German Reflexive Pronouns: Your Essential Guide

At this point in learning German, you’re used to some things being different from English.

That’s good. Because here’s more: reflexive pronouns 😇.

Although how they’re made is quite difference, reflexive pronouns in German are (thankfully) very simple — arguably not at all harder than reflexive pronouns in English.

Good news: reflexive pronouns are used a lot more in German than in English. So, you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck by learning them!

More good news: if you’re well-versed in accusative & dative pronouns already, learning the reflexive ones will be a cinch because they’re all almost the same!

You’ll learn the following:

  • What are the reflexive pronouns?
  • How do reflexive pronouns in English & German compare?
  • When do you use accusative reflexive pronouns?
  • When do you use dative reflexive pronouns?
  • When do you use a reflexive pronoun vs. a regular pronoun?
  • How do you know which reflexive pronoun to pick?

Section 1: The Basics
What you need to know to start getting the hang of reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are used to refer back to a person already mentioned.

Most of the time, you’ll use reflexive pronouns to indicate that the subject of the sentence is doing something to himself or herself, e.g.

I cry myself to sleep at night.

Here, the reflexive pronoun ‘myself’ is referring back to the subject (‘I’) who is taking the action of crying (himself/herself) to sleep.

In fact, you can’t really talk about reflexive pronouns at all without talking about reflexive verbs.

In both English & German, there are 2 groups of verbs that require (or at least allow) for a reflexive pronoun:

  1. TRUE reflexive verbs — a reflexive pronoun is an integral part of these verbs!
  2. Optional reflexive verbs — the direct / indirect object may be the same person as the subject OR may be a totally different person.

Keep reading for examples of both types of verbs in English & in German!
Also coming up: tables of English & German reflexive pronouns!

How do reflexive pronouns work in English?

To use a reflexive pronoun in English, you need to look for 2 things:

  1. Does the VERB require a direct object in order to make sense?
  2. If yes, is the person taking the action THE SAME as the person receiving the action?

There are very few verbs in English that must be reflexive (category #1) and they are uncommon (i.e. we’ll usually opt for a different construction that avoids reflexive pronouns):

I pride myself in …
I content myself with …
I behave / comport myself …
I devote myself to …
I absent myself from …
I avail myself of …
I busy myself with …
I ingratiate myself with …

But there are many category #2 verbs that may be reflexive!

Let’s look at 2 examples, ‘to dress’ and ‘to introduce’. Both of these verbs require a direct object — we have to know whom is being dressed / introduced.

  1. TO DRESS:

I’ll dress the baby (non-reflexive direct object)
I’ll dress myself (reflexive direct object)

Note: Under normal circumstances, we would NOT say ‘I’ll dress myself’ in English. We would say ‘I’ll get dressed.’

BUT if someone else were trying to insist that they would dress us, we would say, ‘No, I’ll dress MYSELF!’

This helps make the point that optionally reflexive verbs are often used for emphasis and/or to protest something.

  1. TO INTRODUCE:

I’ll introduce the new coworker to the rest of the office.
I’ll introduce myself to my new colleagues.

If you know that you’re dealing with a verb that needs a direct object AND you know that the subject and the direct object of the sentence are the same person, now you just need to pick out the right reflexive pronoun!

How do you do that?

In English, the answer is simple: take the ‘object pronouns’ my, your, him, her, it, our, and them and then add ‘self’ (singular) or ‘selves’ (plural):

How reflexive pronouns work in German

German uses the SAME categories of reflexive verbs that get paired with reflexive pronouns.

BUT, unlike English, there are many, many, common TRUE reflexive verbs that require reflexive pronouns (and then still plenty optional reflexive verbs!).

Then, the next big difference is that German has TWO types of reflexive pronouns (not just one in English!).

To use German reflexive pronouns properly, you have to know whether you need an accusative or a dative reflexive pronoun.

You’ll notice that there are fewer reflexive pronouns than any other group of pronouns — hooray!

And if you’ve already studied regular (i.e. non-reflexive) accusative and dative pronouns, you’ll recognize most of this chart already!

These are the ONLY differences:

  • the 3rd Person, Singular & Plural use just sich as a reflexive pronoun for all of them! No more distinctions between masculine, feminine, or neuter 3rd Persons!
  • the Formal 2nd Person (singular & plural) — Sie— ALSO uses sich as its reflexive pronoun because the formal You (Siealways takes the same pronoun forms as the 3rd Person Plural, ‘they’ (sie), just capitalized!

Section 2: Putting it into practice
When & how to use reflexive pronouns

True Reflexive Verbs

Unlike in English, there are many common German reflexive verbs that require reflexive pronouns (either in the accusative or the dative).

Until sheer exposure to these true reflexive verbs has helped you commit them to memory, you can find them listed in a German-English dictionary like this:

sich (acc.) ausruhen — to rest / relax
OR
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) ausdenken — to think up something (acc).

In the Accusative

Some of the most common TRUE reflexive verbs that always require a reflexive pronoun (in these instances, in the accusative), are the following:

sich amüsieren — to amuse oneself
sich ausruhen — to rest / relax
sich beeilen — to hurry
sich benehmen — to behave oneself
sich entschuldigen — to apologize
sich erholen — to recover
sich erkälten — to catch a cold
sich (wohl / schlecht) fühlen — to feel (well/ill)
sich langweilen — to be bored
sich umsehen — to look around
sich verlaufen / verfahren — to get lost / go the wrong way (on foot/ by car)
sich verspäten — to be late

Examples:

Ich ruhe mich jeden Sonntag aus (I rest / relax every Sunday).
Du sollst dich beeilen! (You should hurry!)
Er hat sich schlecht benommen (He behaved himself poorly).
Wir wollen uns entschuldigen (We want to apologize …)
Habt ihr euch erkältet? (Did y’all catch a cold?)
Sie haben sich beim Theater gelangweilt (They were bored at the theater).

In the Dative

There are not many true reflexive verbs that require a dative object (noun / pronoun). For those that do exist, notice that they ALL also require a direct object (accusative)!

sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) aneignen — to acquire/adopt/appropriate something
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) einbilden — to imagine something*
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) verbitten — to refuse to tolerate something
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) vornehmen– to undertake something
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) vorstellen — to imagine something*
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) zuziehen — to contract something (e.g. an illness)

*einbilden has a negative connotation, as in ‘making something up’ (that’s patently false, e.g. like you’re the most wonderful, patient doctor ever, when actually you’re horribly impatient, etc.)

*vorstellen has a positive connotation (as in a happy daydream) and also what you’d use to say that you can only ‘imagine’ what someone else is going through.

Examples:

Ich habe mir eine libertäre Philosophie angeeignet — I’ve adopted a libertarian philosophy.
Das bildest du dir nur ein! — You’re just imagining things / making things up!
Sie verbittet ihr, krasse Witze anzuhören — She refuses to listen to crass jokes.
Wir haben uns einen großen Projekt vorgenommen — We have taken on a big project.
Stellt ihr euch vor, wir wären reich — Just imagine we were rich!
Sie haben sich Keuchhusten zugezogen — They contracted whooping cough.

Optionally Reflexive Verbs

In the Accusative

Virtually any verb that needs a direct object may optionally be reflexive!

Non-reflexive: Ich sehe dich im Spiegel — I see you in the mirror.
Reflexive: Ich sehe mich im Spiegel — I see myself in the mirror.

Non-reflexive: Ich lege das Buch hierhin — I’ll lay the book down here.
Reflexive: Ich lege mich hierhin — I’ll lie [myself] down here.

In the Dative

Some verbs may be used with a reflexive dative object

There are 2 groups of these verbs: ones that require only a dative object, and ones that require an accusative object with an optional dative (reflexive or not).

Only a dative object:

Non-reflexive: Ich widerspreche ihm I contradict him.
Reflexive: Ich widerspreche mir — I contradict myself.

Non-reflexive: Er schadet dirHe’s harming you
Reflexive: Er schadet sich— He’s harming himself

NOTE: verbs default to requiring an accusative object, so it’s necessary to memorize the relatively short list of ‘dative verbs’. Of those, only a very small handful would make sense to optionally use reflexively.

Required accusative, Optional [reflexive] dative:

Non-reflexive: Ich kaufe (dir) ein neues Kleid  — I’ll buy (you) a new dress.
Reflexive: Ich kaufe (mir) ein neues Kleid — I’ll buy (myself) a new dress.

Using the dative in both of these instances — reflexive or not — is OPTIONAL.

The optional dative object in this example is an example of the ‘dative of reference / benefaction’.

Summary

Almost any verb that requires an object (note: these are called transitive verbs) may optionally take a reflexive pronoun.

  • As with verbs in general, after you’ve filled up your nominative ‘slot’ with your subject, default to putting the next noun into the accusative ‘slot’ (<– in this instance, using an accusative reflexive pronoun!). Most verbs take accusative objects!
  • Exception: ‘dative verbs’ that require dative objects will, of course, require dative reflexive pronouns! It is a relatively short list of ‘dative verbs’ (that may optionally be used reflexively) and these have to be memorized.

There are also some verbs that have to be reflexive (so, take reflexive objects in either the accusative or dative). These do not have good English equivalents, so, again, memorizing is key.

  • If the sentence is as short as subject + reflexive verb + reflexive pronoun, opt for an accusative pronoun (this lines up with the previous points on defaulting to the accusative).
  • If the sentence has TWO objects, the person receiving the action (who is, of course, the same as the subject) will be in the dative case and the other object will be in the accusative.
    • EXAMPLE: Ich wasche mich (I wash myself [accusative]), but Ich wasche mir die Haare (‘I wash myself [dative] the hair’ [accusative])

Main Takeaways

  1. Reflexive pronouns are used when the person taking the action (<– the subject) is the same person who is receiving the action (<– the object).
  2. Whether a reflexive pronoun is needed is a matter of what verb is being used.
  3. In English, there are very few verbs that require a reflexive pronoun. But in German, there are many and they have to be memorized.
  4. Almost any verb, however, may be reflexive even though it doesn’t have to be.
  5. German reflexive pronouns may be in the accusative OR dative case (in English, there is just one option: the ‘objective’ case).
  6. Just like verbs in general, most reflexive verbs that require a reflexive pronoun will take objects in the accusative (not dative).
    1. If there is just ONE object in the sentence, default to putting it into the accusative.
    2. BUT ‘dative verbs’ that are optionally reflexive will take dative objects, of course.
    3. If there are TWO objects in the sentence, the person receiving the action — called the ‘dative of reference’ — will be in the dative case and the thing being acted upon / received / etc. will be in the accusative case.