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What Are Reflexive Verbs in English?

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

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What is a Reflexive Verb?

There are two things to look for to tell: A) what is a reflexive verb and B) to determine whether a sentence includes a reflexive verb

First, the sentence will contain a transitive verb. Transitives literally transfer the action towards the object of the sentence. These transitives generally require a direct or indirect object to receive the action. Look at how this happens in the example below to determine the first requirement of standard reflexive verbs English use:

  • Josh taught his brother English.

This sentence has three parts. The first part grammatically in English statements is always the subject. In this statement, Josh is the subject. He’s the main topic within this sentence and is the performer of the action or state of being.

Next, you have taught, which is the transitive verb in this sentence. It’s the past tense of the infinitive form, to teach. This transitive form must have a direct object; it cannot stand alone in a sentence. Transitive verbs are the first requirement for a reflexive verb to exist in a given sentence. The second requirement for reflexive verbs in standard reflexive verbs English use will be discussed later in this guide.

After that are the words his brother, which is the indirect object that the action is going towards or who or what the action is for. Typically in standard reflexive verbs English use, you can have an indirect object along with a direct object. An indirect object can be changed by adding the preposition to or for, and making a prepositional phrase instead of an indirect object. If you changed this sentence around, you could say:

  • John taught English to his brother. 

And finally, you have the word English, the direct object in this sentence that actually receives the transitive verb’s action. With this direct object, the sentence would be complete if you wrote it like this:

  • John taught English. 

The reader of your sentence or listener of your speech could have just asked what John taught. Or they could need more information for context. This is where you would add indirect objects, like his brother; or prepositional phrases, like to his brother. Both are seen in the previous examples.

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.

If a verb does not require an object, it is not transitive. If there is no transitive, then there are no reflexive verbs English uses in that sentence. This is, as mentioned before, the first and most important requirement in a sentence that contains a reflexive verb. Reflexive verbs can also contain transitives in the to-be form, and not just as action words. These will typically be followed by other prepositions besides to and for, like you saw in the sentence above John taught English to her brother. They can also be followed by adjectives, and even Look at these examples below:

  • John was excited about attending college.
  • Sharon and Amy are happy with their new home.
  • We were careful about how much money we spent to stay within budget.

Did you notice something? These sentences all have verbs that are followed by adjectives. As a result, these sentences do not have direct objects. Look at them again without their prepositional phrases.

  • John was excited.
  • Sharon and Amy are happy.
  • We were careful.

While the prepositional phrases here give important information and context, they are not direct objects. To-be forms are considered intransitive linking verbs, and could not be included in sentences with reflexive verbs.

Most action verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. The important thing is that a transitive sentence will always have a direct object.

Look at an example of this short sentence with an action verb without a direct object, and not requiring a direct object.

  • Mary agreed.

No direct object is necessary to form a complete sentence, making agreed an intransitive word, and therefore, not included in standard reflexive verbs usage. Words that are only intransitive cannot be in a reflexive verb sentence. Remember, a transitive sentence will always have a direct object, allowing it to meet the first requirement of being a reflexive verb in standard reflexive verbs English use.

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. This is the second requirement in determining what is a reflexive verb in standard reflexive verbs English use.

All personal pronouns have a reflexive form. Each one ends in the singular suffix -self or plural suffix -selves. This form explains that the person who completes an action receives the action. Determining what is a reflexive verb means it will typically be followed with a reflexive pronoun in standard reflexive verbs English use. Here are the pronouns to look for:

Subject Pronoun Reflexive Pronouns
I Myself
You Yourself/Yourselves
She Herself
He Himself
It Itself
We Ourselves
They Themselves
One Oneself

 

Before you continue, find more info about pronoun forms.

 

What is a Reflexive Verb? How is a Reflexive Verb related to Reflexive Pronouns?

Now you understand the two things to look for to identify reflexive verbs in standard reflexive verbs English use. A reflexive verb can be any action word, if the word is transitive, and it’s next to a reflexive pronoun. Reflexive pronouns are connected to subjective pronouns. The action actually reflects back to the subject through the suffix of self to show the performer of the action is also the receiver of the action. 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 people in general, and to talk about them in third person. 

In all the above examples, the action is to introduce. Because it’s a transitive word next to a pronoun, it reflects usual reflexive verbs usage in a sentence. 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, this sentence doesn’t meet the requirements to answer yes to the what is a reflexive verb question.

There are many action words you can use with reflexive pronouns. Some verbs 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 like in the example above that describe harm like cut, injure, and hurt reflexively. Most of the time, injuring yourself isn’t intentional. 

  • 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, like Sandy and Bill did in the above sentence.

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

In 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 Facebook because if I don’t, I’ll procrastinate.
  • They controlled themselves from getting upset after they lost the basketball game.

The above examples are some of the more common verbs followed by reflexive pronouns, and therefore count in determining what is a reflexive verb. Here’s an example 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, and could be written simply as she: She applied

Typically, if it was for a job, she’d state that in the sentence: She applied for a job. This would indicate applied is an intransitive verb, and doesn’t need a direct object. 

However, most action words can be both transitive and intransitive, and when written as the example above, that this is technically NOT a reflexive verb despite using a reflexive pronoun. In the example sentence, she applied herself 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. These sentences are still reflexive, and have simply evolved in speech to cut off what is seen as unnecessary. In writing, to be clear, include the reflexive pronoun in the sentence.

Identifying a reflexive verb is tricky, but hopefully this guide helped. Now that you’re done learning about reflexive verbs and their requirements, and the standard reflexive verbs English use in English grammar, why not study more styles of citing work for your next English paper? Check out these resources on MLA format and APA format.

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