What are reflexive verbs?

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What is a reflexive verb and why are they used?

A reflexive verb is a verb which shows that the subject is doing an action to/for himself/herself. In English these would be recognised by the use of ‘oneself’, ‘yourself’ or ‘ourselves’ with a verb and in German can be recognised in the dictionary when sich precedes the infinitive.

Commonly these are verbs relating to routine activities and a common example would be sich waschen (to wash). When the action is being done to the subject, the accusative is used e.g. Ich wasche mich (I wash myself). This is because in this instance, the subject is also the object. However, if something else is the object and something is being done for the subject, the dative would be used e.g. Ich wasche mir die Haare. However, these are rare and common phrases of this type can be memorised.

Reflexive verbs are used far less in English and there are verbs which are not reflexive in English but are in German e.g. sich errinern (to remember). It is easy to miss the reflexive pronoun out when it is not used in the same way in English.

Another function of a reflexive verb can be to indicate reciprocal action when used in the plural e.g. Wir kennen uns (we know each other), formed from sich kennen.

How is a reflexive verb used?

Reflexive pronouns are very similar to personal pronouns, apart from sich is used in the 3rd person singular (er/sie/es) and for plural sie and formal Sie.

In the present tense, the verbs behave in the same way as normal present tense verbs and the reflexive pronoun follows the verb. In the past tense, they are always formed with haben and the reflexive pronoun comes directly after haben. For the future tense, reflexive verbs also follow the normal rules and the reflexive pronoun comes straight after werden.

Melissa J. GCSE German tutor, A Level German tutor

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