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Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs

Even someone who knows very basic Italian is already familiar with reflexive pronouns (i pronomi riflessivi). How come?
The first sentence most students of this language ever learn is: Mi chiamo… (My name is…), which is an example of a reflexive verb. To put it simply, a reflexive verb is a verb that reverts to the subject. What is special about such a verb is that it cannot function on its own – it requires a reflexive pronoun.
In the case of “mi chiamo” that pronoun is “mi”. We translate “mi chiamo” as “my name is” simply because it sounds good in English. If we wanted to use a literal translation, however, we would get “I name myself”. Reflexive pronouns in Italian differ depending on the person to which they refer. Here is the list of reflexive pronouns:
 
Person                                Reflexive pronoun
Io (I)                                       mi (myself)
Tu (you)                                   ti (yourself)
Lui (he)                                    si (himself)
Lei (she)                                  si (herself)
Noi (we)                                  ci (ourselves)
Voi (you)                                 vi (yourselves)
Loro (they)                              si (themselves)
 
Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs
 

Using Italian Pronouns

The use of reflexive pronouns is actually quite easy to understand and with a bit of practice, you will master this grammar unit. Since we already mentioned “mi chiamo”, it would be the easiest to learn how to conjugate reflexive verbs looking at the verb “chiamarsi”. This is its conjugation in the present tense (presente):
 
Singular                                  Plural
Io mi chiamo                          Noi ci chiamiamo
Tu ti chiami                             Voi vi chiamate
Lui, lei si chiama                 Loro si chiamano
 
Note that the conjugation of the verb itself is regular. The only difference between a reflexive verb and a regular verb is that the former requires a reflexive pronoun in front of it. Have you learned the form “Mi chiamo” rather than “Io mi chiamo”? This is because the use of personal pronouns (io, tu, noi etc) is in most cases redundant. Here, we know who the sentence refers to because of the reflexive pronoun and the ending of the verb (“o” in “chiamo” indicates first person singular). “Chiamarsi” may not be the most instinctual reflexive verb for an English speaker but many of such verbs are easy to remember. Some verbs may also work as both reflexive and “normal” verbs. Look, for instance, at this comparison between “lavarsi” and “lavare”:
Io mi lavo – I wash myself (a reflexive verb)
Io lavo i piatti – I wash the dishes (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
 
Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs
Some other verbs that follow a similar pattern:
 

Vestirsi vs vestire

Tu ti vesti – You put clothes on yourself (a reflexive verb)
Tu vesti il tuo bambino – You put clothes on your child (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
Guardarsi vs guardare
Lei si guarda nello specchio – She looks at herself in the mirror (a reflexive verb)
Angela guarda “Suburra” – Angela watches “Suburra” (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
Sentirsi vs sentire
Non ci sentiamo bene – We do not feel well (a reflexive verb)
Sentiamo che perdiamo tempo – We feel that we’re wasting time (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
Svegliarsi vs svegliare
Vi svegliate alle sette – You wake up at 7 o’clock (a reflexive verb)
Non svegliate Maria! – Don’t wake Maria up! (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
Pettinarsi vs pettinare
I miei bambini non si pettinano mai – My children never “comb themselves” (a reflexive verb)
Pettinano la criniera del cavallo ogni giorno – They comb the mane of the horse every day (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
 
Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs
 

Truccarsi vs truccare

Mi trucco ogni tanto – I apply make-up from time to time (a reflexive verb)
Trucco le spose da dieci anni – I’ve been doing make-up for brides for ten years (normal verb, no need for a reflexive pronoun)
Other useful verbs that require the use of reflexive pronouns are:
Arrabbiarsi – get angry
Ti arrabbi facilmente – You get angry easily
Sedersi – sit down
Lei si sede senza guardare la sua sedia – She sits down without looking at her chair
Innamorarsi – to fall in love
Luigi si innamora spesso – Luigi falls in love often
Sposarsi – to get married
Ci sposiamo l’anno prossimo – We’re getting married next year
Lamentarsi – to complain
Vi lamentate tutto il tempo – You complain all the time
 
Try to conjugate the reflexive verbs I have enumerated above (preferably in a written form) to check whether you understand the concept. You see? It is not so difficult! Italian reflexive pronouns will be used in the same way in all simple tenses, not only in present. Have a look at the following:
Present: presente  
Mi addormento facilmente.  – I fall asleep easily
 
Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs
 
A past tense: imperfetto
Mi addormentavo facilmente quando avevo 10 anni. – When I was 10 years old I would fall asleep easily.
A future tense: futuro semplice
Non ti preoccupare, mi addormenterò facilmente. – Don’t worry, I’ll fall asleep easily.
Etc.
As you probably know, compound tenses require the use of two verbs. The first of them is “essere” or “avere” as an auxiliary (helping) verb and the second one is the verb you want to use. Reflexive verbs in a vast majority of cases require the use of “essere”. This means that the other verb needs to be in agreement with the gender and the number of the subject. This is how reflexive pronouns look like when used in compound tenses in practice:
A past tense: passato prossimo
Mi sono addormentato/a – I fell asleep
A past tense: trapassato prossimo
Mi ero addormentato/a due ore prima – I had fallen asleep two hours earlier
A future tense: future anteriore
Mi sarò addormentato/a a mezzanotte – I will have been asleep by midnight
Etc.
 
Use Italian Pronouns to Form Reflexive Verbs

As you have learned today, certain Italian pronouns can help you form reflexive verbs. It is not too difficult to learn how to form correct sentences with such pronouns in Italian. The difficulty lies in learning the verbs, as sometimes it will seemingly make no sense to you that they are reflexive. You will overcome this challenge with time and practice.
 
A great way to practice is by seeing these structures in context. That’s why LingQ makes it easy to find Italian content that is interesting. When you read and listen to lessons on topics you find interesting, the language is learned naturally, much like a child learns. You can learn from news articles, blog posts, song lyrics, Italian recipes, whatever you’re interested in.
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Whatever you do, divertiti (enjoy yourself) when studying!

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Magdalena Osiejewicz-Cooper has lived in Bologna and Palermo. Apart from Italian she speaks fluent Polish and French. She is currently self-studying Spanish.

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