Identifying reflexive verbs
Verbs with reflexive pronouns
Reflexive verbs can most easily be identified by the use of reflexive pronouns, which are used as the direct object and refer back to the subject of the sentence.
- “I accidentally burned myself with the hairdryer.” (Myself refers to the subject, I.)
- “The baby is smiling at herself in the mirror.” (Herself refers to the subject, the baby.)
- “The problem seems to have worked itself out in the end.” (Itself refers to the subject, the problem.)
When the same verb is paired with an object that is not a reflexive pronoun, then the verb is no longer considered reflexive.
For example, consider how the first two examples change if we use non-reflexive pronouns:
- “I accidentally burned him with the hairdryer.” (Him refers to a second person who is not the subject, I.)
- “The baby is smiling at her in the mirror.” (Her refers to a second person who is not the subject, the baby.)
The third example would not make sense with a different pronoun because the subject, the problem, is inanimate and cannot have agency over a separate direct object.
Reflexive verbs with implied objects
Certain reflexive verbs can also have reflexive pronouns as direct objects that are implied and therefore omitted from the sentence. For example:
- “My father is shaving in the bathroom.” (with the reflexive pronoun himself implied)
- “She always stretches before doing yoga.” (with the reflexive pronoun herself implied)
- “Children, please keep quiet!” (with the reflexive the pronoun yourselves implied)
Intransitive verbs in the “middle” voice
While the majority of reflexive verbs are transitive, with reflexive pronouns as their objects, certain intransitive verbs can be used to modify a subject (usually an inanimate object) that is also the receiver of the action. In the middle voice, this type of verb does not take a reflexive pronoun (or any direct object). For example:
- “My sister’s lunch is cooking on the stove.” (Cook is an intransitive verb indicating what is being cooked.)
- “This car doesn’t drive smoothly anymore.” (Drive is an intransitive verb indicating what is being driven.)
- “Her engagement ring broke in half.” (Break is an intransitive verb indicating what is being broken.)
We can see that the subjects of these examples (my sister’s lunch, this car, and her engagement ring) are also the recipients of the action in each sentence, even though the verbs are intransitive and do not take direct objects.
Changes in meaning with reflexive verbs
Most of the time, a verb’s meaning is not inherently different when it becomes reflexive. However, there are some instances in which reflexive verbs have slightly different meanings from standard transitive verbs. For example:
- “He decided to apply himself to the work at hand.” (reflexive verb, meaning “to engage in something with great diligence and persistence”)
- “She applied pressure to the wound.” (non-reflexive verb, meaning “to bring into contact with”)
- “They found themselves without a leader.” (reflexive verb, meaning “to perceive oneself to be in a specific place or condition”)
- “We found the solution we were looking for.” (non-reflexive verb, meaning “to come upon, discover, or ascertain”)
- “Please, help yourself to the food.” (reflexive verb, meaning “to serve or provide oneself with”)
- “Please help your brother with his homework.” (non-reflexive verb, meaning “to give assistance to”)
We must be careful whenever we make a verb reflexive, as there is no rule to know when or if a verb’s meaning might be altered.