Reflexive verb

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. In grammar, a reflexive verb is, loosely, a verb whose direct object is the same as its subject, for example, "I wash myself". More generally, a reflexive verb has the same semantic agent and patient (typically represented syntactically by the subject and the direct object). For example, the English verb to perjure is reflexive, since one can only perjure oneself. In a wider sense, the term 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 or syntax to transform a verb into a reflexive form. 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.") English employs reflexive derivation idiosyncratically, as in "self-destruct".

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 encliticizes to the verb's infinitive, gerund, and imperative (lavarse "to wash oneself"), while in Romanian, the particle procliticizes to the verb (a se spăla "to wash oneself"). Full reflexive pronouns or pronominal phrases are added for emphasis or to avoid ambiguity: 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 sebja/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 North Germanic ones have a special third person pronoun that cliticizes and the other Germanic ones do as well without cliticizing. This is here in the following table for the word "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[1][2] (notably native speakers of English, where the feature is practically absent) due to the 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 some Slavic languages (which use an intransitive equivalent of sink), though for example Czech and Slovak do use a reflexive verb: "loď se potopila"/"loď sa potopila". Reflexive verbs can have a variety of uses and meanings, which often escape consistent classification. Some language-common identified uses are outlined below.[3] For example, Davies et al.[1] identify 12 uses for Spanish reflexive constructions, while Vinogradov[4] divides Russian reflexive verbs into as many as 16 groups.

Martin Haspelmath also has a useful distinction between the reflexive types mentioned below, which he calls introverted reflexives, and so called extroverted reflexives, which are used for verbs that are usually not reflexive, like hate oneself, love oneself, hear oneself, and kill oneself. Some Indo-European languages have a different reflexive morpheme for extroverted reflexives. For example, see how the Russian ненавидеть себя (nenavidet' sebja) "to hate oneself", which uses a reflexive pronoun, compares to мыться (myt'-sja) "to wash (oneself)", which uses a reflexive suffix (Russian can also say мыть себя (myt' sebja), with a reflexive pronoun, but only when the pronoun needs to be stressed for emphasis or contrast). Or Dutch haat zichzelf "hates herself", versus wast zich "washes (herself)". The distinction exists similarly in English, where introverted reflexive verbs usually have no reflexive pronoun, unlike extroverted.[5] In ancient Greek, the introverted reflexive was expressed using the middle voice rather than a pronoun. Similarly, in modern Greek, it is expressed using the middle usage of the passive voice. On the other hand, the extroverted reflexive was a true reflexive in ancient Greek and modern Greek. Similarly Claire Moyse-Faurie distinguishes between middle and reflexive in Oceanic languages in her on-line articles about reflexives in Oceanic languages.

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
French Pierre se lave Pierre lave le chat
Spanish Pedro se lava. Pedro lava al gato.
Italian Pietro si lava. Pietro lava il gatto.
Serbo-Croatian Petar se kupa. Petar kupa mačku.
Polish Piotr się kąpie. Piotr kąpie kota.
Russian Пётр купается.
Pyotr kupayetsya.
Пётр купает котa.
Pyotr kupayet kota.
Danish Peter vasker sig. Peter vasker katten.
Lithuanian Petras prausiasi. Petras prausia katę.
Petras prausia save.
English Peter washes himself. Peter washes the cat.


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

Language Examples Compare
French Marie et Pierre s'embrassent Marie embrasse Pierre
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 się całują. Maria całuje Piotra.
Russian Мария и Пётр целуются.
Mariya i Pyotr tseluyutsya.
Мария целуeт Петрa.
Mariya tseluyet Petra.
Danish Maria og Peter kysser hinanden. Maria kysser Peter.
Lithuanian Marija ir Petras bučiuojasi. Marija bučiuoja Petrą.
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.)


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"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":[6]

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


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"Anticausative" reflexive denotes that the (usually inanimate) subject of the verb undergoes an action or change of state whose agent is unclear or nonexistent.[6]

Language Examples
Spanish La puerta se abrió.
Italian La porta si aprì.
Serbo-Croatian Vrata su se otvorila.
Polish Drzwi się otworzyły.
Russian Дверь открылась.
Dver' otkrylas'.
German Die Tür öffnete sich.
Lithuanian Durys atsidarė.
English The door (was, got) opened.

Intransitive or Impersonal

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"Intransitive" forma (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."[7] 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 Tu pracuje się dobrze. Uważa się, że...
Russian Здесь хорошо работается.
Zdes' khorosho rabotayetsya.
Думается, что...
Dumayetsya, chto...
English [People] work well here. It is considered 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).[7] 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.[6] 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":[8]

Language Examples
Spanish Pedro se arrepintió. Pedro se ríe[N 1] María y Pedro se separaron.[N 1] Pedro se queja.
Italian Pietro si pentì. [N 2] Maria e Pietro si separarono.[N 1] Pietro si lamenta.[N 3]
Serbo-Croatian Petar se pokajao. Petar se smije. Marija i Petar su se rastali. Petar se žali.[N 3]
Polish Piotr się pokajał. Piotr się śmieje. Maria i Piotr się rozstali. Piotr żali się.[N 3]
Russian Пётр раскаялся.
Pyotr raskayalsya.
Пётр cмеётся.
Pyotr smeyotsya.
Мария и Пётр расстались.
Mariya i Pyotr rasstalis'.
Пётр жалуeтся.[N 3]
Pyotr zhaluyetsya.
Lithuanian Petras atsiprašė. Petras juokiasi. Marija ir Petras išsiskyrė.[N 1] Petras skundžiasi.[N 1]
English Peter repented. Peter laughs. Mary and Peter parted. Peter complains.
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The verb is reflexive, but not inherently. Both have non-reflexive forms: the transitive separar and the intransitive reír. In Lithuanian išsiskirti and skųstis have non-reflexive forms: transitive išskirti and transitive skųsti.
  2. The corresponding verb is not reflexive.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Only the Spanish quejarse exists only in reflexive form (cf. the Latin deponent verb queror, I complain); however, in other languages, the corresponding non-reflexive verb has a different meaning, like "lament" or "mourn".


In Hebrew reflexive verbs are in binyan הִתְפַּעֵל. A clause whose predicate is a reflexive verb may never have an object but may have other modifiers. e.g.

  • האיש התפטר מעבודתו - the man resigned from his job
  • האיש התמכר לסמים - the man got addicted to drugs
  • האיש התקלח בבוקר - the man 'showered himself', i.e., took a shower in the morning
  • האישה הסתפרה אצל אבי - the woman took a haircut/had her hair done at Avi's

See also


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External links

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