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What Is a Reflexive Verb?

Meg Higa
Meg Higa

A sentence using a reflexive verb contains subject and object nouns which are the same. In the example, “She embarrassed herself,” the subject pronoun “she” and the direct object pronoun “herself” are the same person. The verb, expressing her action or state of being, is not applied to a different person or thing and can be said to reflect back to her.

There are some verbs which are so inherently reflective that the direct object noun can be omitted and understood to refer back to the subject. In most cases, a reflexive verb will be contextual. The same verb in the example of the previous paragraph can be used, “She embarrassed her mother.” This time, the verb is not reflexive. Some linguists and others who study the structure of languages refer to the subject and object of a sentence as “agent and patient.”

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Most languages have rules or conventions of grammar for constructing reflexive sentences. Some languages dictate a change to the form of the verb to clearly indicate its reflexive use. In Spanish, for example, the particle “se” is attached to the end of the verb as a suffix. In Romanian, the same particle must precede the verb. An uncommon English convention is to transform some words into a reflexive verb with the attachment of the hyphenated prefix “self-“ such as in “self-injure.”

In English, the same word “self” is also typically attached to a pronoun that is the object of the sentence. “She embarrassed her,” can refer to anyone; but “herself” clearly specifies that the verb is reflexive. Changing the form of a pronoun when it is a direct object is common in other languages also. Some linguists refer to the reflexive verb as a “pronominal verb,” because they almost always, in many languages, require a direct object that is a pronoun.

Many of the older European languages change the form of both the reflexive verb and its object pronoun in ways that are quite complex. Some languages of Germanic origin have different rules for changing the pronouns based on person and number — me, us, you, her or them. Other languages may have as many as a dozen slightly different variations of correct grammar, based on subtleties such as the nature of either agent or patient. For example, one form of a reflexive verb may apply to an animate agent such as a person, whereas the same verb may require a different form when used for inanimate things.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books