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The Reflexive Construction
  • The reflexive construction entails a verb form with a reflexive pronoun that matches it in person and number.
  • The principal meaning of reflexive verbs is that of a subject acting on itself: John criticizes himself, We see ourselves, etc. However, in Spanish the reflexive construction is used far more broadly. See examples below.
  • The reflexive pronoun is always placed right before or after its verb or an associated verb form (placement rules).
  • A great many verbs can be used both reflexively and non-reflexively. Some change their meaning when used reflexively. A few appear only reflexively.
Non-Reflexive vs. Reflexive Constructions
lavar lavarse
  lavo lavamos me lavo nos lavamos  
  lavas laváis te lavas os laváis  
  lava lavan se lava se lavan  
  • Lavo la ropa.
    • I wash the clothes.
  • Julia quiere lavar el coche.
    • Julia wants to wash the car.
  • Está lavándolo ahora.
    • She's washing it now.
  • Me lavo después de trabajar.
    • I wash (myself) after working.
  • Debes lavarte las manos.
    • You should wash your hands.
  • Estamos lavándonos los pies.
    • We are washing our feet.
USES OF THE REFLEXIVE
  • True Reflexive: Used to describe actions in which subject acts on itself. English uses reflexive (verb + ___self/___selves); only for some of them. (see translations below). These include change of emotion, injury, personal hygiene:
    • Jorge se critica mucho. Jorge criticizes himself a lot.
    • Siempre me quemo cuando uso el horno. I always burn myself when I use the oven.
    • ¿Nos sentamos aquí? Shall we sit ("seat ourselves") here?
    • Tomás, no te comas las uñas. Thomas, don't chew your fingernails.
    • Me aburro (me pongo aburrido) durante sus largos discursos. I get bored during his long speeches.
    • Te alegras de que ellos no vengan, ¿no? You're glad they're not coming, aren't you?
  • Reciprocal: Occurring only in the plural, describes actions in which persons or others act on each other; confusion with a reflexive meaning can be eliminated with clarifying phrases*:
    • Raquel y Ana se ayudan (*la una a la otra) todos los días. Raquel y Ana help each other every day.
    • Mis colegas y yo nos criticamos (*los unos a los otros), pero también nos criticamos *a nosotros mismos. My colleagues and I criticize each other, but we also criticize ourselves.
  • Changes in Meaning: Some verbs change meaning when used reflexively; examples:
    • dormir (sleep); dormirse (fall asleep)
    • quedar (be located; have left); quedarse (stay)
    • reír (laugh); reírse (de) (laugh (at))
    • volver (go back); volverse (turn around)
  • Reflexive only: A few verbs occur only in reflexive form, but are not reflexive in meaning:
    • atreverse (dare (have the courage) to)
      • No me atrevo a escalar esa montaña.
    • jactarse (de) (brag)
      • No debes jactarte de tus notas.
    • quejarse (de) (complain)
      • Mi trabajo es muy interesante; no me puedo quejar de nada.
REFLEXIVE (R) AND NON-REFLEXIVE (NR) COMPARED
Many verbs, while retaining their meaning, are used both reflexively and non-reflexively. In non-reflexive use, person(s) or thing(s) receiving the action may be a direct object (DO) or an indirect object (IO).
  • Ana se pone (R) nerviosa durante un examen. Ella tiene un examen hoy, y no quiero ponerla (NR-DO) nerviosa. Ana gets nervous during an exam. She has an exam today, and I don't want to make her nervous.
  • Mónica está cansada y quiere acostarse, pero primero tiene que acostar a su hija (NR-DO). Mónica is tired and wants to go to bed, but first she has to put her daughter to bed.
  • Mariana va a lavarse (R) el pelo, y después va a lavarle (NR-IO) el pelo a Marta. Mariana is going to wash her hair, and then she's going to wash Marta 's hair.
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