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The Complicated World of Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

The use of reflexive verbs in Spanish can be very challenging for English speakers. A verb is used reflexively when the subject of the verb is also its object. In other words, when the subject is acting on itself.

 

Of course, English also uses reflexive verbs. However, while English makes use of expressions like "to himself," "to herself," etc., Spanish uses reflexive pronouns. Let's compare the use of reflexive verbs in Spanish and English in the following examples:

 

Es que con su electricidad se defiende.

The thing is that with her electricity, she defends herself.

Caption 22, Guillermina y Candelario - Un pez mágico

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One of the most challenging aspects of the use of reflexive verbs in Spanish is the different ways in which reflexive pronouns and verbs are combined. You can use the pronoun as in the first example: ella se defiende (she defends herself), but adding the reflexive pronoun as a suffix to the verb is also correct (though kind of poetic), ella defiéndese (she defends herself). 

 

Here's another example that even combines two reflexive verbs in such a way:

 

Ella está dedicándose a relajarse pintando.

She's dedicating herself to relaxing [herself] by painting.

Caption 21, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos - Part 13

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And there is even a different way to express the exact same idea: 

Ella se está dedicando relajarse pintando

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It's also very common to use more than one verb in reflexive expressions in Spanish. Usually one verb is conjugated and the other one is an infinitive. Here is an example that combines the verbs saber (to know) and cuidar (to take care):

 

No le teme a nada, él se sabe cuidar

He's not afraid of anything, he knows how to take care of himself

Caption 42, Alberto Barros - Mano a mano

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There is another way to express the same idea. Can you guess it now? Let's take a look:

él sabe cuidarse.

 

Remember we said that Spanish uses reflexive pronouns while English uses expressions such as "to himself," "to herself," etc.? Well, that doesn't mean that Spanish doesn't have similar expressions. Let's see what those expressions are:

 

- mí mismo (myself) 

- sí misma (herself)

- sí mismo (himself, itself)

- sí mismos (themselves), and 

- nosotros mismos (ourselves) 

 

It may seem repetitive, but it's correct and very common to use them altogether with reflexive pronouns and verbs:

 

De crecer, de vivir, de ver, de realizarse a sí mismos.

To grow, to live, to make themselves [to come into their own].

Captions 14-15, Horno San Onofre - La Historia de la Pastelería

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Another confusing aspect of reflexive verbs in Spanish is that they are not always used in the same situations in English. A classic example is the use of the reflexive bañarse to describe the action of taking a bath. You wouldn't normally say "I'm bathing myself" in English, but rather "I'm bathing" or "I'm taking a bath." Or take, for example, the verb arrepentir[se]:

 

Quisiera arrepentirme, ser el mismo, y no decirte eso

I would like to repent, to be the same, and to not tell you that

Caption 19, Camila - Aléjate de mi

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Sometimes things get even more confusing. Expressions like la sopa se quema or el plato se rompió (literally "the soup burns itself" and "the dish broke itself") don't seem to make much sense, right? How can inanimate objects act on themselves? However, these expressions are correct in Spanish, and they are commonly used as some kind of passive voice. That's how they usually translate to English:

 

...pero no muy oscuro porque si no, se quema la arepa.

...but not very dark because if not, the arepa gets burned.

Caption 41, Dany - Arepas - Part 2

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To end this lesson we want to share with you a Spanish saying that uses reflexive verbs. It may come in handy if you are thinking reflexive Spanish verbs are way too confusing. It goes like this: 

 

No te preocupes, mejor ocúpate (Don't worry yourself, it's better to occupy yourself).

 

We hope you enjoyed this lesson about reflexive verbs in Spanish and please send us your comments and suggestions.

 

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