Spanish Reflexive Verbs

Understanding Spanish Reflexive verbs is essential to being able to communicate properly in Spanish.

By the end of this post you should:

  • understand what a Spanish reflexive verb is
  • know the differences between reflexive verbs and non-reflexive verbs in Spanish
  • understand the difference between a non-reflexive and a reflexive verb

We will such in particular look at the difference between lavar and lavarse as well as llamar and llamarse.

What is a reflexive verb?

First of all it is important to know what a reflexive verb is. A nice summary is as follows:

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.

Lavar (to wash) v Lavarse (to wash oneself)

Let’s firstly look at a non-reflexive verb, ‘lavar’ which literally means to ‘to wash’. It is a normal ‘ar’ verb and has normal ‘ar’ verb endings:

  • Lavo = I wash
  • Lavas = You wash (speaking to one friend/one child)
  • Lava = He/She/It washes + You wash (speaking to one stranger)
  • Lavamos = We wash
  • Laváis = You wash (speaking to 2(+) friends/2(+) children)
  • Lavan = They wash + You wash (speaking to 2(+) strangers)

The above verb is fine by itself for when a person wants to say that they wash something else, for example:

  • ‘Lavo el coche’ = ‘I wash the car’.

The alternative ‘lavarse‘ literally translates as ‘to wash oneself‘ (i.e. to have a wash) and in the present tense is as follows:

  • Me lavo = I wash myself
  • Te lavas= You wash yourself (talking to one friend/one child)
  • Se lava = He washes himself/She washes herself/(It washes itself) + You wash yourself (talking to one stranger)
  • Nos lavamos = We wash ourselves
  • Os laváis = You wash yourselves (talking to 2(+) friends/2(+) children)
  • Se lavan = They wash themselves + You wash yourselves (talking to 2(+) strangers)

You would use ‘lavarse’ when you want to say that someone is having a wash, etc.

If you compare ‘lavar’ with ‘lavarse’, you will see that the verb endings are the same for both. The reason for this is ‘lavar’ is the verb part of ‘lavarse’.

Sometimes people ask me why there are so the different versions of the word yourself/yourselves in Spanish. The reason for this is there are four different words for ‘you’ in Spanish. It follows therefore that there are different words for yourself/yourselves depending on the formality, etc. Essentially:

  • Te is ‘yourself’ when speaking to, say, one friend
  • Os is ‘yourselves’ when speaking to more than one friend
  • Se is ‘yourself’ or ‘yourselves’ when speaking formally, whether to one person or more than one person

So what is the difference between lavar and lavarse?

Essentially the difference is:

  • Lavar is non-reflexive and is used to say that someone washes something
  • Lavarse is reflexive and is used to say that someone is having a wash

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

Llamar (to call) v Llamarse (to call oneself)

Another example of a reflexive verb is ‘llamarse’. The ‘llamar’ part means ‘to call’, so can be used, for example, in the sense of ‘to phone’:

  • llamo = I call
  • llamas = You call (speaking to one friend/one child)
  • llama = He/She/It calls + You call (speaking to one stranger)
  • llamamos = We call
  • llamáis = You call (speaking to 2(+) friends/2(+) children)
  • llaman = They call + You call (speaking to 2(+) strangers)

The reflexive form ‘llamarse’ however means ‘to call oneself’ and is used to ask/tell what someone’s name is and is shown as follows:

  • Me llamo = I call myself (i.e. ‘My name is….’)
  • Te llamas = You call yourself (one friend/one child) (i.e. ‘Your name is….’)
  • Se llama = He calls himself/She calls herself/(It calls itself) (i.e. ‘His/Her/Its name is….’) + You call yourself (one stranger) (i.e. ‘Your name is….’)
  • Nos llamamos = We call ourselves (i.e. ‘Our names are….’)
  • Os llamáis = You call yourselves (2(+) friends/2(+) children) (i.e. ‘Your names are….’)
  • Se llaman = They call themselves (i.e. ‘Their names are….’) + You call yourselves (2(+) strangers) (i.e. ‘Your names are….’)

Again you will see the only difference between the non-reflexive verb (llamar = to call) and the reflexive verb (llamarse = to call oneself) is you simply need to add an extra word before the verb to show who the action is being done to (i.e. ‘me’, ‘te’, se’, etc). The same applies for all reflexive verbs.

What about reflexive verbs in other tenses?

With reflexive verbs (e.g. lavarse – to wash oneself) you do exactly the same as non-reflexive verbs, but add ‘me’ (myself), ‘te’ (yourself), etc. in front of the verb no matter which tense you use.

To illustrate this, let’s compare lavar and lavarse in the conditional tense. Firstly here is lavar in the conditional tense:

  • Lavaría = I would wash
  • Lavarías = You would wash (speaking to 1 friend)
  • Lavaría = He would wash/She would wash + You would wash (speaking to 1 stranger)
  • Lavaríamos = We would wash
  • Lavaríais = You would wash (speaking to 2(+) friends)
  • Lavarían = They would wash + You would wash (speaking to 2(+) strangers)

Now let’s look at lavarse in the conditional tense:

  • Me lavaría = I would wash myself
  • Te lavarías = You would wash yourself (speaking to 1 friend)
  • Se lavaría = He would wash himself/She would wash herself + You would wash yourself (speaking to 1 stranger)
  • Nos lavaríamos = We would wash ourselves
  • Os lavaríais = You would wash yourselves (speaking to 2(+) friends)
  • Se lavarían = They would wash themselves + You would wash yourselves (speaking to 2(+) strangers)

Again the only difference between the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version is the additional of me, te, se, etc.

The conditional tense was just used as an example, but the same applies for all other tenses.

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 either put the reflexive pronoun (i.e. me, te, se, etc.) in front of the first verb or you can put it at the end of the infinitive, for example:

(Yo)Quiero lavarme
(Literally: I want to wash myself)
= Me quiero lavar
(Literally: Myself I want to wash)
(Tú*)Quieres lavarte
(Literally: You want to wash yourself)
= Te quieres lavar
(Literally: = Yourself you want to wash)
Quiere lavarse
(Literally: He/She wants to wash himself/herself
+ You want to wash yourself)
= Se quiere lavar
(Himself/Herself he/she wants to wash
+ Yourself you want to wash)
(Nosotros/as)Queremos lavarnos
(Literally: We want to wash ourselves)
= Nos queremos lavar
(Literally: Ourselves we want to wash)
(Vosotros/as***)Queréis lavaros
(Literally: You want to wash yourselves)
= Os queréis lavar
(Literally: Yourselves you want to wash)
Quieren lavarse
(Literally: They want to wash themselves
+ You want to wash yourselves)
= Se quieren lavar
(Literally: Themselves they want to wash
+ Yourselves you want to wash)

* The tú form is the informal and singular ‘you’ (e.g. talking to a friend).

** The ‘usted’ form is the formal and singular ‘you’ (i.e. talking to a stranger).

*** The ‘vosotros/as’ is the plural informal version of ‘you’ (talking to 2(+) friends)

**** The ‘ustedes’ form is the plural formal version of ‘you’ (e.g. talking to 2(+) strangers formally).

Do all Spanish verbs have a reflexive version?

No, the vast majority of Spanish 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 language.

Remember that:

  • All reflexive verbs have a non-reflexive version, but most non-reflexive verbs do not have a reflexive.
  • For example, despertarse (to wake (oneself) up) has the non-reflexive version of despertar (to wake (someone else) up), but comer (to eat) does not have a reflexive version.

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:

  • ‘Lavar’ means ‘to wash (something)’ and ‘Lavarse’ means ‘to wash oneself’ (i.e. to have a wash)
  • ‘Llamar’ means ‘to call’ and ‘llamarse’ means ‘to call oneself’

One key tip is whenever you came across a new reflexive verb, learn the reflexive version and the non-reflexive verb at the same time. If, for example, you came across ‘alegrarse’ and looked it up in a dictionary you would likely see a definition of ‘to be happy’ (or similar). Looking up ‘alegrar’ you would see ‘to make happy’ (or similar).

You could logically therefore learn this verb as:

  • ‘Alegrar’ as ‘to make happy’ = non-reflexive version of the verb
  • ‘Alegrarse’ as ‘to make oneself happy’/’to be happy’ = reflexive version of the verb

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

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