Reflexive and reciprocal verbs

1 The typical reflexive verbs are those which subject performs and undergoes the action of the verb.

Yo me afeito
te lavas
Él, ella, usted se peina
Nosotros, nosotras nos afeitamos
Vosotros, vosotras, vos os laváis
Ellos, ellas, ustedes se peinan

In the reflexive clauses, the reflexive pronoun may function as a direct or indirect object.

Yo me afeito. (D.o. me)

Él se lava los pies. (I.o. se)

2 The reciprocal clauses are a type of reflexive. More than one subject performs the action of the verb and at the same time gets the verb action. The clauses are only built with subjects in plural.

The reciprocal verbs are always transitive: amarse, odiarse, tutearse, ayudarse, pegarse, matarse, conocerse, quererse, cartearse, esperarse, etc.

Manuel y Herminio se pegaron (el uno al otro).

Siempre nos ayudamos (entre nosotros).

El día de San Valentín los enamorados se regalan cosas.

Se may function as direct or indirect object.

Ellos se quieren. (C.d.)

Ellos se dan besos. (C.i.)

Many times the reciprocal clause is mistaken for the reflexive.

Ellos se afeitan. (= Cada una se afeita su barba) (Reflexive)
Ellos se afeitan (uno a otro). (Reciprocal)

To clarify the sense of the clause mutuamente, recíprocamente formal or el uno al otro may be added if the clause is reciprocal; personal pronoun + mismo / misma / mismo / mismas if it is reflexive.

See Reflexive pronouns

In some cases the clauses in a reciprocal sense with the subject in singular may be found.

Yo me tuteo con Tomás. (= I address him as “tú” and so does Tomás.)

3 False reflexive clauses

  • The reflexive pronoun as lexical modifier shows differences in meaning among verbs with se and without it. Sometimes, the use of the reflexive pronouns indicates that the action is perfect or finished; on the contrary, the forms without se indicate habit, costum and also invitations to begin an action.

Cómete las espinacas. (= Finish your spinachs.)
Come espinacas. (= Always eat spinach because they are good for your health.)
Come espinacas. (= Try them.)

Bébete la leche. (= Finish your glass of milk.)
Bebe leche. (= Drink it always because you need calcium.)
Bebe leche. (= Try it.)

Quiero dormirme y no puedo. (= I want to start sleeping.)
Quiero dormir, no me molestes. (= I do want not to be awake.)

Augusto vino de Madrid muy cansado. (= He went to Madrid and came back.)
Augusto se vino de Madrid. (= He moved.)

Yo fumo (tabaco) negro. (= I never smoke Virginia tobacco.)
Ayer me fumé una cajetilla entera. (= I finished a pack.)

  • Dative of interest. Sometimes the object pronoun means afective involvement of the speaker; it refers to speaker’s interest for a person or an object, the subject considers something to be of his own or part of him. The object pronoun could be removed and the clause will be meaningful. It is a sign of popular language and of egocentrism of the speaker.

Se me ha muerto mi madre. (= Se ha muerto mi madre.)

Mi niño no me come. (= Mi hijo no quiere comer.)

  • Sometimes, the reflexive pronoun indicates that the person or thing that performs the action of the verb is unknouwn; in this case, the subject undergoes the action of the verb.They are called adventitious reflexive clauses.

El barco se hundió.

Su hijo se mató en un accidente.

El cristal se ha roto.

El bosque se quemó.

  • In Spanish sometimes the subject does not perform the action of the verb; the subject pays, commands or rules the action.

Me he cortado el pelo. (= I went to the hairdresser’s, and there someone has cut my hair.)

Many verbs related to the medicine are in this case.

Me he vacunado contra la malaria. (= I went to a hospital and a doctor did his job.)

Me he operado de cataratas. (= A surgeon has operated.)

Many of these verbs seem to be reflexive: cortarse (el pelo), vacunarse, operarse, teñirse (el pelo), tatuarse. But not all of them: encuadernar (un libro), construir (un palacio), ganar (una batalla), etc.

Pedro el Grande construyó la ciudad de Peterburgo.

He encuadernado los fascículos en una papelería de mi barrio.

  • The pronominal verbs also are built with reflexive pronouns: apoltronarse, arrepentirse, atreverse, atrofiarse, comportarse, desentenderse, desternillarse, desvivirse, dignarse, ensimismarse, extasiarse, jactarse, obstinarse, personarse, portarse, querellarse, rebelarse, suicidarse, vanagloriarse, etc. Se is part of the verbal pattern and does not perform an independent function.

No me arrepiento de lo que dije.

Nos hemos portado muy mal, perdónanos.

They are not reflexive because nobody may arrepentirse a sí mismo, nor portarse a sí mismo, etc.

When they take part in impersonal clauses uno or una are used.

Se arrepiente una de haber hecho tanto daño a los demás.

Uno no se atreve a arriesgar los ahorros.