German Reflexive Verbs

This page explains German reflexive verbs, what they are and how to use them.

What is a reflexive verb?

A reflexive verb is a verb where the person doing the action is also the recipient of the action. An example of a sentence using a reflexive verb in English could be ‘I wash myself’. The reason for it being reflexive is the person doing the washing is also the person doing the action.

Saying things like ‘I wash myself’ may sound slightly strange in English, but does not sound at all strange in German. In fact, reflexive verbs are commonly used in German.

How to know if my verb is reflexive?

Your dictionary will tell you. Let’s work through an example together using a dictionary.

1. Please visit this page from the Collins Online English – German dictionary for the word ‘wash’.

2. Ensure you look at the verb section of this page, ignoring the noun section towards the top of the page.

Essentially the versions with ‘sich’ in front (e.g. sich waschen) are reflexive whereas the versions which do not have ‘sich’ in front (e.g. waschen) are not reflexive.

Let’s now do the same activity for the word ‘eat’ as follows:

1. Now visit this page from the Collins English – German dictionary for the word ‘eat’.

2. You will see that for the main German verb for ‘eat’ is ‘essen’*. This is not reflexive, as there is no ‘sich’ in front of ‘essen’.

* Note: Fressen is used more for animals eating

To summarise:

  • Your dictionary tells you whether a new verb is reflexive or not by putting (or not putting) ‘sich’ in front of the verb.
  • On a side note, textbooks, etc. will do the same thing when they give you lists of verbs to learn

Example of a German reflexive verb

Reflexive pronouns are used with reflexive verbs (e.g. sich waschen = to wash oneself), so by way of example:

  • ich wasche mich = I wash myself
  • du wäschst dich = You wash yourself (informal & singular ‘you’)
  • er wäscht sich = He washes himself
  • sie wäscht sich = She washes herself
  • es wäscht sich = It washes itself
  • wir waschen uns = We wash ourselves
  • ihr wascht euch = You wash yourselves (informal & plural ‘you’)
  • sie waschen sich = They wash themselves
  • Sie waschen sich = You wash yourself/yourselves (formal ‘you’)

You would use the above verb to say that someone is having a wash.

Let’s compare this with the non-reflexive version of the verb ‘waschen’ (to wash):

  • ich wasche = I wash
  • du wäschst = You wash (informal & singular)
  • er wäscht = He washes
  • sie wäscht = She washes
  • es wäscht = It washes
  • wir waschen = We wash
  • ihr wascht = You wash (informal & plural)
  • sie waschen = They wash
  • Sie waschen = You wash (formal)

By contrast, this verb would be used to say that you are washing something else.

If you compare ‘sich waschen’ with ‘waschen’, you will see that the verb endings are the same for both versions. The reason for this is ‘waschen’ is the verb for ‘sich waschen’.

All that has happened is that for the reflexive version we need to add an extra word (‘mich’ (myself), ‘dich’ (yourself), etc.) to show that the person is doing the action to themselves.

What about reflexive verbs in other tenses?

With reflexive verbs you do exactly the same as non-reflexive verbs, but add ‘mich’ (myself), ‘dich’ (yourself), etc. immediately after the verb no matter which tense you use.

To illustrate this, let’s compare waschen and sich waschen in various tenses:

  • Ich waschte = I washed
  • Ich waschte mich = I washed myself (i.e. I had a wash)
  • Du hast gewaschen = You (have) washed
  • Du hast mich gewaschen = You (have) washed myself (i.e. You had a wash)
  • Er wird waschen = He will wash
  • Er wird sich waschen = He will wash himself (i.e. He will have a wash)

Again the only difference between the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version is the additional of mich, dich, sich, etc.

Where do I put the reflexive pronoun when I use a verb plus infinitive structure?

If this section causes confusion, do skip it, but what we are talking about here are situations such as when you put one verb after another.

Essentially in this situation, you normally put the reflexive pronoun (i.e. mich, dich, sich, etc.) after the first verb, for example:

  • Ich will mich waschen = I want to wash myself (i.e. I want to have a wash)

How to say ‘each other’ in German

Related to reflexive verbs, be careful in German when you want to say “each other” using a reflexive verb. Some examples are as follows:

  • Wir kennen uns = We know each other (lit. We know ourselves)
  • Sie kennen sich = They know each other (lit. They know themselves)
  • Wir treffen uns = We’re meeting (each other) (lit. We meet ourselves)
  • Sie treffen sich = They’re meeting (each other) (lit. They meet themselves)

Reflexive pronouns are only used with reflexive pronouns when the person is doing something to himself/herself.

Do all German verbs have a reflexive version?

Most German verbs are not reflexive and have no reflexive version. Reflexive verbs in fact only represent a small (but significant) number of the total number of verbs used in the German language.

Remember that:

  • All reflexive verbs have a non-reflexive version, but most non-reflexive verbs do not have a reflexive version.
  • For example, essen (to eat) does not have a reflexive version.

Reflexive Pronouns are replaced with Dative Pronouns in some circumstances

When you are using a reflexive verb and there is a second object in the sentence, the object is in the accusative case and dative pronouns are used instead of the reflexive pronouns.

An example of this is:

  • Ich putze mir die Zähne = I brush my teeth (lit. I brush to me the teeth)

The dative pronouns are as follows:

  • mir = (to) me
  • dir = (to) you (speaking to 1 friend)
  • ihm = (to) him
  • ihr = (to) her
  • ihm = (to) it
  • uns = (to) us
  • euch = (to) you (speaking to 2(+) friends)
  • ihnen = (to) them
  • Ihnen = (to) you (speaking formally)

Handy Tips for understanding how to use reflexive verbs

Sometimes, it may not always seem logical or clear why a reflexive verb is reflexive. There is however (almost) always a logical reason why.

To be able to use the language and reflexive verbs effectively, whenever you want to learn a new reflexive verb, always also learn the meaning of the non-reflexive verbs.

In this way you know what you are literally saying when you speak and understand when to use the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version.

So far you know:

  • ‘Waschen’ means ‘to wash’ (i.e. to wash something)
  • ‘Sich waschen’ means ‘to wash oneself’ (i.e. to have a wash)

By knowing this, you know when to use the reflexive version and when to use the non-reflexive version.

One key tip is whenever you come across a new reflexive verb, learn the reflexive version and the non-reflexive verb at the same time.

Learning the meaning of the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version allows you to know which to use when with confidence.

If you need more help, feel free to get in contact

Feel free to get in contact with any questions you have about German reflexive verbs or if you wish to book German tuition with me.

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