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The basics of reflexive verbs

You've probably heard about a special kind of verb found in Italian: the reflexive verb — il verbo riflessivo. It's a kind of verb that in its direct or indirect form pervades the Italian language. It's hard to get a sentence out without using one! The basic premise is that with a reflexive verb, the subject and the direct object are the same. See these video lessons about the reflexive.  Since English works differently, the Italian reflexive verb can be tricky to understand, translate, and use. Let's look at the components.

From transitive verb to reflexive

Often, a reflexive verb starts out as a transitive verb, such as lavare (to wash). 

On my list of things to do, one item might be:

Lavare la macchina (wash the car).

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The action is "to wash" and the direct object is la macchina (the car). The car can't wash itself. We need a subject. Who washes the car in the family?

Io lavo la macchina (I wash the car).

Pietro lava la macchina (Pietro washes the car).

 

But in a reflexive verb, the subject and the object are the same. They coincide. In English we might say something like, I'll go and get washed up. We use "get." In Italian, we use the reflexive form of a verb. In the infinitive, we join the reflexive pronoun si to verb, leaving out the final e , and we use a detached reflexive pronoun when we conjugate the verb. 

From the transitive verb lavare, we obtain lavarsi (to wash [oneself]).

 

Recognizing a reflexive verb

One way we can recognize a reflexive verb is by the tell-tale si at the end of the infinitive form,* in this case, lavarsi. The second way to detect a direct reflexive verb, is in being able to replace the reflexive pronoun with sé stesso (oneself). 

Let's make a checklist for the reflexive verb lavarsi.

1) It has the reflexive pronoun si at the end in the infinitive. √

2) I can say lavo me stesso/a (I wash myself). √

 

Here are some other common direct reflexive verbs. Do they pass the test?

lavarsi (to wash [oneself])

alzarsi (to get up)

vestirsi (to get dressed)

preocuparsi (to worry)

chiedersi (to wonder)

spogliarsi (to get undressed)

sedersi (to sit down)

chiamarsi (to be named)

 

See this lesson about reflexive verbs. It takes you through the conjugations and discusses transitive vs reflexive verbs in terms of meaning. Once you have grasped the basic reflexive verb and how to use it, let's move on to a slightly murkier version.  

 

Indirect reflexives (they work in a similar way to direct reflexives)

 

Something as basic as washing your face needs some understanding of the reflexive in Italian. We looked at lavarsi. That's a whole-body experience. But if we start looking at body parts, we still use the reflexive, even though it's indirect.

 

Instead of saying, "I wash my face," using a possessive pronoun as we do in English, Italians use the logic, "Hey, of course, it's my face on my body — I don't need to say whose face it is." So they use the reflexive to refer to the person, but add on "the face." 

Mi lavo la faccia (I wash my face).

 

So there is a direct object in the sentence that doesn't coincide exactly with the subject (you are not your face), but it's still part of you and so we can say it's somewhat reflexive. It's indirectly reflexive. In grammatical terms, it's also pronominal, because we use the (reflexive) pronoun with the verb.

 

*Caveat: The pronoun si can and does have additional functions, but if the verb is reflexive, this si will be there in the infinitive, and we can look up the reflexive verb in the dictionary. 

Practically Speaking

Try using the above-mentioned reflexive formula (with lavare) for other body parts. Start with yourself, and then go on to other people like your brother, or to keep it simpler, use someone's name. 

i capelli (the hair)

i denti (the teeth)

i piedi (the feet)

le mani (the hands)

 

Examples:

Giulia si lava i capelli una volta alla settimana (Giulia washes her hair once a week).

Io mi lavo i capelli tutti giorni (I wash my hair every day).

Vado a lavarmi le mani (I'm going to wash my hands).

 

Fare (to make, to do) gets involved.

Let's take the indirect reflexive one step further. Sometimes instead of using a verb form like "to shower," we'll use the noun. Sometimes there isn't an adequate, specific verb to use. In English, we take a shower. Italian uses fare to mean "to make," "to do," and "to take." And since taking a shower is usually a very personal activity, having to do with one's body, we use the reflexive form of fare plus the noun la doccia (the shower) to say this. We could even leave out the reflexive (since there is a direct object - doccia:

Faccio una doccia (I take a shower, I'm going to take a shower).

 

It is more common, however, to personalize it, to emphasize the person involved. Italians would normally say:

Mi faccio la doccia (I'm going to take a shower).

Mi faccio una doccia (I'm going to take a shower).

Vai a farti la doccia (Go take a shower).

 

And just as easily, I can ask you if you are going to take a shower.

Ti fai la doccia (are you going to take a shower)?

 

And if we speak in the third person with a modal verb, we'll see that the infinitive of fare, in this case, has all the trappings of a reflexive verb, that tell-tale si at the end of the infinitive:

Pietro vuole farsi la doccia (Pietro wants to take a shower).

 

Mi faccio la doccia alle sette e mezza.

I take a shower at half past seven [seven and a half].

Caption 7, Marika spiega - L'orologio

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There is another verb we use when talking about our bodies. We have vestirsi (to get dressed) but Italians also use an indirect reflexive to mean "to wear," or, to use the basic translation of mettere — "to put on." The verb is mettersi [qualcosa] (to wear something). This verb is discussed in the lesson about wearing clothes in Italian

Cosa mi metto stasera per andare alla festa (what am I going to wear tonight to go to the party)?

 

In the next lesson, we'll look at ways we use the indirect reflexive to be more expressive. 

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