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Reflexive Verbs Posted by on Mar 5, 2009 in Grammar

Mi chiamo Serena. Come ti chiami? (my name is Serena. What is your name?). This is the first thing I say to my students whenever I start a new Italian class, and it’s probably the first thing you’ll find in most phrasebooks. But it’s also a sentence that illustrates really well one of the many differences between Italian and English: it is built with the verbo riflessivo (reflexive verb), and it literally translates as: ‘I call myself Serena. How do you call yourself?’.  The verbi riflessivi are a particular group of verbs in which the subject, or doer, acts upon him/herself and not on a separate object, so that the action is reflected back on to the subject. If I say lavo il bicchiere, (‘I’m washing the glass’), I’m performing the action of washing on another object; but if I say mi lavo le mani, (‘I’m washing my hands’ or literally: I wash myself the hands), I’m performing the action on myself, therefore I must use the reflexive form. The main difference between the use of the reflexive in English and Italian is that whereas in English there is often no reflexive pronoun, in Italian the reflexive pronoun is essential to the meaning and cannot be omitted.

The pronomi riflessivi (reflexive pronouns) are:

mi (myself)

ti (yourself singular informal)

si (himself/herself/yourself singular formal)

ci (ourselves)

vi (yourselves)

si (themselves)

The pronomi riflessivi should not be confused with the ‘dative’ or ‘indirect pronouns’ which are very similar. Che confusione! (what chaos!). Don’t worry, I’ll do a blog on personal pronouns soon which should help to clarify matters. But let’s go back to the verbi riflessivi.

OK! as I was saying, the pronome riflessivo must always be expressed with verbi riflessivi; and it usually comes before the verb e.g:

mi lavo I wash myself

ti lavi you wash yourself

si lava he washes himself, she washes herself, you wash yourself (formal)

ci laviamo we wash ourselves

vi lavate you wash yourselves

si lavano they wash themselves

However, it is attached to the end of the verb in the imperative form (i.e. when giving a command), e.g. lavati (wash yourself), laviamoci (let’s wash ourselves), lavatevi (wash yourselves). It is also attached to the infinitive, e.g. dovresti lavarti (you should wash yourself). Reflexive verbs are always used with the auxiliary verb essere in the combined past tenses: mi sono lavata (I washed myself), vi siete lavati le mani? (have you washed your hands?).

As you can see from the above examples, the reflexive form is normally used for actions that involve postures and parts of the body: e.g. sedersi (to sit down), alzarsi (to stand up), lavarsi le mani (to wash one’s hands), pettinarsi i capelli (to brush one’s hair).

Some verbs can be used in either the regular form or the reflexive form with very little difference in the meaning: e.g. ricordare and ricordarsi (to remember), dimenticare and dimenticarsi (to forget); the reflexive form just adds a little more personal involvement. On the other hand, some verbs change meaning when used in the reflexive form: e.g. trovare (to find) and trovarsi (to be somewhere, to find oneself); sdegnare (to disdain) and sdegnarsi (to get angry); vedere (to see) and vedersi (to see each other, to meet), as in the well known farewell expression Arrivederci! (until we see each other again!).

Arrivederci!

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Comments:

  1. Ken Colatruglio:

    Hey! Neat idea. Good information, well presented. Thanks for the lesson.

  2. Terry:

    I particularly appreciate your inclusion of the literal translations in idiomatic phrases.

  3. Vito P.:

    This is the best explanation I’ve read about reflexive verbs. Esp welcome was the discussion of how some of these verbs change meaning in the reflexive form. Thanks, Serena!

  4. jdt:

    Thanks , very good explanation about reflexive verbs

  5. Lauretta Scalzo:

    Wonderful – very clear explanation… I’m thinking up new questions for you..

    Thanks.

    Grazie

    Lauretta

  6. Alexina:

    Thank you, Serena. I needed a quick refresher course!

  7. Linda:

    Could you please explain ‘mancare’–to miss? If I want to say, “I miss her” it needs to be she is missing to me? “Mi manca”? Grazie!

    • Geoff:

      @Linda Salve Linda, yes you’re correct “Mi manca” means “I miss it/him/her etc. It works in the opposite way to the English, just like piacere, e.g. mi piace = ‘it pleases me’ rather than ‘I like it’.

      I think this post should help to clarify things for you: https://blogs.transparent.com/italian/mancare/

      Saluti da Geoff

  8. Jay:

    Thanks for this great article. Definitely the best article I found yet that explains this topic that trips me up the most. I think I’ll probably have to read it again from time to time until it sinks into my head.

    • Geoff:

      @Jay non c’è di che! 🙂


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