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What Are Reflexive Verbs in English?

Reflexive verbs are a unique category of action word. That’s because reflexive verbs in English aren’t their own unique word, nor do they have a special conjugation pattern. Instead, whether action words are reflexive verbs depend solely on the other words within a sentence. So, what is a reflexive verb exactly? Let’s look at some examples and a definition.

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What is a Reflexive Verb?

There are two things to look for while identifying whether a sentence includes a reflexive verb. First, the sentence will contain a transitive word. Transitive words are action words that influence an object. Let’s break down exactly what this means by looking at an example.

  • Josh taught his brother English.

This sentence has three parts. Josh is the subject. He’s the main topic within this sentence. Next, you have taught. That’s the action word. It’s the past tense of to teach. After that are the words his brother. That’s the object of sentence that receives the action word. And finally, you have the word English, which describes the skill that Josh teaches.

What you’re focusing on in this sentence is the action taught. As to teach requires an object, it’s an example of a transitive word. Some action words do not require an object and, therefore, cannot become reflexive verbs in English. Let’s look at a short sentence as an example:

  • Mary agreed.

No object is necessary to form a complete sentence, making agreed an intransitive word. Words that are only intransitive cannot be reflexive.

The second thing you’re looking for while identifying whether a sentence contains reflexive verbs is a pronoun. However, not just any pronoun will do. Instead, you’re looking for a reflexive pronoun.

All personal pronouns have a reflexive form. Each one ends in the suffix -self or -selves. This form explains that the person who completes an action receives the action. Here are the pronouns you’ll find next to reflexive verbs in English:

Pronoun Reflect Form
I Myself
You Yourself/Yourselves
He Himself
She Herself
It Itself
We Ourselves
They Themselves
One Oneself

Before you continue, find more info about pronoun forms.

What is a Reflexive Verb? Here’s the Definition:

Now you understand the two things to look for to identify reflexive verbs in English. It can be any action word, if the word is transitive, and it’s next to a reflexive pronoun. The pronoun that you select depends on who the subject is that’s performing a certain action. Here are some examples of how sentences change depending on the person or thing taking an action:

  • I am introducing myself to the class.
  • You are introducing yourself to the class.
  • Miguel is introducing himself to the class.
  • He is introducing himself to the class.
  • Donna is introducing herself to the class.
  • She is introducing herself to the class.
  • The puppy is introducing itself to the class.
  • It is introducing itself to the class.
  • We are introducing ourselves to the class.
  • They are introducing themselves to the class.

These are the most common pronouns you’ll find in the English language. However, you won’t normally hear one and oneself very often or find it much in written English. It’s primarily for academic settings.

  • One is introducing oneself to the class.

Sounds a bit funny right? You can use one and oneself to discuss someone that’s very general.

In all the above examples, the action is to introduce. Because it’s a transitive word next to a pronoun, it therefore is a reflexive action word. But what about when the word introduce doesn’t follow a reflexive pronoun, like in the sentence Jake introduces his dog to the class? Well, in that case, the action word isn’t reflexive.

There are many action words you can use with reflexive pronouns. Some action words even take on slightly different meanings when the subject and receiver of the action are the same. Let’s look at some commonly used action words in reflexive sentences:

  • Ted accidentally cut himself on a piece of paper.

You can use most action words that describe harm like cut, injure, and hurt reflexively. Most of the time, injuring yourself isn’t intentional. However, there are some action words that imply harming yourself on purpose.

  • Sandy and Billy taught themselves how to design websites.

Most of the time, learning a new skill happens when someone else teaches you something. However, self-learning is also possible. Hence, you can teach yourself.

  • She prepared herself with her favorite belongings for the field trip to the museum.

In the normal use, to prepare means to get ready. When you prepare yourself, it can also mean that you outfit yourself or equip yourself with the things you need. You can also ready yourself, train yourself, and make yourself up, which all have to do with getting prepared for something.

  • He stopped himself from eating another slice of chocolate cake.

This sentence suggests that the man wants another slice of cake, but that he chose not to indulge. There are many action word phrases with similar meaning to stopping oneself. For instance:

  • I blocked myself from that video game because if I don’t, I’ll procrastinate.
  • They controlled themselves from getting upset after they lost the basketball game.
  • He cutoff himself from eating anything but fruits and vegetables.

The above examples are some of the more common action words. Here’s an example of one that takes on a different meaning when the subject and the object are the same person:

  • She applied herself to her work.

In the non-reflexive use, apply could mean to make an application, or to put in an application for a job. Instead, this means that the woman gave her full attention to the job she was doing. In addition to having the meaning change, there are times where you don’t need to include a pronoun. This is usually the case when the action implies that the subject and the object are the same.

Instead of saying, I get myself up at seven in the morning, it’s more common to say, I get up at seven in the morning. You’ll also hear, I get dressed instead of I get myself dressed. You can still include the pronoun, but it’s not necessary.

Now that you’re done learning about action words, why not study more styles of citing work for your next English paper? Check out these resources on MLA format and APA format.