German Reflexive Verbs Don’t Exist
Reflexive verbs are not a thing in German. They don’t exist. They are a figment of your imagination. Today I am going to explain what is really going on when you use the pronoun “sich” in German.
German Reflexive Verbs Skit
Herr Lehrer: Guten Morgen, Schüler. Today we are learning about reflexive verbs and the pronouns which one has to use with them. For example: Er wäscht sich die Hände. – He washes himself the hands. (He washes his hands.)
Lerner: What do you say when you clean your car?
Herr Lehrer: Ich wasche mein Auto. – I wash my car.
Lerner: And when the laundry is dirty?
Herr Lehrer: Ich wasche die Wäsche. – I wash the laundry.
Lerner: Then “waschen” isn’t reflexive, but just used reflexively.
Herr Lehrer: Ok. That was maybe a bad example. The verb “ärgern” has to be used with a reflexive pronoun. For example: Er ärgert sich über seine Noten. – He gets (himself) worked up about his grades.
Lerner: I read this sentence somewhere once. “Mein Bruder ärgert mich gerne.” – My brother likes to annoy me.
Herr Lehrer: Du ärgerst mich. – You annoy me.
Lerner: Genau. See? “ärgern” isn’t a reflexive verb.
Herr Lehrer: Ok. I have finally found a good example of a reflexive verb. Er beeilt sich. – He hurries (himself).
Lerner: Hmm. I believe you are finally right. “sich beeilen” is a real reflexive verb.
Herr Lehrer: I think that is enough for today, Schüler. Tomorrow we will talk more about reflexive verbs.
Reflexive Pronoun Lesson: Day 2
Herr Lehrer: Guten Morgen, Schüler. Since we had some problems when talking about reflexive verbs yesterday, I did a bit more research last night and found that there are two kinds of reflexive verbs: “unechte reflexive Verben” and “echte reflexive Verben”.
Verbs that can be used with reflexive pronouns, but don’t have to be, are called “unechte reflexive Verben” (fake reflexive verbs). For example: “waschen” Er wäscht sich die Hände. He washes his hands. (He washes himself the hands.) Er wäscht sein Auto. – He washes his car.
Verbs that have to be used with reflexive verbs are called “echte reflexive Verben” (real reflexive verbs). For example: “beeilen” Er beeilt sich. – He hurries himself.
Lerner: Agh! Why does everything in German have to be so complicated?
Real Herr Antrim: IT DOESN’T! And this isn’t even that complicated. Come on people. Can we stop this madness? Today I am going to finally teach you how reflexive verbs should be taught in schools, but rarely ever are.
German Reflexive Verbs Don’t Exist
Here’s the thing. There are verbs in German that are used reflexively. There are verbs in English like that, too, but they are much more rare. For example: “to pride oneself” is a verb that is always used reflexively in English. You can’t pride someone or something else and you can’t simply “pride”. You have to pride yourself and he has to pride himself. This is commonly referred to as a reflexive verb, because the grammar gods of old said so.
Verbs are just verbs. You can use them reflexively if you want, but the verbs themselves aren’t reflexive. The car drives itself. or I drive the car. Peter Pan sees himself in the lake. or I see Peter Pan on TV. Everybody loves Raymond. and Kanye loves himself. You get the idea.
The point is simple. “Reflexive verb” is a term that grammar nerds made up to make you feel better about using verbs reflexively, but it just ends up confusing people. There are verbs in German that are always used reflexively. There are a ton more that are commonly used reflexively and a few others that are occasionally used reflexively. The question you should ask yourself (wink) is not “Is this verb reflexive?”, but rather, “Is what I am trying to express reflexive?” For example
Examples of “reflexive verbs” being used non-reflexively
Er wäscht die Wäsche.
He washes the laundry.
This is not reflexive, because the thing being washed is not a part of the subject.
Er wäscht sich die Hände.
He washes his hands. (He washes himself the hands.)
This is reflexive, because the things being washed are a part of the subject.
If I wash my son’s hands, however, it is not reflexive, as his hands are not a part of me. In order to say that, we simply use the normal personal pronouns.
Ich wasche ihm die Hände.
I wash his hands. (I wash him the hands.)
German Verbs that are always used reflexively
As I mentioned, there are certain verbs that are always used reflexively in German. There aren’t nearly as many of these as people seem to think. Here are a few examples of those.
Wir haben uns erkältet.
We caught a cold.
You can’t catch someone else a cold. You can only do that to yourself, but for some reason German always requires that you include this reflexive pronoun, while in English we rely on context to tell us that we are doing this to ourselves.
Ich höre mir ein paar Lieder an.
I listen to a few songs.
Again, you can’t listen to something for someone else. English uses context. German uses reflexive pronouns.
Wrapping Your Brain Around Reflexive Pronouns
Think of the reflexive pronouns kind of like separable prefixes. They don’t make much sense to English speakers, but they are required for the sentence to make sense to a German. Let’s take the verb “vorstellen”. You can use it to mean “to introduce” or “to imagine”. One of those you can do to other people, but the other can only be used reflexively. Neither of them will make any sense without having the prefix “vor” and neither of them will make any sense without the reflexive pronoun, if it is being used reflexively. For example:
vorstellen – to introduce
Ich stelle meiner Freundin meinen Bruder vor.
I introduce my brother to my girlfriend.
This one is simply an indirect object and is not reflexive in any way.
Ich stelle mich ihrer Mutter vor.
I introduce myself to her mother.
This one is reflexive, because the person doing the introducing is the same as the one being introduced.
vorstellen – to imagine
Ich stelle mir ihre Mutter vor.
I imagine her mother.
This sentence is definitely going to get you into trouble. This is one of those times when you really need to pay attention to the case system in German. Dative for imagining. Accusative for introducing.
Ich stelle mir den Strand vor.
I imagine the beach.
You know, while daydreaming when your brain goes numb from trying to understand reflexive stuff in German class. This one is reflexive, because the one imagining something is the same as the one for whom it is being imagined.
How to Use German Reflexive Pronouns
Herr Lehrer: Ok, Herr Smartypants. I get it. Can we please just get to the part where you teach about the reflexive pronouns and how to use them already?
Herr Antrim: Sure. The system is simple. Think of the verb as a mirror. The subject looks into the verb and sees a reflection of itself on the other side. Just like in a real mirror, what you see on the other side is not an exact replica of the subject, but rather a reflection (reflexive pronoun). Occasionally the mirror is one of those one-way mirrors and the subject is the cop on the other side. They don’t see themselves, but rather the direct or indirect object on the other side of the mirror. You can, however, see yourself in one of those one-way mirrors, if you just focus on yourself instead of looking through the glass. This is what happens when you use a verb that doesn’t have to be used reflexively, but you do it anyway. Example time:
Er badet sich.
He bathes (himself).
This is being used as if you are the criminal in the interrogation room. You can only see yourself. This verb is usually used reflexively. He can only see himself through this verb, as both he and himself are the ones being bathed.
Er badet seinen Hund.
He bathes his dog.
This is being used as if you are the cop on the outside of the interrogation room. The verb is the one-way mirror. He can look straight through the mirror (verb) to see his dog.
Reflexive Pronouns vs Personal Pronouns
When it comes to the pronouns, they really aren’t difficult either and they actually simplify this whole issue about the verbs. The only ones that aren’t the same as the personal pronouns are the 3rd person pronouns. er, sie, es and the plural sie all use “sich” as their reflexive pronouns. Since the formal you “Sie” is always the same as the plural “they” form, this pronoun also requires the reflexive counterpart “sich”. If you don’t remember from my video about the personal pronouns, the formal you “Sie” actually evolved from the plural they form “sie”.
For those of you who like charts, I would recommend this version.
At first glance, this may confuse some of you. The point of this chart is to compare when the personal and reflexive pronouns are the same and when they differ. The reason I like to show things this way is to show how often the reflexive and personal pronouns are the same.
If personal pronouns and reflexive pronouns are often the same, why do we need to know that they are different?
Ich liebe dich.
I love you.
Du liebst nur dich.
You only love yourself.
Both use the pronoun “dich”, but only one of them is reflexive. If the pronoun is the same does it really matter if you know which one is reflexive? Yes. Then you can tell when to use “sich” when it actually does change.
Kanye liebt ihn nicht.
Kanye doesn’t love him.
Kanye liebt sich.
Kanye loves himself.
That being said, it is also helpful to know that if “wir” is not being used as the subject, it is always “uns” regardless of how it is used.
Wir sind gute Freunde.
We are good friends.
(Not reflexive, nominative, subject)
Meine Mutter mag uns.
My mother likes us.
(Not reflexive, accusative direct object)
Meine Mutter kauft uns die gleiche Kleidung.
My mother buys us the same clothes.
(Not reflexive, dative, indirect object)
Wir mögen uns.
We like each other.
(Reflexive, accusative, direct object)
Wir kaufen uns die Kleidung.
We are buying the clothing for ourselves.
(Reflexive, dative, indirect object.
Can I get a list of verbs that can be used reflexively in German?
Herr Lehrer: Fine. I get it. There is no such thing as a reflexive verb only verbs used reflexively. Some are always used reflexively and some are just as likely to be used non-reflexively as they are reflexively. Can you at least give me a list of verbs that are always used reflexively, so I can memorize that list?
Herr Antrim: Of course. But lists are boring, so how about some example sentences and labels that show you if they are always this way or just sometimes?
Herr Lehrer: That’ll do, Donkey. That’ll do.
German Verbs That Are Always Used Reflexively
to watch something
Du siehst dir ein paar YouTube Videos an.
You watch a few YouTube videos.
Mein Bruder benimmt sich in der Schule nicht.
My brother doesn’t behave himself in school.
Die Lehrerin beeilt sich in das Klassenzimmer.
The teacher hurries into the classroom.
to recover, recuperate
Das Mädchen erholt sich im Krankenhaus.
The girl is recuperating in the hospital.
to catch a cold
Wir erkälten uns, wenn wir draußen gehen.
We catch a cold when we go outside.
to look forward to
Freut ihr euch auf das Wochenende?
Are you looking forward to the weekend?
to be happy about
Sie freuen sich über das Ergebnis.
They are happy about the result.
to get used to
Ich habe mich an meine neue Wohnung gewöhnt.
I have grown accustomed to my new apartment.
Konzentrier dich an deine Hausaufgaben!
Concentrate on your homework.
to fall in love
Das Paar hat sich verliebt.
The couple fell in love.
to be amazed, surprised
Er wundert sich, dass er noch am leben ist.
He is amazed that he is still alive.
German Verbs That Are Sometimes Used Reflexively, but Don’t Have to Be
to get worked up/upset
Immer wenn ich mein Essen zu laut kaue, regt sich mein Vater auf.
When I chew my food too loudly, my father always gets worked up.
Mein lautes Kauen regt ihn auf.
My loud chewing gets him worked up.
Ich erinnere mich an meine schöne Zeit in Deutschland.
I remember my beautiful time in Germany.
Du erinnerst mich an einen Kürbis.
You remind me of a pumpkin.
to dry off
Nach dem Bad trocknet er sich ab.
After the bath, he dries himself off.
Nach dem Bad trocknet er seinen Sohn ab.
After the bath, he dries off his son.
das Bein brechen
to break one’s leg
Ich habe mir das Bein auf der Treppe gebrochen.
I broke my leg on the stairs.
Die Gangster haben mir das Bein gebrochen.
The gangsters broke my leg.
die Haare bürsten
to brush one’s hair
Das Mädchen bürstet sich die Haare.
The girl is brushing her hair.
Ihre Mutter bürstet ihr die Haare.
Her mother is brushing her (the girl’s) hair.
to get dressed
Zieh dir die Kleidung an, oder ich werde dir die Kleidung anziehen!
Put your clothes on or I will put your clothes on (for you).
(Reflexive in the 1st half and not reflexive in the 2nd half.)
Wie fühlst du dich heute?
How do you feel today?
Ich fühle die Sonne auf meiner Haut.
I feel the sun on my skin.
die Zähne putzen
to brush one’s teeth
Der Junge putzt sich die Zähne.
The boy brushes his teeth.
Ich putze meinem Sohn die Zähne.
I brush my son’s teeth.
to lie down
Sie legt sich eine Weile auf das Sofa.
She lies down on the sofa.
Sie legt das Baby auf das Sofa.
She lays the baby onto the sofa.
to be interested
Ich interessiere mich für Pokémon.
I am interested in Pokémon.
Pokémon interessiert mich.
Pokémon interests me.
to imagine, introduce
When this one is used to mean “imagine”, it is always reflexive. When it means “to introduce”, it depends who is introducing whom to whom.
Er stellt sich vor, er ist im Schloss.
He imagines he is in the castle.
Er stellt sich vor.
He introduces himself.
Context is key, since there is none, it can mean both and can be used as a word play opportunity.
Er stellt sich ihrer Mutter vor.
He introduces himself to her mother.
Er stellt seiner Freundin seine Mutter vor.
He introduces his mother to his girlfriend.
This one can be used reflexively or not. The meaning changes ever so slightly. See if you can pick up on it.
Der Chef entscheidet, was wir am Montag machen.
The boss decides what we are doing on Monday.
Ich entscheide mich für die Maultaschen.
I make up my mind for the German ravioli.
The reflexive version is more personal. It implies that the decision was made for oneself instead of someone else or for the group.
I hope this clears up some of the confusion around the so-called “reflexive verbs”. If you are struggling with other grammar topics, I have a ton of videos on this channel about German grammar. For videos like this one in which I flip the way you think about German grammar, check out my “You’re doing it WRONG!” playlist. Das ist alles für heute. Danke fürs Zuschauen. Bis zum nächsten Mal. Tschüss.