Mastering the Spanish Reflexive Verbs: The Family Edition

July 9, 2017
<p>Do you find the verbs in this conversation confusing?</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡Qué calor! Así no <strong>se puede</strong> estudiar. Voy a <strong>darme</strong> un paseo por la playa y sigo en la biblioteca, que allí por lo menos tienen aire acondicionado.</span><br><span class="en">"It's so hot! It's impossible to study like this. I'm going for a walk on the beach and I'll continue (studying) at the library. At least there they have air conditioning."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Te vas</strong> ya? Si <strong>me esperas</strong> cinco minutos, voy contigo.</span><br><span class="en">"Are you leaving right now? If you can wait five minutes (for me), I'll go with you."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Venga. Termina y mientras aprovecho para <strong>darme</strong> una ducha.</span><br><span class="en">"Cool. Finish what you're doing and I'll go take a shower".</span></p></div><p>Since they're accompanied by reflexive pronouns (<span class="sp"><strong>me te se nos os</strong></span>), it's common to think that they must all be <strong>reflexive verbs</strong>, but "I'm going to give myself a walk" makes no sense, and neither does "Are you leaving yourself right now?" So, what's the deal?</p><p>The secret to making sense of these verbs is to realize that <strong>they belong to different families</strong>, each with its own hopes and dreams:</p><ol><li><a href="#object_pronouns">Verbs with an object pronoun</a></li><li><a href="#impersonal">Impersonal verbs</a></li><li><a href="#emphasized">Emphasized verbs</a></li><li><a href="#pronominal_twins">Verbs with pronominal twins</a></li></ol><p>So, instead of lumping them all as reflexive verbs, let's look at each family in turn. Once you understand what makes them tick, it's much easier to spot their members.</p><!-- --><h2><a name="object_pronouns"></a>1. Verbs with an object pronoun</h2><p>This family is the most common, so think of it as <strong>your default</strong>. If you see a verb accompanied by <span class="sp"><strong>lo, la, los, las, le, les</strong></span>, you can confident that it belongs here (since it has an object pronoun).</p><p>However, if the verb is accompanied by <span class="sp"><strong>me, te, se, nos, os</strong></span>, it could belong to a different family instead, so before you can be sure you'll have to do a mental check to see if it's a direct or an indirect object.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><strong>Dale</strong> la mano a tu hermano y <strong>esperadme</strong> aquí.</span><br><span class="en">Hold your brother's hand and wait for me here.</span></p></div><p>As we saw in the <a href="">prequel to this article</a>, <span class="sp">le</span> is an indirect object pronoun, so we can be confident that the usage of <span class="sp">dar</span> in this sentence belongs to this family.</p><p>Let's apply the <strong>plug test</strong> to the <span class="sp">me</span> that accompanies <span class="sp">esperar</span>. Does this sentence make sense? "<span class="sp">De todas las cosas que podrías esperar, estas esperando <strong>a tu madre</strong></span>" (<span class="en">Of all the things you could wait for, you're waiting for your mother</span>).</p><p>It does make sense, so the <span class="sp"><strong>me</strong></span> in <span class="sp">esperad<strong>me</strong></span> must be the direct object and <span class="sp">esperar</span> must belong to this family.</p><p><strong>Side note</strong>: If instead of <span class="sp">"a tu madre"</span> we had used <span class="sp">"a mí"</span> as the direct object in the plug test, we could have fallen for this trap: <span class="sp">estás <span class="sp mistake">esperando</span> a mí</span>. This doesn't work because you can't replace a direct object pronoun (<span class="sp">me</span>) with another pronoun (<span class="sp">a mí</span>). You have to include both of them: <span class="sp">estas esperándo<strong><em>me</em></strong> a mí</span>.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>You can't replace an <strong>object pronoun</strong> with another pronoun.</p></blockquote><p>If that seems a bit confusing, go back and read the prequel to this article where we talked about direct and indirect objects, duplication and other pronoun matters: <a href="">Making Sense of the Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns</a>.</p><p>Back to the object pronoun family:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Me oyes</strong> o qué? ¿Al final vas a venir?</span><br><span class="en">"Can you hear me or what? What's the deal, you coming?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Sí, sí. <strong>Me visto</strong> y salgo ahora mismo.</span><br><span class="en">"Yes. I'll get dressed and head right over."</span></p></div><p><span class="sp"><strong>Me</strong> oyes</span> and <span class="sp"><strong>me</strong> visto</span> both have <span class="sp"><strong>me</strong></span> as the indirect object pronoun. The difference between them is that in <span class="sp">"me visto"</span>, the subject (<span class="sp">yo</span>) performs an action <strong>on the same person</strong> as the indirect object (<span class="sp">me</span>), and in <span class="sp">"me oyes"</span> the subject (<span class="sp">tú</span>) and the pronoun (<span class="sp">me</span>) refer to different people.</p><p>Verbs like <span class="sp">"vestirse"</span> get their own special name: <strong>reflexive verbs</strong> (or <em>reciprocal verbs</em> when the subject is plural), but don't let that fool you into thinking they deserve to be in their own category—they're still regular <strong>members of the object pronoun family</strong>.</p><p>Another common pitfall is to assume that all verbs with a reflexive pronoun must be reflexive verbs. But as we'll see in the next section, being direct and indirect objects is only one of the jobs that reflexive pronouns are good at.</p><h2><a name="impersonal"></a>2. Impersonal verbs</h2><p>This family is all about <strong>verbs with no subject</strong>, and it's ruled by the pronoun <span class="sp"><strong>se</strong></span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Solo <strong>se vive</strong> una vez.</span><br><span class="en">Life is only lived once (YOLO!).</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Se habla</strong> español.</span><br><span class="en">Spanish spoken.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Qué bien <strong>se está</strong> aquí.</span><br><span class="en">Being here is so nice.</span></p></div><p>The biggest gotcha comes from thinking there is no subject when it is actually implied:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Ayer vi a tu hermano y casi no lo reconozco.</span><br><span class="en">"I saw your brother yesterday and I almost didn't recognize him."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Sí, hace meses que no <strong>se afeita</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"Yeah, he hasn't shaved in months."</span></p></div><p>The second sentence doesn't belong to the impersonal family because the subject was identified in the first sentence (<span class="sp">afeitarse</span> belongs to the object pronoun family).</p><h3>Passive <span class="sp">se</span> impersonal</h3><p>Another place for the subject to hide is the direct object:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Pedro <strong>se hace</strong> una tortilla para cenar.</span><br><span class="en">Pedro cooks himself an omelette for dinner.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Una buena tortilla española <strong>se hace</strong> con huevos, patatas y cebolla.</span><br><span class="en">A good Spanish omelette is made with eggs, potatoes and onion.</span></p></div><p>The first sentence has Pedro as its subject, so it doesn't belong here, but how about the second one? Is <span class="sp">"una buena tortilla española"</span> the subject of that sentence?</p><p>Kind of. The verb in these sentences contains a <strong>passive <span class="sp">se</span></strong>, which means that <span class="sp">"una buena tortilla española"</span> is the direct object and also the <a href="">patient subject</a>.</p><p>The passive <span class="sp">se</span> should probably have its own article one day, but if you want to learn more now, I recommend this <a href="">post</a> by Hispanoteca.</p><h3>Double pronoun impersonals</h3><p>Some verbs can belong to both the impersonal family and the object pronoun family at the same time:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Ay, perdona. <strong>Se me olvidó</strong> que no comes carne.</span><br><span class="en">Oh, sorry. I forgot you don't eat meat.</span></p><p><span class="sp"><strong>Se nos estropeó</strong> el coche en el peor momento posible</span><br><span class="en">Our car broke down at the worst possible time</span></p></div><p>It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the pronouns, so take it in two steps:</p><ol><li>the passive <span class="sp"><strong>se</strong></span> is suggesting that the event <strong>happened by itself</strong> (since there is no subject)</li><li>the indirect object pronoun (<span class="sp"><strong>me, nos</strong></span>) is indicating that <strong>the event happened to you</strong> (so, you're the victim). </li></ol><p>Combining both pronouns is a handy way of shirking responsibility for mental slip ups or car breakdowns.</p><h2><a name="emphasized"></a>3. Emphasized verbs</h2><p>The pronouns in this family emphasize a specific aspect of the verb. The most common type of emphasis focuses on <strong>the way you perceived an experience</strong>. This makes sense when there was something remarkable about it: it was surprisingly enjoyable, or incredibly painful, or it took a crazy amount of effort to complete. Whatever it may be, you can use a pronoun to focus the sentence on this feeling. This is very common with <strong>verbs of consumption</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿A que no sabes lo que <strong>me he comprado</strong>? ¡Un dron con cámara!</span><br><span class="en">"Guess what I bought. A camera drone!"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡No jodas! ¿Y qué tal?</span><br><span class="en">"Get out! So, what's it like?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Pues, todavía no lo he probado. Pero <strong>me he visto</strong> todos los tutoriales en YouTube.</span><br><span class="en">"Well, I haven't tried it yet. But I've finished binged-watching all the tutorials on YouTube."</span></p></div><p>The <span class="sp"><strong>me</strong></span> pronoun acts as a signal to indicate that the act of buying or watching <strong>didn't feel neutral at all</strong>, it was a big deal: The purchase felt awesome! We watched tutorials for hours! It's the grammar equivalent of adding an Instagram filter.</p><p>And speaking of Instagram, emphatic pronouns are almost always used when talking about <strong>eating and drinking</strong> (even if the experience wasn't that remarkable):</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Qué ganas tengo de <strong>tomarme</strong> un helado.</span><br><span class="en">I'm dying to get an ice cream.</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Yo también. <strong>Me termino</strong> la ensalada y vamos al quiosco a comprarlos.</span><br><span class="en">Me too. Let me finish the salad and we'll go to the stand to buy them.</span></p></div><p>Just remember that this usage doesn't work when talking about <strong>food in general</strong>, you have to refer to a specific meal or a specific quantity:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beber<span class="sp mistake"><strong>me</strong></span> cerveza.</span><br><span class="en">What do you guys want? I'm going to drink beer.</span></p></div><p>To fix it, you have two options: either get rid of the pronoun, or be more specific:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beber cerveza.</span><br><span class="en">What do you guys want? I'm going to drink beer.</span></p><p><span class="sp">¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beber<strong>me</strong> <strong>una</strong> cerveza.</span><br><span class="en">What do you guys want? I'm going to drink a beer.</span></p></div><h2><a name="pronominal_twins"></a>4. Verbs with pronominal twins</h2><p>Even if they look similar, regular verbs and their pronominal counterparts have very different personalities, so you should <strong>treat them as completely different verbs</strong>.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Me estoy dejando</strong> perilla. ¿Qué te parece?</span><br><span class="en">"I'm growing a goatee. What do you think about it?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">"Me parece que no voy a <strong>dejar</strong> que me vean contigo en público."</span><br><span class="en">I think I won't let myself be seen in public with you.</span></p></div><p>These are only two of the many different meanings that <span class="sp">dejar</span> and <span class="sp">dejarse</span> have. The best way to deal with all the variation in this family is to grab your butterfly net and start collecting. Rather than going through long lists of pronominal verbs and looking for mathematical rules to decipher their meaning, <strong>embrace the chaos</strong> and grow your own collection <strong>sentence by sentence</strong>.</p><p>The advantage of <a href="">learning whole sentences</a> is that you get the context around the verb for free. Instead of reviewing exhaustive lists of verbs and meanings, <strong>write down sentences that you find challenging</strong> and revisit them often.</p><p>For example, let's say you come across this heated exchange in your favorite telenovela:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Se te ha olvidado</strong> quién te dio de comer cuando te echaron del trabajo?</span><br><span class="en">"Did you forget who fed you when you lost your job?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No entiendes nada. ¡<strong>Olvida</strong> lo que te he dicho!</span><br><span class="en">"You don't understand anything. Forget what I said."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¿Cómo quieres que <strong>me olvide</strong> ahora que sé que me engañaste con otro?</span><br><span class="en">"How do you expect me to forget now that I know you cheated on me?"</span></p></div><p>Let's say you're confused by the three usages of <span class="sp">olvidar</span>:</p><ol><li>The first sentence uses a <strong>double pronoun</strong> from the <strong>impersonal family</strong> to sarcastically imply the role of victim.</li><li>The second sentence uses the regular subject-driven <strong>imperative</strong> form of <span class="sp">olvidar</span>. </li><li>The third sentence uses <span class="sp">olvidar's</span> <strong>pronominal twin</strong>. In this case, the only difference between <span class="sp">olvidar</span> and <span class="sp">olvidarse</span> is that the first is <strong>transitive</strong> and the second is <strong>intransitive</strong> (which explains why we can say <span class="sp">olvída<strong>lo</strong></span> but we can't say <span class="sp mistake">olvída<strong>telo</strong></span>). </li></ol><p>Now you have the all the information you need to make sense of all those verb variants. That's step one.</p><p>Step two is <strong>internalizing that information so it becomes automatic</strong>. The best way I know of mastering arbitrary expressions is <a href="">The Scaffold Technique</a>: read the sentence, look away, try to repeat it from memory, notice which words you forget (usually pronouns), read it again, look away, try to repeat it from memory, repeat. If you can still remember it the next day, <strong>you will never forget it</strong>.</p><p>Step three is to continue collecting sentences with pronominal twins and <strong>noticing subtle patterns</strong> every day. Here is another example:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">No <strong>me creo</strong> que tu hermano <strong>se haya ido</strong> de casa.</span><br><span class="en">I can't believe your brother ran away from home.</span></p></div><p>Rather than thinking of these verbs as <span class="sp">creerse</span> and <span class="sp">irse</span>, it's easier to remember them in the <strong>present</strong> form surrounded by their context:</p><ul><li><span class="sp">alguien <strong>se cree</strong> algo</span></li><li><span class="sp">alguien <strong>se va</strong> de un sitio</span></li></ul><p>Doing this makes it easier to pick up on important details, like the fact that pronominal twins can also be transitive (<span class="sp">se <strong>lo</strong> cree</span>), or that intransitive verbs tend to be followed by a preposition (<span class="sp">irse <strong>de</strong>, ponerse <strong>a</strong>, olvidarse <strong>de</strong></span>). The fun never ends.</p><h2>Spanish Takeaways</h2><ul><li>The <strong>object pronouns</strong> form the most common family (<span class="sp"><strong>Te lo</strong> regalo</span>, <span class="en">I give it to you</span>). It pays to get good at distinguishing <a href="">direct objects from indirect ones</a>.</p></li><li><p><strong>Reflexive verbs</strong> are only a special case of the object pronoun family: they still make sense when you add "myself" or "each other" after the verb (<span class="sp"><strong>Me vi</strong> en el espejo</span>, <span class="en">I saw myself in the mirror</span>).</p></li><li><p>A reflexive pronoun (<span class="sp"><strong>me te se nos os</strong></span>) doesn't always mean the verb is reflexive (<span class="sp"><strong>Te ves</strong> bien</span>, <span class="en">you look good (pronominal twin)</span>).</p></li><li><p>Verbs that belong to the <strong>impersonal family</strong> don't have a subject (explicit or implicit). This includes the <strong>passive <span class="sp">se</span></strong> (<span class="sp">No <strong>se puede</strong> pasear con este calor</span>, <span class="en">you can't go for a walk with this heat</span>) and the victim-playing <strong>double pronoun impersonal</strong> (<span class="sp">¿qué <strong>se le</strong> va a hacer?</span>, <span class="en">what can one do about it? That's just the way things are</span>).</p></li><li><p>The <strong>emphatic family</strong> transforms a neutral experience into a <strong>remarkable</strong> one (<span class="sp"><strong>Me pasé</strong> toda la tarde ordenando mi armario</span>, <span class="en">I spent the whole afternoon organizing my closet</span>). Get comfortable using it when talking about food, and expand your awareness of what a <em>consumption</em> verb can be.</p></li><li><p>The <strong>pronominal twin family</strong> has the most variation, but it's also the most rewarding to master. Take it one verb at a time. Look for patterns, not algorithms. Having a rational understanding of the meaning can be useful, but to really master the details you need to <strong>internalize whole sentences</strong>.</p></li></ul><h2>Now, it's your turn</h2><p>Remember the dialogue at the beginning?<div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡Qué calor! Así no <strong>se puede</strong> estudiar. Voy a <strong>darme</strong> un paseo por la playa y sigo en la biblioteca, que allí por lo menos tienen aire acondicionado.</span><br><span class="en">"It's so hot! It's impossible to study like this. I'm going for a walk on the beach and I'll continue (studying) at the library. At least there they have air conditioning."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¿<strong>Te vas</strong> ya? Si <strong>me esperas</strong> cinco minutos, voy contigo.</span><br><span class="en">"Are you leaving right now? If you can wait five minutes (for me), I'll go with you."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Venga. Termina y mientras aprovecho para <strong>darme</strong> una ducha.</span><br><span class="en">"Cool. Finish what you're doing and I'll go take a shower".</span></p></div><p>Try to categorize the verbs in bold into one of the four families. You can <strong><a href="">email me</a> your answer</strong> along with any questions, or post it in the comments below.</p><p>This article took 30+ hours to write. If you liked it, please share it 😊.</p><p>(Butterflies courtesy of <a href="">Alice Noir</a>)</p>