Reflexive verb

Reflexive verb

In grammar, a reflexive verb is a verb whose semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object) are the same. For example, the English verb to perjure is reflexive, since one can only perjure oneself. In a wider sense, it refers to any verb form whose grammatical object is a reflexive pronoun, regardless of semantics; such verbs are also referred to as pronominal verbs, especially in grammars of the Romance languages.

There are languages that have explicit morphology to transform a verb into a reflexive form. English employs reflexive derivation idiosyncratically, as in "self-destruct"; Romance languages do the same with the Greek-derived prefix auto-.

In many languages, reflexive constructions are rendered by transitive verbs followed by a reflexive pronoun, as in English -self (e.g., "She threw herself to the floor.")

Indo-European languages

Romance and Slavic languages make extensive use of reflexive verbs and reflexive forms.

In the Romance languages, there are non-emphatic clitic reflexive pronouns and emphatic ones. In Spanish, for example, the particle se is cliticized to the verb (lavarse "to wash oneself"), while in Romanian, the particle precedes the verb (a se spăla "to wash oneself"). Full reflexive pronouns or pronominal phrases are added for emphasis or to avoid ambiguity: Yo me cuido a mí mismo "I take care of myself" (mismo combines with the prepositional form of the pronoun to form an intensive reflexive pronoun).

The enclitic reflexive pronoun sa/se/si/się is used in Western and South Slavic languages, while Eastern Slavic languages use the suffix -sja (-ся). There is also the non-clitic emphatic pronoun sebe/себя, used to emphasize the reflexive nature of the act; it is applicable only to "true" reflexive verbs, where the agent performs a (transitive) action on itself.

The Slavic languages use the same reflexive pronoun for all persons and numbers, while the Romance (and Germanic) languages use different forms. In the 1st and 2nd person, the ordinary oblique forms of the personal pronouns are used as reflexive pronouns, while special reflexive forms in s- are found only in the 3rd person. This is illustrated in the following table for the verb "to recall" (e.g. Je me souviens means "I recall", Tu te souviens means "You recall", and so on).

French Danish Serbo-Croatian
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
1st person Je me souviens Nous nous souvenons Jeg lægger mig Vi lægger os Ja se sjećam Mi se sjećamo
2nd person Tu te souviens Vous vous souvenez Du lægger dig I lægger jer Ti se sjećaš Vi se sjećate
3rd person Il se souvient Ils se souviennent Han lægger sig De lægger sig On se sjeća Oni se sjećaju

In all of these language groups, reflexive forms often present an obstacle for foreign learners (notably native speakers of English, where the feature is practically absent) due to variety of uses. Even in languages which contain the feature, it is not always applicable to the same verbs and uses (although a common subset can be generally extracted, as outlined below). For example, the Spanish reflexive construct "se hundió el barco" ("the boat sank") has no reflexive equivalent in Slavic languages (which use intransitive equivalent of sink).

Reflexive verbs can have a variety of uses and meanings, which often escape consistent classification. Some language-common identified uses are outlined below. For example, Davies et al. identify 12 uses for Spanish reflexive constructions; Vinogradov divides Russian reflexive verbs into as many as 16 groups.

Properly reflexive

The "true" (literal) reflexive denotes that the agent is simultaneously the patient. The verb is typically transitive, and can be used in non-reflexive meaning as well.
Language Examples Compare
Spanish Pedro se baña. Pedro baña al gato.
Italian Pietro si lava. Pietro lava la gatta.
Serbo-Croatian Petar se kupa. Petar kupa mačku.
Polish Piotr kąpie się. Piotr kąpie kota.
Russian Пётр купается. Пётр купает котa.
Danish Peter vasker sig. Peter vasker katten.
German Peter wäscht sich. Peter wäscht die Katze.
English Peter bathes himself. Peter bathes the cat.


"Reciprocal" reflexive denotes that the agents perform the mutual actions among themselves. In most cases, the transitive verbs are also used.

Language Examples Compare
Spanish María y Pedro se besan. María besa a Pedro.
Italian Maria e Pietro si baciano. Maria bacia Pietro.
Serbo-Croatian Marija i Petar se ljube. Marija ljubi Petra.
Polish Maria i Piotr całują się. Maria całuje Piotra.
Russian Мария и Пётр целуются. Мария целуeт Петрa.
Danish Maria og Peter kysser hinanden. Maria kysser Peter.
German Мaria und Peter küssen sich. Maria küsst Peter.
English Мary and Peter kiss [each other]. Mary kisses Peter.

In modern Scandinavian languages, the passive (or more properly mediopassive) voice is used for medial, especially reciprocal, constructions. Some examples from Danish are,

Maria og Peter skændes; "Mary and Peter are bickering", lit. "Mary and Peter are scolded by each other."

Maria og Peter blev forlovet; "Mary and Peter got engaged [to each other]."

(The hypothetical form **kysses (kiss each other) is not often -- if ever -- seen in Danish; however it'll probably be understood by most native speakers, indicating that the mediopassive voice is still at the very least potentially productive in Danish. An expression like "de kysses uafladeligt" (they kiss each other all the time) could very well be used for humorous purposes).


"Autocausative" reflexive denotes that the (usually animate) "referent represented by the subject combines the activity of actor and undergoes a change of state as a patient":

Language Examples
Spanish Pedro se ofendió.
Italian Pietro si offese.
Serbo-Croatian Petar se uvrijedio.
Polish Piotr obraził się.
Russian Пётр обиделся.
German Peter ärgerte sich.
English Peter became/was offended.


"Anticausative" reflexive denotes that the (usually inanimate) subject of the verb undergoes an action or change of state whose agent is unclear or nonexistent.

Spanish La puerta se abrió.
Italian La porta si aprì.
Serbo-Croatian Vrata su se otvorila.
Polish Drzwi otworzyły się.
Russian Дверь открылась.
German Die Tür öffnete sich.
English The door (was) opened.

Intransitive or Impersonal

"Intransitive" form (also known as "impersonal reflexive", or "mediopassive") take the intransitive verbs with omitted agent. In Slavic languages, practically "the only condition is that they can be construed as having a human agent. The applied human agent can be generic, or loosely specified collective or individual". The grammatical subject is either omitted (in pro-drop languages) or dummy pronoun (otherwise). Thus, those verbs are defective, as they have only the 3rd person singular (masculine or neutrum, depending on language) form.

Language Examples
Spanish Aquí se trabaja bien. Se dice que...
Italian Qui si lavora bene. Si dice che...
Serbo-Croatian Tu se radi dobro. Smatra se da...
Polish Tam pracuje się dobrze. Myśli się, że...
Russian Здесь хорошо работается. Думается, что...
English [People] work well here. It is said that...

In many cases, there is a semantic overlap between impersonal/anticausative/autocausative constructs and the passive voice (also present in all Romance and Slavic languages). On one hand, impersonal reflexive constructs have a wider scope of application, as they are not limited to transitive verbs like the canonical passive voice. On the other hand, those constructs can have slight semantic difference or markedness.


"Inherent" or "pronominal" (inherently or essentially) reflexive verbs lack the corresponding non-reflexive from which they can be synchronically derived. In other words, "se is an inherent part of an unergative reflexive or reciprocal verb with no meaning of its own, and an obligatory part of the verb's lexical entry:
Language Examples
Spanish Pedro se arrepintió. (a) María y Pedro se separaron.(b) Pedro se queja.
Italian Pietro si pentiva. (a) Maria e Pietro si separarono.(b) Pietro si lamenta.(c)
Serbo-Croatian Petar se pokajao. Petar se smije. Marija i Petar su se rastali. Petar se žali.(c)
Polish (a) Piotr śmieje się. Maria i Piotr rozstali się. Piotr żali się.(c)
Russian Пётр раскаялся. Пётр cмеётся. Мария и Пётр расстались. Пётр жалуeтся.(c)
English Peter repented. Peter laughs. Mary and Peter parted. Peter complains.
(a) The corresponding verb is not reflexive.
(b) The verb is reflexive, but not inherently; the transitive equivalent means "to separate". Note the reciprocal semantics.
(c) Only the Spanish quejarse exists only in reflexive form; however, in other languages, the corresponding non-reflexive verb has a different meaning, like "lament" or "mourn".

See also


External links

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