Reflexive Verbs in German

reflexive-ideaHello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of the Epic YDG Grammar course.
And today, we’ll talk a bit about one of the lesser evils of German, namely

German Reflexive Verbs

And all the important changes that are coming to this area of grammar in 2023.
Which is of course… nothing.
Grammar doesn’t change that fast, luckily. Imagine you had to like learn new rules every year. That would suck.
And speaking of suck… that actually brings me to the common explanations about German reflexive verbs. There’s plenty of blog posts and YouTube videos and textbook chapters and TikTok about the topic, and by and large, they all kind of suck.
And I feel like there’s also quite a bit of general confusion about what actually IS a reflexive verb and what isn’t.

Which is no wonder because reflexive verbs work a little differently in every language.
Just to give you two examples – in Romance languages (like Italian for instance) reflexive verbs have a special way to build the past tense. And in Russian you add something at the end of the verb.

So I think it’s actually worth spending a bit of time on trying to understand what actually makes a verb a reflexive verb.
We will start with a look at how it works in English, and then delve into German.
Here are the quick links so you can jump around (but don’t)

And now let’s jump right in.

First,we need to get some clarity about what reflexive actually means. And instead of a boring explanation, I asked my marketing team to come up with a nice little tag line.

 Reflexive® –  pissing against the wind since 1902.

And for the women, too:

Reflexive®   –    peeing above a metro air vent since 1902.

Great stuff.
Absolutely worth the 23 zoom meetings and multiple thousands of dollars in salary.
Seriously though… that is what most people understand as reflexive.

You do something and you’re also the one it is done to.

And now let’s look at English.

Reflexive verbs in English – or why there aren’t many

What is a reflexive verb in English. A common definition is  that it is an activity for which the agent and the patient are the same. Yeah… whatever. You pee. Wind blows. Pee on pants. End of story. This is what the definition means.
Here are some examples…

  • I see myself in the mirror.
  • The car drives itself.
  • You trust yourself.

There is actually a broader definition that call all verbs reflexive for which the subject is also some kind of object… be it direct, indirect or after a preposition.

  • I love myself.
  • I give myself a kiss.
  • I dream of myself, too.
  • I will marry myself some day.

So, if we go by these definitions,  to see, to drive, to trust, to give are all reflexive verbs, right? Hmmm… I don’t know.  Somewhere online I read that the reflexive pronouns, so myself, yourself and the like, are used with reflexive verbs… WHAT??? So to see is a reflexive verb and that’s why I can use myself with it? That doesn’t make sense. Doesn’t that mean that like 90% of all verbs are reflexive because I can use them that way? Or wait… maybe they are just reflexive verbs when they are used with a reflexive pronoun. So the reflexive pronoun makes them reflexive. But does that mean we have a verb to see and a verb to see oneself? Do they both have entries in the dictionary?  All that is really confusing and doesn’t make much sense to me.
I would suggest to call verbs that can be used in a reflexive way without changing their meaning… verbs. And save the name reflexive verb for those verbs that are special in a way. That solves all those problems. To see and to drive are just verbs, normal, everyday, labor union, 401k having verbs. They can be used in many ways, context and sometimes meanings and one of the contexts is reflexive. But they always mean the same. Why should we call them reflexive verbs then. It is the same verb. I mean, we don’t call to go a past-verb just because we use it in past.

Now, can all verbs be used in a reflexive context? No. For some it doesn’t work…

  • I’ll  go myself.

That doesn’t make sense… or does…

  • “Should I go?”
    “No, I’ll go myself.”

But this myself is NOT a reflexive pronoun (it is called intensifying pronoun here) and the situation is not reflexive. So, just because you see a some-self somewhere doesn’t mean that it is reflexive. You really have to think of the underlying idea… you know… bladder emergency, wind,stain.
Anyway… so there are some English verbs that can’t be used in a reflexive manner…
And then there are some … very very some…. that can ONLY be used in a reflexive way. And those are the ones I would call reflexive verbs. Because they are special. One example is to comport oneself. You can’t say

  • I comport someone or something.

And you also can’t say

  • I comport.

You MUST say

  • I comport myself.

Not because it would add any information. If you can only ever comport yourself, then the word is empty. It is just there because grammar wants it so.
Other examples are to pride oneself or to content oneself and maybe 4 or 5 more but that’s it.

So… the way I see it, is that English can use most of its verbs in a reflexive context. And it has a few real reflexive verbs, that is, verbs that ONLY work reflexively.
Official definitions are different. But who cares. I, Iself do not.
Let’s look at German, because in Complicated it is more Germ… wait… I mixed something up… anyway

Reflexive verbs in German

When we look at the whole reflexive thing in German we come across 3 different cases… no not THOSE cases :). We could say there are 3 groups of verbs.

The first group are the ones that work like most English verbs… so.. normal verbs that can be used reflexively without changing their meaning.

  • Ich sehe mich.
  • Du siehst mich.
  • Ich wasche mich und mein Auto.
  • I wash myself and my car.

In German grammar books, those are often called unechte reflexive Verben… like… phony or false reflexive verbs. This is a weird name because there is nothing phony or false about them. When used in a reflexive way,they totally express the idea of reflexive. I think they should just be called… verbs. Verbs that can be used in a reflexive context. But I’ve already ranted enough about that :).
Now… what’s interesting about this group is that German uses those verbs much more often with a reflexive than English uses its counterparts. And actually most languages do… Spanish, French, Russian… but English is just like:

“I am shaving myself… ugh… too long… hey, hey context could you come over… have a job for you”
“Uhg… AGAIN???… hey English you know what…  if you hadn’t rationalized so much you wouldn’t be so dependent on oth…”
“Ooooh whatever…  I am dominating! I have outperformed them all and I have the most customers worldwide.  So, you’re helping or what?”
“Ugh fine… what is it?”
“So… I’ll just say ‘I’m shaving’ and you’ll do all the implications?”
“Like what… like … only for men and their beards? Or also for women and their legs?”
“All of it. You can do it, buddy.”

This is not how it works in German. You have to spell things out. Let’s take the word to change. In English you can change something or you can just change. In German , you always ändern something. That something can be your shirt, or it can be yourself. But you cannot just ändern.

  • Tomorrow, I will change.
  • Morgen ändere ich…. WRONG

That doesn’t sound complete and every German will be like “What? What do you change?.”

  • Morgen ändere ich mich.

Examples like this are numerous.

  • Thomas and Maria kissed.
  • Thomas und Maria küssen…. what? What do they kiss???
  • Thomas und Maria küssen sich. .. ohhhh okay... each other, I see. (don’t worry, we’ll get to the pronouns later)

and even numerouser….

  • Ich drehe das Lenkrad.
  • I turn the stirring wheel.
  • Die Erde dreht sich.
  • The world turns.

I am being repetitive but I’ll repeat anyway… you drehen something. That can be yourself. But you cannot just drehen.
So…  German uses its normal verbs in a reflexive way so much often because grammar wants it. And it is similar for other languages like Spanish or Russian. English is incredibly liberal with that kind of stuff.
Anyway…are all those reflexive verbs? In my eyes, no. They are just verbs that can be used in a reflexive context…. and that was group 1.

Now we get to the second group, which is probably the most interesting one. Those are the verbs that change their meaning when they are used reflexively. This change can be just a nuance or it can be complete… like a TOTAL change. Or it is somewhere in between and it is up to your mind yoga skills whether you find the meanings different or not.
Let’s do some examples. A very close pair in my eyes is entscheiden and sich entscheiden. Entscheiden means to decide and sich entscheiden means… to decide. The difference is subtle. Sich entscheiden always has a personal component. Suppose someone comes up to you and asks you to make a decision about something you are not personally involved in… like … “Should I use Flamingos or Gibbons as a background for my phone?”… then you would just entscheiden. If you can’t decide whether you want beer or wine, then you need to sich entscheiden. The sich makes it more personal. Managers entscheiden a lot. Women on a shopping spree  entscheiden sich a lot…. or… .. they don’t. Either way… the two words are so close that we could actually put them in group 1.

Let’s look at one with a bigger difference.  Aufhalten. Among other things, it means to stop… because a language can never have enough words for to stop ;) … but it can also mean  to hold up ;)…
Sich aufhalten can mean to hold up oneself. That would be the group 1 thing… you just use the verb in a reflexive context. But sich aufhalten also means to linger, to stay, to be at a place.

  • Ich halte dich im Park auf.
  • I stop you in the park.
  • Ich halte mich im Park auf.
  • I sojourn/stay in the park.

But are the two meanings really that different? Doesn’t holding up someone imply that that person stays at a place? The reflexive version has just a different focus than the normal one, but that is always the case.

  • I close the door.
  • I close the deal.

Also here, the words are not EXACTLY the same… the same idea taken from different perspectives.
So… if we want to we could also put (sich) aufhalten into group 1. I guess it also makes sense to think of sich aufhalten as a verb of its own. Then I would call this a reflexive verb… because it is special in that it only means what it means when used WITH the reflexive pronoun. Anyway… no matter whether you think of them as separate verbs or not, it can definitely help to try and draw a connection between the normal version and the reflexive one.
Now, I said that there are ones where the meaning change is complete, so let’s look at one of those too.

  • Er schickt es nicht.
  • He doesn’t send it.

Schicken means to send. And used in a reflexive context it means to send oneself. But there is another meaning…

  • Es schickt sich nicht.
  • It is inappropriate.

That is clearly something else. It can be explained when you look back at the history of the verb, but nowadays the second version totally like a verb of its own….  a reflexive verb.

And thus we get to the third group…  verbs that can ONLY be used with a self reference. Remember? English had only like 5 of those.
German has more… way more, and many common ones among them. One example is sich beeilen. It means to hurry up  but in German you can’t use it without a self reference.

  • Ich beeile… WRONG
  • Ich beeile meinen Bruder… WRONG
  • Ich beeile mich... correct.
  • I hurry up.

There is NO logical reason why there is a self reference. It just has to be there.It is part of the verb pretty much. Like a prefix.There is no verb beeilen as there is no verb to clude. There is just conclude and  sich beeilen. And other than prefixes, this purely grammatical self reference doesn’t even carry real meaning. It is just part of the verb. In books these verbs are often called “echt reflexiv”  ( genuine reflexive) as opposed to the phony ones we had earlier. Had we called the other ones just verbs, then we could call these ones reflexive verbs… which would make sense to me because the “reflexiveness” is their essence… but jargon is jargon and I can’t just change it I guess.
There is also something you can’t change.. the fact that you have to learn these reflexive verbs by heart…. hehe… that was mean… but it is true. There is no way around it. Let’s take another example… to catch a cold.

  • Ich erkälte mich.
  • I catch a cold.

There is no logical reason for the the self reference other than it just happened that way. In a parallel universe it might be.

  • Ich erkälte.

and that would make just as much sense. But it’s not.
It needs a self reference. Period. This need is in fact so strong, every German thinks of it the verb as sich erkälten… not just erkälten with an optional sich… the sich is part of the verb. So learn sich erkälten... not erkälten.  Sound like a lot of work but that is the bitter truth.
Now… an interesting question is, why?
Why does German have so many weird verbs that essentially have no meaning without a self reference. I don’t know for fact but I think the answer might have to do with what we’ve already seen – the tendency that verbs that need an object REALLY NEED that object.
And while not true for all the verbs it is especially true for verbs with prefixes. Among the German reflexive verbs, many are prefix verbs, like instance sich beeilen or sich erkälten or sich verspäten.

All right. Let’s recap.

Just like in English, or in any other language I guess, you can use many German verbs in a reflexive context. In grammar books those are called “unecht reflexiv”,  a misleading name because they totally stay true to the reflexive idea.
Then, there is a bunch of verbs that change their meaning if used in a reflexive context. For them, it is up to you if you want to see them as separate verbs or as one facet of the normal verb. The better you are at mind yoga, the easier it becomes. Some sources file those under group 1 but in high grammar they are actually filed under group 3. Me personally, I file my nails.
The third group, called group 3… okay, that was obvious… so, those are verbs that don’t exist without a self reference.  The self reference is like a prefix without meaning and is often just there for grammar’s sake. In grammar books they are called “echt reflexiv“. Those are the ones you need to learn and accept as they are.

mir, mich, sich – what’s up with this

Cool. So now that we know about what types of reflexive there are, let’s take a look at the reflexive pronouns… the words that are the self reference. In English, it is pretty simple. You just add -self or -selves to the personal pronoun and you got it. Sometimes, when, there are several people involved, you’ll have to use each other or one another but that’s it.
In German, the reflexive pronouns are pretty much the same as the personal pronouns. We do this:

  • Du siehst mich (You see me)

  • Ich sehe mich ( I see me.)
  • You wash you.
  • We wash us.

That is pretty cool, actually because we can just use the things we always use. The only difference is the third person… so he she it and they. For all those, the reflexive pronoun is sich. Now, why do we have to have an extra pronoun here? Wouldn’t it be easier to just also use the personal ones? Well, yes it would be easier, but it wouldn’t work. You see, if I say me.. then who could I possibly refer to other than myself. Me is always clear and so is you in a given situation. Him is not clear. Him is not clear. Neither is her or them. There are millions of third persons out there and if there are 2 guys in a room either one can be him. 

  • Mike likes him.

Can’t context clear this up for us? Well, sometimes yes.. but not always… and context is very busy with English anyways :)… so it makes sense to have a special reflexive pronoun for the third person.

  • Mike mag sich.
  • Mike likes himself… this is clear now
  • Mike mag ihn.
  • Mike likes him (some other guy… oh crap… there are 3 guys… uh…  hey, context… uh… do you have a minute?).

The cool thing about sich is that it works for all of them… masculine, feminine, neuter…and even the plural.

  • Thomas mag sich.
  • Maria mag sich.
  • Das Kind mag sich.
  • Die Menschen mögen sich.

So… this sich is the only true reflexive pronoun German has and it is so iconic that even indicates “reflexiveness” itself… just look in a dictionary… the default forms of reflexive verbs are sich somethingsich beeilen, sich ärgern, sich erkälten.
If you want to use such a verb then you just have to insert the appropriate self reference for sich
And with this we get to the last question we have to talk about.

What about the whole mir-thing?

We know that German has cases so ich  can become mich (Accusative) at times and mir (date-if) at other times. Mir, dir and so on often (not always) communicate the same as to me, to you

  • Du gibst mir ein Buch.
  • You give a book to me.

  • Du träumst von mir.
  • You dream of me.

And of course those can also be used in a reflexive way.

  • Ich gebe mir Zeit.
  • I give time to me. (lit.)
  • I give myself time..
  • Ich träume von mir.
  • I dream of myself.

Are those reflexive verb then? Well, based on the definitions in English and in German, the answer is yes. And at least they are verbs used reflexively.  But as a matter of fact,there are even real reflexive verbs that need Dative…. you know… the verbs that don’t make sense without the self reference. One example is sich Mühe geben.

  • Ich gebe mir Mühe.
  • I give toil to myself (lit.)
  • I make an effort.

So if anyone ever tells you something is not reflexive because it is mir and not mich… that is not correct. Whether something is reflexive or not has NOTHING to do with whether there is mir or mich.
So.. things with mir can be reflexive too.
And Germans have a soft spot for such mir-reflexives. We use them all the time, even if they are redundant.

  • Ich kaufe mir eine Pizza.
  • I by myself a pizza.

This is even remotely understandable as I could theoretically buy a pizza for someone else. And English uses similar things sometimes.

  • We got ourselves a cat.

But we also say this:

  • Wir gucken uns einen Film an.
  • We watch a movie.

This self reference makes NO sense. You cannot watch someone else a movie.

  • I watch you a movie…. uh… nope

In a discussion somewhere here (I don’t remember where), a user mentioned that also this exists in English.

  • We watch ourselves a movie.(lit.)

I think someone in Oxford just shed a tear. In German this is pretty much standard, though. People talk that way all the time. Nor does it sound bad in anyway. Without the mir these things would sound a little dry. The mir or dir or uns makes it sound… cozy. That’s what it feels like to me sometimes. Like little Hobbits who got themselves some nice pipe-weed.
In fact we love it so much that we sometimes even prefer it over saying my… in particular in combination with body parts. In German you don’t say

  • I wash my hands.

you say

  • Ich wasche mir die Hände.
  • I wash (to) myself THE hands.

You can say

  • Ich wasche meine Hände.

It’s not wrong. But it sounds mechanical. You could use that in a novel if someone gets home in some kind of catatonic daze.

  • Ich komme nach Hause and schließe die Tür. Ich wasche meine Hände, gehe in die Küche. Ich öffne eine Dose Bohnen und schütte den Inhalt auf einen Teller. Dann setze ich mich an den Tisch. Und dann weine ich.
  • I come home and close the door. I wash hands, go into the kitchen. I open a can of beans and pour the content onto a plate. Then I sit down at the table. Then, I cry.

That’s how life would be without our comfy mir :).Other examples for this mir-usage are sich die Zähne putzen (instead of brushing one’s teeth), sich den Arm brechen (instead of break one’s arm) or sich das Gesicht eincremen (instead of put cream on one’s face).
And there are more. And for all of them, this version sounds sooooo much better than the respective version with my.
All right.
Now, this whole mir-thing doesn’t always work. We don’t say

  • Ich lese mir ein Buch.


  • Ich esse mir eine Pizza.

I don’t think there is a real rule though. It is just language in use. You’ll pick it up over time.
So… this was the mir-aspect of reflexive. There is one last thing to say about it and that is some good news. Yeay. The reflexive pronoun sich actually covers both cases. It is always the same… gender, case, plural… there is just one reflexive sich for all of them.

  • Ich sehe mich.
  • I see myself.

  • Sie sieht sich.
  • He sees himself.
  • Ich kaufe mir ein Buch.
  • I my myself a book.
  • Er kauft sich ein Buch.
  • He buys herself a book.

And I think that’s it for to… what?.. oh THAT… oh that’s not a mistake. Her pronouns are he and her.

Anyway, so this was a run through reflexive in German. We didn’t tackle ALL there is to say but I hope you got an impression of what’s going on and what the terminology is.
German uses a lot of its normal verbs in a reflexive context. Then, it has some verbs that change their meaning when used that way. And there are quite a few verbs that don’t even work without the self reference. Those and the “changelings” are the ones I would call reflexive verbs but the official definition calls everything with a reflexive pronoun a reflexive verb.
English can use a lot of its verbs in a reflexive way, but often prefers to just not use an object altogether. And English has only a handful of verbs that don’t work outside a reflexive context.

As usual, if you have any questions or suggestions, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and we’ll see each other next time :)

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