accidentally or on purpose.” It does not mean “to meet” in the sense of “to make the acquaintance of.”

***Olvidar may be used with both the reflexive pronoun and the preposition de before an object, or both may be omitted, without changing the meaning: Olvido tu cumpleaños or Me olvido tu cumpleaños are identical in meaning (“I forget your birthday.”)

****Quedar may be used reflexively or not, without generally changing the meaning. Regional considerations make it difficult to be precise.

*****Be careful, as the forms of these two verbs are always similar (and, in the case of the first person singular of the present, identical). Their meaning, however, is always clear in context.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

6.2 Verbs Used Reflexively versus Non-Reflexively

Many of the verbs listed in section 6.1 may be used reflexively (with the reflexive pronoun) or non-reflexively (without the pronoun). The reflexive pronoun is used, logically, when one does the action to oneself. It is omitted when one does the action to someone else. Study the pairs below:

Me levanto. I get up.
Levanto a mi hija. I get my daughter up.
Ella se lava la cara. She washes her face.
Ella lava a los niños. She washes the children.
Me siento. I sit down.
Siento a los niños. I sit the children down.
Se viste. She gets dressed (dresses herself).
Viste a los actores. She dresses the actors.
Se corta. He/She/You cuts/cut himself/herself/yourself.
Corta el césped. He/She/You cuts/cut (mows/mow) the lawn.
Last revised on June 23, 2021.

6.3 Clarifying Ambiguity of Reflexive Pronouns

At times, when the subject and verb and plural, reflexive pronouns may be ambiguous out of context, as they may also carry the reciprocal meaning of “(to) each other”:

Nos despertamos. We wake (ourselves) up.

OR

We wake each other up.

Se engañan. They’re deceiving themselves.

OR

They’re deceiving each other.

When such ambiguity occurs, Spanish may use one of two prepositional phrases to differentiate one meaning from the other:

Nos despertamos a nosotros mismos.  We wake (ourselves) up.
Nos despertamos el uno al otro.  We wake each other up.
Se engañan a sí mismos.  They’re deceiving themselves.
Se engañan el uno al otro.  They’re deceiving each other.

If the two involved parties are women, the second construction shifts to la una a la otra. Likewise, if the parties are masculine plural or feminine plural, the construction becomes los unos a los otros or las unas a las otras, respectively.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

6.4 Subjective Use of Reflexive Pronouns

The Spanish reflexive pronoun is used in ways that it is not in English, in cases where it cannot be translated literally or at all, such as with the verb quejarse, (“to complain”), which in itself has no reflexive meaning:

Me quejo con el profesor. I complain to the teacher.

English expresses such subjectivity by other means or Spanish possesses a linguistic subtlety absent in English. You have seen such usages listed in section 6.1:

Reflexive non-reflexive
irse (to go away) versus ir (to go)
dormirse (to fall asleep) versus dormir (to sleep)
caerse (to fall down) versus caer (to fall)
llevarse (to carry away/off) versus llevar (to carry)

Although all but the most basic of these forms are difficult to use in speech by non-native speakers, they are very common, especially in speech but also in writing and should be recognized so that the reader can have a clear idea of their implication. As seen above, English can communicate this subjectivity by adding words such as “away,” “down,” and, as you will see below, “up,” among others. Notes the various ways, when it is possible in English, to communicate this subjectivity that corresponds to the inclusion of reflexive pronouns in Spanish with verbs that are not normally reflexive or otherwise used reflexively. Note in the examples below that the reflexive pronoun is inserted only when something is eaten or drunk in its entirety.

El se come todas las galletas. He eats up (devours) all the cookies.
Ella se toma toda la leche. She drinks up (down) all the milk.

Other times, the reflexive pronouns can only be translated parenthetically, or, in reading, intuitively, once you have grasped the basic concept. A verb with which to illustrate this is the verb morir (“to die”):

Spanish English Interpretation
El paciente murió en el hospital. The patient died in the hospital.  This is a statement of fact that might be made by someone with no personal connection to the patient.
Ella se murió. She passed away.  There is emotional involvement present. The speaker is affected by her death.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbo:

parecer- to seem

Sustantivos:

la boca- mouth
el brazo- arm (cognate- embrace)
el cabello- hair
la cabeza- head
el dedo- finger
el dedo del pie- toe
la espalda- back
el hombro- shoulder
el lavabo- sink
la mano- hand
la nariz- nose
el oído- inner ear
el ojo- eye
la oreja- outer ear
la pierna- leg

Expresión:

levantarse con el pie izquierdo- to get up on the wrong side of the bed

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

6.5 The Impersonal se

Spanish very frequently uses the reflexive pronoun se to render a sentence impersonal. This is a completely different usage from those presented in sections 6.1-6.4. One of the most common usages, with which you may be familiar, is Se habla español, which translates as “Spanish (is) spoken.” This construction is used so often because Spanish tends to avoid the passive voice. (See section 15.6.) In the impersonal se construction, the verb, always in the third-person singular singular or plural, agrees with the subject. Note that a form of “to be” is usually present in the English translation. 

Se habla inglés. English is spoken.
Se enseñan varias lenguas allí. Various languages are taught there.
Se venden carros usados. Used cars (are) sold.
Se dice que es buena persona. It’s said he’s a good person.

The impersonal se may also be translated as the subject pronoun “one,” or in colloquial English as “they” or “you”:

Se estudian muchos cursos aquí. One studies (They study) many courses here.
Se hablan varias lenguas en Suiza. They speak (One speaks) several languages in Switzerland.
Se trabaja mucho allí, ¿verdad? You work (One works) a lot there, right?

If the verb is already reflexive, uno/-a or una persona is added before the reflexive pronoun to render the sentence impersonal.

Uno se acuesta tarde en aquella casa. They go (One goes) to bed late in that house.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbo:

criar- to raise, to rear a child*

Sustantivos:

la bebida- beverage, drink
el cabo- cape
la cordillera- mountain range
los demás- the rest (the others)
el ejército- army
el ganado (vacuno)- cattle
la papa- potato

Adjetivos:

agrio- sour
mayor- greater (see section 7.2)
parecido- similar

Expresión:

hoy (en) día- nowadays

*Be sure to distinguish this verb from crear (to create) and creer (to believe).

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

6.6 The Imperfect Tense

The imperfect tense is one of two simple (versus compound) Spanish verb tenses to express past actions. –Ar verbs have one set of endings; -er and -ir verbs, another.

Estar Comer Vivir
yo estaba comía vivía
estabas comías  vivías
él, Ella, Ud. estaba comía vivía
Nosotros estábamos comíamos vivíamos
Vosotros estabáis comíais vivíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. estaban comían  vivían

The -aba endings stand out, as this is the only occasion in which a b appears in a Spanish verb ending in any tense (except the imperfect tense irregular forms of ir [see below]). The -ía endings appear in other tenses, but with a different stem. Here the infinitive endings are cut off before the new endings are added, unlike other tenses.

¡Ojo! Note in the above endings that the first person and third-person singular forms are identical. Context should always make the subject (I, he, she, you, it) clear.

The imperfect tense has three possible translations:

Ella leía. She read.

She used to read.

She was reading.

Note in the last two examples that the imperfect tense describes habitual actions in the past (“used to read”) as well as ongoing or in-process actions in the past (“was reading”). Given the context, one translation may be more appropriate than another translation, but rarely if ever is one translation versus another truly wrong.

In addition to habitual past and in-progress past actions, the imperfect tense is used to tell time, to give descriptions and to express mental states in the past.

Eran las dos. It was two o’clock.
Hacía viento. It was windy.
Tenía poco dinero. He had little money.
No queríamos ir. We didn’t want to go.

Only three verbs are irregular in the imperfect tense:

ser ir ver
yo era iba veía
eras ibas veías
él, Ella, Ud. era iba veía
Nosotros éramos íbamos veíamos
Vosotros erais ibais veíais
ellos, ellas, Uds. eran iban veían

The forms of ser and ir are unlike any Spanish verb endings and should be easily recognizable. (Ver is irregular only because it does not drop the e before adding its endings.)

Just as the present tense of ira + infinitive expresses what one is going to do in the future, the imperfect tense, followed by the same, expresses what one was going to do in the past:

Iban a comprar un sofá hoy, pero la mueblería estaba cerrada. They were going to buy a sofa today, but the furniture store was closed.

The above is one case in which the one-word translation, “went,” is not accurate. Nor does the translation “used to go” work here.

Vocabulario básico 

Verbos:

bajar (de)- to drop, to go down (to descend), to get off (public transportation)
había- there was, there were
incluir- to include
regatear- to bargain, to haggle
subir (a)- to go up (to ascend), to climb, to rise, to get on (public transportation)

Sustantivos:

las afueras- suburbs
la aldea- village
el almacén- department store
el centro comercial- shopping mall
la cita- date, appointment
el/la dios/-a- god/goddess
la fecha- date (of year)
la ganga- bargain (false friend)
los gemelos- twins
la guerra- war
la isla- island
la obra- work of literature, work of art
la paz- peace
el peligro- danger, peril
la reina- queen
el rey- king (los reyes- king and queen [occasionally, “kings”])
el suburbio- slum (false cognate); suburb (at times)
el terremoto- earthquake

Números cardinales:

cien(to)- one hundred
doscientos- two hundred
trescientos- three hundred
cuatrocientos- four hundred
quinientos- five hundred
seiscientos- six hundred
setecientos- seven hundred
ochocientos- eight hundred
novecientos- nine hundred
mil- one thousand
un millón (de)- one million

Números ordinales:

primero- first
segundo- second
tercero- third
cuarto- fourth*
quinto- fifth
sexto- sixth
séptimo- seventh
octavo- eighth
noveno- ninth
décimo- tenth

Adjetivos:

actual- present, current (false friend)
ambos- both
congelado- frozen, cold
demasiado- too many, too much
infeliz- unhappy
los/las dos- both
mejor- better
nublado- cloudy
peligroso- dangerous
sumiso- submissive
triste- sad

Adverbios:

(a)dentro- inside, indoors
(a)fuera- outside, outdoors
algo- somewhat
demasiado- too much, too
entonces- then
ya- already (now, later on)

Preposiciones:

(a)dentro de- inside of, within
(a)fuera de- outside of

Pronombre relativo (Relative Pronoun):

lo que- what, that which

Expresiones:

de todo- everything
en aquel/ese entonces- at that time
ya no- no longer

*Be careful to distinguish the ordinal number cuarto from the cardinal number cuatro. Remember also that, as a noun, cuarto means “room.” Context always clarifies the intended meaning.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.

6.7 Adverbs

Many Spanish adverbs, as you have already seen, are formed by adding the suffix -mente to the feminine form of the adjective.

Cristina habla rápidamente. Cristina speaks quickly.
Iban a comer inmediatamente. They were going to eat immediately.
Hacen el trabajo cuidadosamente. They do the work carefully.

As in English, many times the adverbs in -mente (corresponding to those in English -lyare avoided by the use of prepositional phrases.

por lo general generally, in general
por fin finally
con esperanza hopefully, with hope
sin duda doubtless(-ly), without a doubt
por suerte luckily, with luck
por desgracia unfortunately

When two or more adverbs ending in -mente are used together, the suffix is dropped on all but the last:

Milagros hablaba clara, rápida y precisamente. Milagros spoke clearly, quickly and precisely.

Especially in speech, in both Spanish and English the adjective form (masculine singular) in Spanish may be used instead of an adverb (Como rápido, I eat quick[ly]), though this is not an impediment to comprehension.

Last revised on June 16, 2021.