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What Is a Pronominal Verb?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A pronominal verb is a type of verb that can be used to indicate an action is being done by the subject of a sentence on itself. This means that in these sentences, the subject and object of an action are the same. In English, this is usually indicated through the use of a regular verb and a reflexive pronoun as the object, such as “himself.” A pronominal verb in English does not always require an object, if it can be implied, while other languages such as French require an object for grammatical accuracy.

The basic function of a pronominal verb, sometimes called a reflexive verb, is to indicate that something or someone is doing an action on itself. A simple example of this is in a phrase like “he washed himself,” in which the subject “he” is performing the action and receiving it. Such verbs are usually transitive, which means that they require both a subject, which is the person or thing taking the action, and an object, which is the target of that action. Intransitive verbs, which do not require an object such as “run” or “sleep”, are not usually used as a pronominal verb.

In English, the use of a pronominal verb is typically accompanied by an object that is the target of that verb. This is done to avoid confusion in a phrase like “he punched himself,” in which it indicates that the action is reflexive. The form of the verb itself is not particularly special in order to act as a pronominal verb, but instead functions normally and the reflexive pronoun as the object makes it pronominal. There are some instances, however, in which an object is not required, and yet the action is still done by the subject on itself, in these cases the object is implied by the statement, such as “she thinks” rather than “she thinks to herself.”

A pronominal verb in other languages, however, may require an object in all instances, rather than allowing for an implied object. In French, for example, the use of a pronominal verb is always accompanied by a subject and object that both have the same gender and number, and indicate that an action is reflexive. The phrase “tu te laves” is French for “you wash yourself” and indicates both the person as a subject, “tu” and as an object “te.” These verbs often have special rules in various romance languages, such as the use of a clitic or half-word to indicate the object pronoun in Spanish.

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