Reflexive Verbs Posted by Serena 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:
ti (yourself singular informal)
si (himself/herself/yourself singular formal)
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!).