Grammar 101: What Is A Reflexive Verb?

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

While the concept of reflexive verbs is mostly unused in English, it is a vital concept in almost all other languages. If you dont understand it or have never heard of it before, then today is your lucky day because we're going to quickly look at what reflexive verbs are.

The name reflexive indicates that a verb reflects itself. Grammatically speaking, a reflexive verb is a verb whose subject and direct object are the same, though we will find that there are some kinds of reflexive verbs which deemphasize the subject.

Because of the loose construction of reflection in English, we don't think of the verb as being reflexive. Instead, we think of the self as an object pronoun. As you will see, however, most other languages consider reflexiveness to be a quality of the verb rather than the object.

There are five kinds of reflexive verbs: properly reflexive, reciprocal, autocausative, anticausative, and intransitive. In general, I tend to group the first two together as self-reflecting actions of a subject, and the last three as passive actions with reduced or no emphasis on subject.

Properly reflexive

A properly reflexive verb is a verb for which the subject acts upon itself. Think of it as doing something to oneself. In English, purely reflexive verbs have become rather rare — at the moment, the only one I can think of is to perjure onseself. However, there are still no shortage of regular verbs which can be made reflexive: help yourself, watch yourself, kill yourself, etc.

The Spanish verb recordarse (to remind) is properly reflexive. To say "she reminds me of her mother", you must say me recuerda a su madre.

In German, the reflexive construction of verbs is a bit looser, though still more structured than English. For example, where we say "to shower", in German you must use the properly reflexive verb sich duschen — literally "to shower oneself".


The reciprocal form of reflexive verbs generally occurs with plural subjects (we, you all, they) who are acting upon each other. Grammatically, the subject and object are the same, but logically they are different. For instance, to say "we kiss each other", the subject and the object are the same — we, us — but logically it is understood that I am not kissing myself and you are not kissing yourself.

An example in Russian might be: Иван и Олга целуются. Here, the reflexive form of целовать indicates that the two kiss one-another.


Autocausative means that the subject of a verb acts upon itself. In general, autocausative reflexive verbs refer to state changes in animate (living) subjects, like a mood change. An English example might be "don't get yourself excited."

The German reflexive verb sich ärgern sich. is autocausative. To say that Peter was offended, you say, Peter ärgerte sich.


An anticausative reflexive verb, conversely, describes an action that is performed upon an object with little knowledge or concern about the subject of the action. Anticausative verbs are a common choice in passive style communication, where there is an emphasis on the action and the object, such as in the phrase often heard on public transportation here in Chicago, "doors open on the left".

In Italian, for example, one might say la porta si aprì, meaning "the door opened", even though the reflexive form more accurately translates as something akin to "the door opened itself". Obviously, it didn't open itself; it's just that the subject is irrelevant.


Intransitive reflexive verbs also de-emphasise the agent, or the subject of the action. In fact, unlike anticausatives which appear to act upon themselves, intransitives go so far as to completely omit the agent from the sentence. This is another popular choice in passive communication.

A Polish example of an intransitive reflexive verb is the phrase myśli się, że..., meaning "it is thought", in spite of reading somewhat like "it thinks itself".

Similarly, a sign that we're growing accustomed to seeing in the windows of businesses in the Unites States says se habla español, or "Spanish is spoken."

Today I've gone into some detail about the grammatical concept of reflexive verbs. In the coming days, we'll look at how they are used in Italian.