German Reflexive Pronouns – Reflexivpronomen

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Reflexivpronomen: German Reflexive Pronouns

After the last two articles on Possessivartikeln (possessive pronouns) and Personalpronomen (personal pronouns), this article will take a look at Reflexivpronomen, or reflexive pronouns.

Reflexive pronouns are used with reciprocal verbs and reflexive verbs.

Before we go into the details of when and where to use them, we shall first look at the various forms of reflexive pronouns and how they change.

Construction

The reflexive pronoun must agree with the subject. They only come in two cases: accusative and dative.

  • For the first person (ich and wir) and second person informal (du and ihr), the reflexive pronoun is identical to the personal pronoun, following the case.
  • For the second person formal (Sie) and the third person, the reflexive pronoun is always sich.
  • The reflexive pronouns differ in the accusative and dative cases only for the first and second person singular (ich and du).
    Personalpronomen Reflexivpronomen
Kasus Nom. Akk. Dat.
Singular 1. Person ich mich mir
2. Person vertraulichen Form du dich dir
Höflichkeitsform Sie sich sich
3. Person Maskulin er sich sich
Neutral es
Feminin sie
Plural 1. Person wir uns uns
2. Person vertraulichen Form ihr euch euch
Höflichkeitsform Sie sich sich
3. Person sie sich sich

Or a more condensed form would be:

Personalpronomen Reflexivpronomen
Nom. Akk. Dat.
ich mich mir
du dich dir
er / es / sie / Sie sich sich
wir uns uns
ihr euch euch

Here is the comparison with the personal pronouns.

The rows where the personal pronouns differ from the reflexive pronouns are highlighted in yellow.

    Personalpronomen Reflexivpronomen
Kasus Nom. Akk. Dat. Akk. Dat.
Singular 1. Person ich mich mir mich mir
2. Person vertraulichen Form du dich dir dich dir
Höflichkeitsform Sie Sie Ihnen sich sich
3. Person Maskulin er ihn ihm sich sich
Neutral es es ihm
Feminin sie sie ihr
Plural 1. Person wir uns uns uns uns
2. Person vertraulichen Form ihr euch euch euch euch
Höflichkeitsform Sie Sie Ihnen sich sich
3. Person sie sie ihnen sich sich
  • The reflexive pronoun usually appears right after the conjugated verb (when the subject is in Position 1). Otherwise, the reflexive pronoun appears right after the subject.

Here are various examples of the word order in independent clauses (Hauptsätze).

Tense

Accusative

Dative

Present

Ich wasche mich.

Heute wasche ich mich.

Wäschst du dich?

Er wäscht sich nicht.

Ich wasche mir die Hände.

Heute wasche ich mir die Hände.

Wäschst du dir die Hände?

Er wäscht sich nicht die Hände.

Present Perfect

Ich habe mich gewaschen.

Heute habe ich mich gewaschen.

Hast du dich gewaschen?

Er hat sich nicht gewaschen.

Ich habe mir die Hände gewaschen.

Heute habe ich mir die Hände gewaschen.

Hast du dir die Hände gewaschen?

Er hat sich nicht die Hände gewaschen.

The rules are a little more elaborate for dependent clauses, and I may cover this in a future article. (But if you want a good resource, this site discusses the position of reflexive pronouns in sentences in German.)

We will now look at the verbs with which you will use reflexive pronouns.

Reciprocal Verbs

As mentioned earlier, reflexive pronouns are used with reciprocal verbs and reflexive verbs.

Reciprocal verbs are normal verbs, but when used in a way that conveys the meaning that the subjects are doing the verb to one another. In this case, a plural subject is required. Hence, the term reciprocal.

German has a word (or two) for this: einander or miteinander.

Examples:

  • küssen: Der Mann und seine Frau küssen sich. (The man and his wife kiss each other.)
  • sehen: Wir sehen uns. (We see each other.)

Reflexive Verbs

These are the verbs where the infinitive have the reflexive prounoun “sich”.

The subject of a reflexive verb is the same as its object, conveying the idea of something being done to oneself.

Here are some examples:

  • sich ansehen (to watch [something, e.g. a film])
  • sich anziehen (to get dressed)
  • sich bedanken (to thank)
  • sich beeilen (to hurry)
  • sich drehen (to revolve)
  • sich entspannen (to relax)
  • sich erkälten (to catch a cold)
  • sich interessieren (to be interested in)
  • sich rasieren (to shave)
  • sich schminken (to put on makeup)
  • usw…

What qualifies as something being done to oneself depends on the language. German has many more reflexive verbs than English.

As you might have realised, some of the verbs above do not require a reflexive pronoun in English.

For example, sich anziehen (to get dressed) is not reflexive in English. Although it can be translated as “to dress oneself”, normally you would say “I’m getting dressed”, as opposed to  “I’m dressing myself” or something else with a reflexive construction.

This is also true of sich rasieren (to shave). You would say “I shaved this morning” instead of “I shaved myself this morning.”

However, in these two examples, you can get the sense that they are actions that you are doing to yourself and implicitly carry a reflexive meaning in English.

Reflexive Pronouns in the Accusative

The reflexive pronouns are in the accusative when there is no other object (apart from the subject) in the sentence*:

  • Ich wasche mich.
  • Du duschst dich.
  • Heike entspannt sich.
  • Wir interessieren uns für Musik.

*As you will see in the next section, there is an exception to this. This is when the verb requires a dative object.

Reflexive Pronouns in the Dative

Verbs with pronouns in accusative and dative

For verbs whose reflexive pronouns that are normally in the accusative can sometimes in the dative when there is another object in the sentence:

Examples:

  • Ich wasche mir die Hände.
  • Meine Schwester hat sich ein neues Handy gekauft.

Did you notice how sich waschen was earlier used in the accusative, as in Ich wasche mich?

However, in the sentence sentence Ich wasche mir die Hände, there is a direct object – my hands (die Hände).

Whenever there is a direct object, then the reflexive pronoun is in the dative.

Verbs with pronouns only in the dative: Sentence has another direct object

Then there are the verbs where the reflexive pronoun is always in the dative, but there is also another object in the sentence.

These verbs must have another object; it doesn’t make sense to only have the reflexive pronoun.

Examples:

  • sich [etw.] vorstellen (to imagine [something]): Können Sie sich das vorstellen? (Can you imagine that?)
  • sich Mühe geben (to try/to make an effort): Du gibst dir nicht genug Mühe. (You are not trying hard enough.)

Verbs with pronouns only in the dative: Verb takes dative object

However, with some special reflexive verbs that require a dative object, the reflexive pronoun is in the dative even when there is no object.

An example is sich schaden (to harm oneself): Ich schade mir. (I harm myself.)

True Reflexive Verbs and False Reflexive Verbs

True (or real) reflexive verbs are always reflexive. That is, they must always be accompanied by a reflexive pronoun that points to the subject.

You simply cannot omit the reflexive pronoun. If you do, the sentence will either make no sense (because the verb doesn’t work without a reflexive pronoun), or its meaning will change (because the verb without the reflexive pronoun carries another meaning).

In German, they are called echte Reflexive Verben.

Examples from above:

  • sich bedanken (to thank)
  • sich beeilen (to hurry)
  • sich entspannen (to relax)
  • sich erkälten (to catch a cold)
  • Sich [etw.] vorstellen (to imagine)
  • sich Mühe geben (to try/to make an effort)

Other examples:

  • sich bewerben (to apply)
  • sich erholen (to recover)

Other verbs (the “false” reflexive verbs) take on a reflexive pronouns and are considered reflexive only when the subject is the same as the object. Otherwise, they are normal transitive verbs.

These are called unechte Reflexive Verben in German. In English it might be appropriate to call them partially reflexive.

Examples from above:

  • sich [etw.] ansehen (to watch [something])
  • sich anziehen (to get dressed)
  • sich drehen (to revolve)
  • sich rasieren (to shave)
  • sich schminken (to put on makeup)
  • sich interessieren (to be interested in)

You might have noticed that verbs that work with both accusative and dative reflexive pronouns fall into this category.

Exercises

Questions

Reflexivpronomen

  1. Wir sehen _______. (We see each other.)
  2. Ihr putzt _______ die Zähne. (You brush your teeth.)
  3. Ich habe _______ das Spiel im Fernsehen angeschaut. (I saw the game on TV.)
  4. Sara macht _______ Tee. (Sara makes herself tea.)
  5. Du kümmerst _______ darum. (You care about that.)
  6. Die Erde dreht _______ um die Sonne. (The earth revolves around the sun.)
  7. Jeden Tag schminkt meine Schwester _______. (My sister puts on makeup every day.)
  8. Ich entspanne _______. (I relax.)
  9. Tobias und Ana treffen _______. (Tobias and Ana meet each other.)
  10. Wir wollen _______ bei dir für deine Einladung bedanken. (We want to thank you for your invitation.)

Personalpronomen und Reflexivpronomen

Ready for something harder?

These bonus questions require you to fill in both the personal pronoun and the reflexive pronoun. (Click here for the article on personal pronouns.)

  1. _______ hat _______ den Kopf rasiert. (He shaved his head.)
  2. _______ erinnere _______  an alles, was du _______ sagst. (I remember everything you tell me.)

Answers

Reflexivpronomen

  1. Wir sehen uns.
  2. Ihr putzt euch die Zähne.
  3. Ich habe mir das Spiel im Fernsehen angeschaut.
  4. Sara macht sich Tee.
  5. Du kümmerst dich darum.
  6. Die Erde dreht sich um die Sonne.
  7. Jeden Tag schminkt meine Schwester sich.
  8. Ich entspanne mich.
  9. Tobias und Ana treffen sich.
  10. Wir wollen uns bei dir für deine Einladung bedanken.

Personalpronomen und Reflexivpronomen

  1. Er hat sich den Kopf rasiert.
  2. Ich erinnere mich an alles, was du mir sagst.