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German Reflexive Pronouns: A Quick Guide to What They Are and How to Use Them

The German language has many different pronouns for every occasion and situation. In English we use them too, but make do with far fewer of them. But don´t be intimidated. It is very likely, that you have come across and even used them already.

In this article, we'll take a look at German reflexive pronouns---what they are, and how you can use them. 

The German reflexive pronouns in brief

Reflexive pronouns always refer to the subject of the sentence. They are only used in the dative and accusative case. They are commonly used in conjunction with reflexive verbs. 

Don´t worry if you are not familiar with some of the grammatical terms, we will look at each one in detail.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is usually specific to subjects or objects (nouns). Pronouns are used to define or even replace the subject of a sentence.

personal pronounIch sehe einen Film.I watch a movie.
reflexive pronounIch sehe mich im Spiegel.I watch myself in the mirror.
possessive pronounDas ist meiner.That is mine.
demonstrative pronounDieser gefällt mir.This one I like.
relative pronounDer Film, den ich sehe…The film, that I watch...
possessive pronounWelcher ist dein Hut.Which one is your hat?

What are reflexive verbs?

Before we get to the reflexive pronouns, we have to talk about reflexive verbs, because they are intrinsically linked. In English these are usually verbs combined with words ending in -self, or -selves

To bore oneself. You amuse yourself. They behaved themselves.

True reflexive verbs & pronouns

German has quite a few reflexive verbs compared to English, and some of them can only be used together with a reflexive pronoun. The pronoun is part of the verb. In this case we call them true reflexive verbs and true reflexive pronouns. In the infinite form these verbs are always preceded with the word sich.

sich beeilen     Ich beeile michIch beeile     Ich beeile den Hund!

to hurry           I hurry     this is incomplete          No, no, no! 

Optional reflexive verbs & pronouns

These are verbs, where the reflexive pronoun is just an optional addition. The verb can also be used without the pronoun, and the pronoun can also be replaced with another word.

malenIch male michIch maleIch male den Hund
to paintI paint myselfI paintI paint the dog

List of the most important true reflexive verbs

Physical/emotional

sich ausruhento rest
sich erholento recover
sich erkältento get a cold
sich krank/gut/schlecht fühlento feel sick/good/bad
sich sehnen nachto long for
sich schämento be ashamed, to be embarrassed
sich sorgen umto be worried about

Human interaction

sich anfreundento befriend
sich kümmern umto look after
sich streitento argue
sich verabredento arrange to meet
sich verhaltento act, to behave
sich verstehento get along
sich vertragento make up

Opinion/decision making

sich einigen aufto agree on something
sich entscheiden für/gegento decide to/against
sich irrento err

Work

sich bewerbento apply for
sich eignen für/zuto be suited for/to

Communication/verbal interaction

sich bedanken beito thank someone
sich beklagento complain
sich beschwerento complain
sich erkundigento inquire
sich weigernto refuse

Others

sich befindento be located
sich ereignento happen

German reflexive pronouns in dative and accusative

Good news, if you already know personal pronouns—the reflexive form nearly always closely relates to the personal. Irregular exceptions are:

 1. Person singular (er/sie/es and sich) and

2. Person plural (sie/Sie and sich)

reflexive pronouns
DativeAccusative
ich mirmich
du dirdich
er/sie/essichsich
wir unsuns
ihreucheuch
sie/Siesichsich

Choosing the correct case and forming sentences

The reflexive pronoun always relates to the subject

Deciding whether to use the reflexive pronoun in the dative or accusative case is actually easy. 

If you can replace the reflexive pronoun with another word or leave it out, use the dative

If it is a true reflexive pronoun and cannot be replaced with another word, use the accusative.
dative
Ich kaufe mir ein Eis.
I buy myself an ice-cream.
Ich kaufe nichts.
I buy nothing.
accusative
Ich streite mich.
I argue.
Du kaufst dir ein Fahrrad.
You buy yourself a bike.
Du kaufst dem Kind ein Fahrrad.
You buy the child a bike.
Du streitest dich jeden Tag.
You argue every day.
Er kauft sich ein Geschenk
He buys himself a present.
Er kauft ein Geschenk.
He buys a present.
Er streitet sich nicht.
He does not argue.
Wir kaufen uns ein Haus.
We buy ourselves a house.
Wir kaufen viel.
We buy a lot.
Wir streiten uns mir dir.
We argue with you.
Ihr kauft euch ein Auto.
You buy yourself a car.
Ihr kauft ein Auto.
You buy a car.
Ihr streitet euch ungern.
You argue reluctantly.
Sie kaufen sich alles.
They buy themselves everything
Sie kaufen alles.
They buy everything.
Sie streiten sich oft.
They argue often.

Oddity: reciprocal verbs and pronouns

To express the correlation between several people, objects, or groups, reciprocal verbs are used. Reciprocal verbs are mostly plural and also use the reflexive pronoun, but here the reflexive pronoun means each other

As with the reflexive verb, there are true reciprocal verbs, exclusively used with a pronoun, and optional ones.

True reciprocal verbs

Die Frauen haben sich verstanden.The women understood each other.

Optional reciprocal verbs

Die Geschwister ähneln sich. (reciprocal)The siblings look like each other.
Das Kind ähnelt der Mutter. (non-reciprocal)The child looks like the mother.

Conclusion

Reflexive pronouns are always used with reflexive verbs. True reflexive verbs are exclusively used with reflexive pronouns, optional ones with or without. If you start learning the infinite forms of reflexive verbs including the word sich, you quickly gain more confidence in using them.

The German reflexive pronoun refers to the subject of the sentence, and can be in the dative or accusative case. They are easy to mix up, but not difficult to learn. Don´t be afraid to make mistakes, and start to enjoy these quirks of the German language.


About the Author Silke

Silke writes for work and pleasure. When she is not at her desk, she likes to grow food and other interesting plants on her farm in Portugal.

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