Reflexive pronouns are used with verbs to talk about actions like “l wash myself,” in which the person doing and receiving the action is the same. Certain verbs in Spanish like lavar (to wash) or llamar (to call) can become reflexive by adding reflexive pronouns: lavarse (to wash oneself) or llamarse (to call oneself). In this post, we will go over what reflexive pronouns are and how to use them with verbs. Ready? Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
What do reflexive pronouns do?
Reflexive pronouns accompany verbs to indicate that the action done by the subject is acting on itself. Let’s compare the following examples:
Me peino. I comb (my hair) myself.
Peino a mi hija. I comb my daughter’s hair.
In the first example, the reflexive pronoun me indicates that I’m combing my own hair — meaning that I’m performing the action on myself. In the second example, without the pronoun, I’m combing someone else’s hair, so the action is not reflexive because I’m not doing it to myself. When a verb is used with a reflexive pronoun, they are called reflexive verbs.
There are two important things you need to remember about reflexive verbs:
1) Whoever does the action (the subject) and whoever receives the action (the object) are the same, that is, they refer to the same person:
Yo me miro en el espejo.
I look at myself in the mirror.
2) When verbs are used as reflexives, they always go with a reflexive pronoun. This reflexive pronoun indicates the object — which is the same as the subject!
⤷TIP Think about the word reflexive as “reflection.” What do you see when you look in the mirror? Yourself!
What are the Spanish reflexive pronouns?
When verbs are used as reflexives, they always go with a reflexive pronoun. These are the Spanish reflexive pronouns:
|Subject pronoun||Reflexive pronouns||Example|
|yo||me||Yo me lavo. I wash myself.|
|tú||te||Tú te lavas. You wash yourself.|
|él, ella, usted||se||Él se lava. He washes himself.|
|nosotros, nosotras||nos||Nosotras nos lavamos. We wash ourselves.|
|*vosotros, vosotras||os||Vosotros os laváis. You wash yourselves.|
|ellos, ellas, ustedes||se||Ellas se lavan. They wash themselves.|
* vosotros/vosotras pronoun os is only used in Spain.
Now, let’s go over how to use them with verbs.
One trick that works for my students is that when we use reflexive verbs, the ending of the verb and the reflexive pronoun always match the same person. Let’s look at some examples:
me peino I comb (my hair)
⤷ yo ⤶
te peinas you comb (your hair)
⤷ tú ⤶
Take a look at the first example above. We see that the subject is yo (I), because the verb is conjugated in the first person singular yo = peino (I comb), and the verb must agree with the subject. In addition, the reflexive pronoun must correspond to the same person as the subject. If we take a look at the table above, we see that the reflexive pronoun corresponding to yo (I) is me. Notice that the reflexive pronoun is placed before the verb. Now observe the second example, where tú (you) is the subject. In this case, the verb is conjugated as peinas (you comb) and the reflexive pronoun is te.
For a refresher on Spanish subject pronouns, look no further and check out our post!
Placement of pronouns
As we have seen, reflexive pronouns are placed before the verb. This is the case in affirmative and negative sentences, but with infinitives, positive commands, compound constructions, or after prepositions, the order varies. Take a look at the following chart to see where the pronoun is placed:
|Before the |
|Affirmative sentences||Yo me lavo. I wash myself.|
||Yo no me lavo. I don’t wash myself.|
¡No te levantes! Don’t get up!
|After the verb||Positive Commands||¡Levantate! Get up!|
(verbs ending in -ar, -er, -ir)
to wash oneself
Compré gel para lavarme.
I bought shower gel to wash myself.
|Before or |
after the verb
|Compound constructions |
(those that have two verbs)
Me tengo que lavar la manos.
I have to wash my hands.
Tengo que lavarme las manos.
I have to wash my hands.
Me estoy levantando. /
I’m getting up.
When a reflexive verb is in the infinitive form, the default pronoun is se and it’s attached to the infinitive: acostarse (to lay down), ponerse (to put on yourself), dormirse (to fall asleep).
Infinitives can be used after a helping verb or after a preposition. In these cases, the reflexive verb will remain in the infinitive, but the reflexive pronoun will agree with the subject.
(Nosotros) debemos levantarnos más temprano.
We need to wake (ourselves) up earlier.
(Tú) compraste una navaja nueva para afeitarte.
You bought a new razor to shave yourself.
Reflexive or non-reflexive?
As we mentioned above, reflexive pronouns are used to indicate that the subject and the object of the action refer to the same person. This not only applies to the person itself, but also to their body parts, or in some cases, something the subject has, carries, or wears.
For example, the action can fall on:
|The subject||A body part of the subject||Something the subject wears|
|Ana se lava.|
Ana washes herself.
|Ana se lava el pelo.|
Ana washes her hair.
|Ana se pone un sombrero.|
Ana puts on a hat.
In English, we use the possessives when we want to indicate that the action falls on a body part of the subject. In Spanish, we don’t use possessives because the reflexive already tells us the “owner” of the body part/item. So, instead of possessive adjectives, we use definite articles.
I washed my hair. → Me lavé
mi el pelo.
For more on this, check out how to use definite articles in Spanish.
Some verbs, like lavar (to wash), can be used as a reflexive verb or as a non-reflexive verb. For instance, you can wash your hands (reflexive pronoun) or you can wash something else, like the dishes (no reflexive pronoun).
Reflexive → Te lavas las manos. You wash your hands.
Not reflexive → Lavas los platos. You wash the dishes.
Remember that if you want to use a verb as a reflexive, then you always need to use the reflexive pronoun and it has to match the subject. This is particularly important when distinguishing between sentences with other types of pronouns. Allow me to explain.
Notice the following two examples with the verb acostar (to lay down/go to bed).
Yo me acuesto.I go to bed.
Yo los acuesto.I put them to bed.
In both examples, the subject is yo (I). Notice that both have a pronoun, but in the first example, the verb is reflexive and the object being put to bed is me (myself). In the second example, the object is los (them) and it has to refer to other people such as “the kids.” So in this case, we are using a direct object pronoun and not a reflexive one!
If you want to go over the uses of Spanish direct object pronouns, take a look at our post!
Notice that direct/indirect object pronouns and the reflexive pronouns me, te, nos, and os look exactly the same. So, lucky for you, there are less cases to remember! However, don’t forget that the third-person reflexive pronoun for both singular and plural is se and this one does look different than the direct (lo/la/los/las) and indirect (le/les) object pronouns.
Reflexive pronouns are very frequent in Spanish, and they have a few more uses. Let’s go over them next!
We can express reciprocal actions using reciprocal pronouns, which are the same as the reflexive pronouns. That is, we can express what two or more people do to each other in a reciprocal way.
Los perritos se abrazan.
The doggies hug each other.
Juan y María se escriben.
Juan and María write to each other.
De niños, mi hermano y yo nos peleábamos por los juguetes.
When we were kids, my brother and I would fight over toys.
Notice that in English in most cases we use “each other,” whereas in Spanish we only need the reciprocal pronoun!
In order to express reciprocity, we always use the plural reflexive pronouns nos for nosotros (we), os for vosotros (you all), and se for ellos, ellas, ustedes (they, you all) because we need at least two people in order to express the reciprocal idea.
Reflexives to emphasize completion
Sometimes, we use a reflexive pronoun to express that something has been done thoroughly or completely. With verbs of consumption like beber/tomar (to drink) and comer (to eat), the reflexive implies that the beverage or food was consumed completely.
Me bebí el jugo.
I drank up the juice.
This same idea applies to other verbs like aprenderse (to learn by heart) and saberse (to know by heart, to memorize).
Martha se aprendió la tabla periódica antes del examen.
Martha learned the periodic table by heart before the exam.
¡Ya me sé tu número de teléfono!
I have memorized your phone number!
Verbs that change meaning
Finally, some verbs have a very different meaning when used with a reflexive pronoun. Let’s check them out!
|No reflexive pronoun||With reflexive pronoun|
|llevar (to take, carry)|
Llevamos los libros a la biblioteca.
We take the books to the library.
|llevarse bien/mal (to get along)|
Mis amigos y yo nos llevamos muy bien.
My friends and I get along well.
|parecer (to seem)|
Parece que va a llover.
It seems like it’s going to rain.
|parecerse (to look alike)|
Me parezco a mi papá.
I look like my father.
|meter (to insert, put in)|
Metí el dinero en la billetera.
I put the money in the wallet.
|meterse con (to mess with)|
No te metas con mi hermanita.
Don’t mess with my little sister.
|marchar (to march)|
Los soldados marcharon en el desfile.
The soldiers marched in the parade.
|marcharse (to leave)|
Nos marchamos temprano.
We left early.
|despedir (to let go)|
El gerente despidió a Carlos la semana pasada.
The manager let go of Carlos last week.
|despedirse (to say goodbye)|
Me despedí de mis padres al salir de casa.
I said goodbye to my parents before leaving the house.
|poner (to put, place)|
Pon el libro sobre la mesa.
Place the book on the table.
|ponerse (to put on, to become)|
Me puse la mochila.
I put on the backpack.
Me puse nervioso.
I became anxious.
|quedar (to be left, to agree on something, to fit)|
Le quedan 200 dólares en el banco.
He has 200 dollars left in the bank.
Quedamos de vernos en el parque.
We agreed to meet in the park.
Al niño le queda grande el suéter.
The sweater is big on the child.
|quedarse (to stay, to remain, to become)|
Nos quedamos en un hotel de lujo.
We stayed in a luxury hotel.
Me quedé muy enojada después de la charla.
I was very angry after the talk.
To learn more about the difference between verbs ponerse and quedarse, check out our post on Spanish verbs of becoming!
To sum up
In this post, we saw that reflexive pronouns are used to express an action that falls on the subject, on a body part of the subject, or on something that the subject wears or carries. In order to do so, the reflexive pronoun has to match the subject of the sentence. We also saw that reflexive pronouns can be placed before or after the verb depending on the type of phrase.
We also discussed how these pronouns can be used to express reciprocity or to emphasize completion. Finally, we went over verbs that change meaning when paired with a reflexive pronoun.
Do you want to practice? Try out this Spanish exercise we created for you! Enjoy!