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 different, 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!
You’ll learn the following:
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:
Keep reading for examples of both types of verbs in English & in German!
Also coming up: tables of English & German reflexive pronouns!
To use a reflexive pronoun in English, you need to look for 2 things:
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.
I’ll dress the baby (non-reflexive direct object)
I’ll dress myself (reflexive direct object)
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):
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:
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
sich (dat.) etwas (acc.) ausdenken — to think up something (acc).
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
Non-reflexive: Ich widerspreche ihm — I contradict him.
Reflexive: Ich widerspreche mir — I contradict myself.
Non-reflexive: Er schadet dir — He’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.
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’.
Almost any verb that requires an object (note: these are called transitive verbs) may optionally take a reflexive pronoun.
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.