Reflexive Verbs

llamarse  to be named
 me llamo nos llamamos
te llamas  
se llama se llaman

A reflexive verb, or pronominal verb, is a verb that is accompanied by a reflexive pronoun. This verb construction is used when a person performs an action to or for him/herself. In other words, the subject of the verb and the direct object of the verb are the same person. It is important to note that reflexive verbs can sometimes be unintuitive for English speakers because they are not very common in English yet they are used quite a bit Spanish. So it is important to learn not just how to form reflexive verbs but also when to use them.

You have probably already seen the reflexive verb llamarse when you learned to introduce yourself in Spanish, as seen in the first example below. Another typical use of reflexive verbs is personal care and emotions, as seen in examples two and three.

Yo me llamo Dora y nací en McAllen, Texas.
My name is Dora and I was born in McAllen, Texas.
En la mañana te levantabas y te levantabas a bañarte al río.
In the morning you got up and you got up to bathe (yourself) in the river.
Cuando nos reunimos, es como que si estuviéramos en El Salvador. Todos nos ponemos felices, la bulla que hacemos, la cultura nunca se deja.
When we get together, it’s like we are in El Salvador. We all get so happy, the ruckus that we make, you never let go of your culture.

Formation

To conjugate reflexive verbs, the verb is conjugated according to the subject and the reflexive pronoun matches subject in person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd) and in number (singular or plural). In the example, levantabas is conjugated in the second person singular and te is also second person singular. Also note that reflexive verbs can appear as infinitive as well such as bañarte because the conjugated verb levantabas acts as an auxiliary verb

En la mañana te levantabas y te levantabas a bañarte al río.
In the morning you got up and you got up to bathe (yourself) in the river.

Pronoun Placement

There are two places where reflexive pronouns can be placed, as seen in the example above.

  1. Before a conjugated verb
  2. Attached to the end of the verb, ONLY IF the verb is not conjugated, such as infinitives or gerunds or if the verb is an affirmative informal command.

Uses

Reflexive Actions and Emotions

Reflexive verbs often express reflexive actions, that is, the subject performs the action on itself, like bañarse, to bathe, despertarse, to wake up, sentarse, to sit down or an emotional response to something, like enojarse, to get angry, alegrarse, to get happy, aburrirse, to become bored, enamorarse, to fall in love, calmarse, to calm down, preocuparse, to worry. These verbs can be used as 1) reflexive verbs or 2) non-reflexive verbs if the action is being done to someone other than the subject. Notice how in the first example, the verb preocupar is used reflexively, meaning someone worries about something. Whereas in the second example the verb preocupar is not reflexive, meaning that something worries someone. In this example, the direct object me is and the subject eso.

Nos preocupamos por lo que les pasa. Nos  preocupamos por qué les falta, por la salud de ellos, por el bienestar.
We worry about what happens to them. We worry about what they’re missing, about their health, about their well-being.
¿Nunca has estado enamorada? — Sí, una vez sí, creo. Pero ahorita eso está abajo de mi lista. Eso no me preocupa.
You’ve never been in love? Yes, once I think. But right now that’s on the bottom of my list. It does not worry me.

Meaning Changes

Some verbs, when in the regular or reflexive form, change their meaning as seen in the table below.

 Verb Used Reflexively Used Non-Reflexively
dormir to sleep to fall asleep
ir to go to go away, to leave
llamar to be named to call
llevar to carry to take away
negar to deny to refuse
probar to try, to taste to try on

Compare the difference in meaning between the reflexive verb llamarse and the regular verb llamar, to call in the examples below:

Yo me llamo Dora y nací en McAllen, Texas.
My name is Dora and I was born in McAllen, Texas.
Y mi papá llamó al vecino.
And my dad called my neighbor.

Reflexives Only

A few verbs can only be reflexive (burlarse, to make fun of, quejarse, to complain, arrepentirse, to regretatreverseto dare, equivocarse, to make a mistakedarse cuenta de, to realize, etc.). These often do not even to describe a reflexive action, it is just the grammatical form they take.

No me daba cuenta de los peligros.
was not aware of the dangers.
Sí, me arrepiento de algo y lo recuerdo de una manera muy triste.
Yes, I regret something and I remember that in a very sad way.

To Get

Many times the English translation will use the verb get instead of using a reflexive construction. See in the following examples how the English translation does not uses a reflexive verb where Spanish does.

Me metí a bañarme y pues acabé de bañarme, pero empecé a marearme muy feo y entonces me arrastré hacia la puerta.
got in to take a bath and I finished bathing but I started to get really dizzy and then I dragged myself to the door.

With Body Parts

Unlike English, when reflexive verbs are used with parts of the body, they take the definite article (el, la, los, las) rather than a possessive determiner as in English:

Cuando en la primaria me desmayé y me descalabré la cabeza.
When I was in elementary school I fainted and hurt my head.

Me lavo las manos con jabón todos los días.
I wash my hands with soap every day.