Pronominal Verbs in Spanish
Alright, guys. This one is for all you grammar nerds and advanced Spanish learners. If you are just starting to learn Spanish, I would not recommend this blog. You can learn more about simple reflexive verbs here. Even if you are an intermediate learner, there still may be some advanced topics discussed in this blog. However, the general topics are good to keep in mind!
Get out your Spanish notebook, your favorite pens, and a cup of tea or coffee and settle in! We’ve got a lot of grammar to cover.
What in the World are Pronominal Verbs?
I’m sure you’ve heard of reflexive verbs in Spanish, right? Cepillarse, bañarse, vestirse. Well, reflexive verbs are actually also pronominal verbs. Let’s see why.
If you look at the word ‘pronominal,’ can you take a guess at what it means? ‘Pronominal’ has the same root as the word ‘pronoun,’ or pronombre in Spanish. Now, how can verbs also be pronouns? Well, this word isn’t saying that the verbs are actually pronouns, but that they use pronouns.
The definition of pronominal verbs according to the Real Academia Española is:
[un] verbo que se construye en todas sus formas con pronombres reflexivos átonos que no desempeñan ninguna función sintáctica y que concuerdan con el sujeto”
Translated, this says:
“A verb that is constructed in all of its forms with non-accented reflexive pronouns that don’t hold any syntactic function and that agree with the subject.”
Let’s break this down.
- ‘Constructed in all its forms’ refers to the conjugations for each personal pronoun. In other words, when pronominal verbs are conjugated, they use a pronoun in the conjugations for each person (subject pronoun), not just certain ones.
- ‘Non-accented reflexive pronouns’ are just the specific pronouns for pronominal verbs (see the chart below). Some pronouns do have accents in Spanish, like mí and él, but pronominal verbs use only pronouns that are not stressed or accented.
- ‘That don’t hold any syntactic function’ basically means that these reflexive pronouns do not change the structure of a sentence.
- ‘And that agree with the subject’ means that each reflexive pronoun must be in concordance with the subject. Just like you need to conjugate the verb to agree with the subject, you must use the correct pronoun that matches the subject of your sentence.
Let’s summarize this. Pronominal verbs always come with a reflexive pronoun, and both agree with the subject when conjugated.
One easy way to spot pronominal verbs is in their infinitive forms. Remember, infinitive verbs are ones that end in -AR, -ER, or -IR. If a verb is pronominal, it will have an -se after those infinitive forms. For example, if you remember the pronominal verbs we looked at previously, they all end in -se. Cepillarse, bañarse, vestirse. The ‘-se’ is actually a reflexive pronoun that we stick to the end! When the verbs are conjugated, this ‘se’ can stay as ‘se’ or will change to one of the other reflexive pronouns listed in the chart above. The pronoun also does not always stay joined with the verb; the placement in the sentence can vary greatly, and you can find out more about that here.
Types of Pronominal Verbs
Now, most Spanish students (including me) don’t ever hear about these pronominal verbs. Reflexive verbs are taught pretty early on, and I actually thought all verbs with a ‘se’ at the end were reflexive verbs.
In terms of form and pronoun use, you can think of reflexive and pronominal verbs as one and the same. Differentiating between will not affect how they are conjugated or how the reflexive pronoun is used.
Knowing the types of pronominal verbs will help you more deeply understand the meanings of some verbs and the ideas that are being expressed.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Various websites will tell you different things about how many different types of pronominal verbs there are. For this blog, we will break them into six groups:
- Reflexive pronominal verbs
- Reciprocal pronominal verbs
- Idiomatic pronominal verbs
- Psuedo-reflexive pronominal verbs
- Occasional pronominal verbs
- Pure pronominal verbs
1. Reflexive Pronominal Verbs
If you look up the definition of reflexive verbs in the Real Academia Española, you will find a link redirecting you to the pronominal verbs. This probably explains why most Spanish learners think that pronominal verbs and reflexive verbs are the same. They are not, though.
All reflexive verbs are also pronominal verbs.
All pronominal verbs are not also reflexive verbs.
Basically, reflexive verbs are a subcategory of pronominal verbs. You can probably tell from its name that reflexive verbs express an action done by the subject to the subject. The subject is reflecting the action back on themselves. The most common reflexive verbs are the ones that we use when we get ready in the mornings:
Yo me levanto.
I get up
Tú te cepillas los dientes.
You brush your teeth.
Ella se baña.
She takes a bath.
While these verbs are reflexive in Spanish, they are not translated reflexively in English. Remember that we express reflexive actions in English with the following pronouns: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves. Even though they are not technically reflexive actions in English, in Spanish they are considered as such because the action is being done to the subject by the subject.
2. Reciprocal Pronominal Verb
Reciprocal verbs are those that show a reciprocated action, or one that people do to each other. Since an action can be reciprocated with just one person, that means that reciprocal verbs cannot be used with any of the singular subject pronouns yo, tú, usted, ella, and él. That just leaves nosotros, nosotras, ellos, and ellas. Let’s look at an example to make this clearer.
¡Nos vemos mañana!
See you tomorrow! (literal: we will see each other tomorrow)
Ellos se hablan mucho.
They talk to each other a lot.
Ellas se abrazaron antes de despedirse.
They hugged each other before saying goodbye.
You can see that in English we can represent this reciprocal idea with the phrase ‘each other,’ while Spanish uses pronominal verbs!
3. Idiomatic Pronominal Verbs
These reflexive verbs have caused me a lot of grief over the past couple of years. I would hear them used and understand the sentence but have no idea why they were using reflexive verbs. Turns out, of course, that they weren’t using reflexive verbs, but pronominal verbs. While these phrases aren’t necessarily classified as idioms, they do lay outside the other groups of pronominal verbs. Let’s see why.
Cómete todas las verduras.
Eat all the vegetables.
You are probably thinking, just as I did for years, why in the world does comer have a reflexive pronoun! Well, it is added for emphasis. You can say either Come todas las verduras or cómete todas las verduras, and the idea would be the same – Eat all your veggies! However, the added reflexive pronoun puts emphasis on you actually eating them.
Another example of idiomatic pronominal verbs would be the following:
I hear this one all the time in reference to my son. Everyone comments on how cute he is and tells me to take care of him. This would translate to, “Take care of him for me.” The ‘for me’ is communicated with the reflexive pronoun ‘me’ added onto the verb. Watch out for this tricky ‘me!’ If you ever hear it in conversation (and you definitely will because it’s quite common), don’t get confused. Just remember that the person is making their statement more personal, asking you to do something for them.
4. Psuedo-Reflexive Pronominal Verbs
This group of verbs looks and acts like reflexive verbs but aren’t actually – they’re just pronominal verbs! Remember, reflexive verbs only refer to those pronominal verbs that express the subject doing and action to themselves.
These pseudo-reflexive verbs do not actually represent actions, but feelings! This makes them pseudo-reflexive verbs, since they look and act like reflexive verbs, but do not include an action done on the subject, taking away their ‘reflexive’ status.
Me siento muy contenta por tenerte aquí.
I feel so happy to have you here.
Ella se emocionó al ver el perro.
She got excited when she saw the dog.
Can you see how they might be deceiving? You can even call theses emotional pronominal verbs to remind you that they are not reflexive verbs!
Let’s look at one last example.
Me aburrí tanto en la clase de física.
I got so bored in physics class.
This is talking about a feeling – boredom – so it can be classified as a pseudo-reflexive pronominal verb. However, there is more to it than that…
5. Occasional Pronominal Verbs
These pronominal verbs are not just verbs that can or cannot take reflexive pronouns; they are verbs that actually change meaning when they have a reflexive pronoun. You can find more of these here, but let’s look at just a few.
We just said that aburrirse was a pseudo-reflexive verb, but it is also an occasional pronominal verb! Yes, these verbs can be classified as different types of verbs depending on the situation. (Don’t panic – we will touch on this later.) So, aburrir (without the reflexive pronoun) means ‘to bore someone,’ while aburrirse (with the reflexive pronoun) means to get bored. While the general idea is the same, there is a clear distinction between the two verbs. Here are a couple more examples:
Fijar – to set
Fijarse – to notice
Probar – to taste
Probarse – to try on
Now, those changes in meaning are quite drastic! Be very careful with these occasional pronominal verbs because you could be saying something you don’t mean to say!
6. Pure Pronominal Verbs
After looking at all these examples, you may be wondering if some verbs are always pronominal verbs or just sometimes. Let’s take ver, for example. We had the sentence ¡Nos vemos pronto! classified as a reciprocal pronominal verb, but it doesn’t always need a reflexive pronoun!
Estamos viendo una película. (not pronominal)
¡Nos vemos pronto! (pronominal – reciprocal)
Ellos comieron cinco pizzas. (not pronominal)
Cómete todas las verduras. (pronominal – idiomatic)
Él levantó la mesa. (not pronominal)
Yo me levanto. (pronominal – reflexive)
See how all the verbs we’ve looked at so far don’t HAVE to have a reflexive pronoun? That means that they are not pure pronominal verbs. Their status as pronominal verbs depends on the situation and the ideas being expressed in each sentence. There are actually very few pure pronominal verbs, or verbs that MUST always be accompanied by a reflexive pronoun. You can find a full chart here, but we’ll explore a few now.
Antojarse: to get a desire for something
Se me antoja un cafecito caliente.
Suicidarse: to commit suicide
Lastimosamente, él se suicidó anohce.
Arrepentirse: to regret
Ya nos arrepentimos de nuestra decisión.
These verbs that are pure pronominal verbs cannot be used without a reflexive pronoun – ever. Thankfully, there aren’t very many of them, so you don’t have to memorize too many verbs. Plus, several of them are not very common in everyday conversations.
Now, before you go classifying every verb a pronominal verb, there are some things to remember.
- Most verbs can be either pronominal or not, depending on the situation.
- Verbs can be classified as different types of pronominal verbs depending on the sentence.
- All reflexive verbs are pronominal verbs.
- Not all pronominal verbs are reflexive verbs.
- Pronominal verbs are those that are accompanied by a reflexive pronoun.
Read that last sentence very closely. Only reflexive pronouns make a verb pronominal. Direct object pronouns and indirect object pronouns do NOT make a verb pronominal. This can be a bit confusing because a lot of the pronouns are the same!
Can you see how many of the pronouns are the same? How do you kno w when a pronoun is reflexive and therefore makes the verb pronominal? Well, ‘se’ is usually a giveaway since it is never an indirect object or direct object pronoun. Another way to know is if the pronoun matches the subject. Check these out:
Te llamo después de mi clase. (not pronominal)
Me llamo Rogelio. (pronominal – idiomatic)
Ella nos habló sobre matemáticas. (not pronominal)
Nos hablamos cada noche. (pronominal – reciprocal)
Me preocupó mucho su ausencia. (not pronominal)
¡No te preocupes! (pronominal – psuedo-reflexive)
Are you starting to see the difference? Don’t worry; it takes practice, but you’ll get it soon. Another sign to look out for is the passive voice, which uses the pronoun ‘se’ a lot. The passive voice may look like a pronominal verb, but it is not!
¿Dónde se venden carros?
Where are cars sold?
¿Cómo se dice…?
How do you say…
No se puede.
It can’t be done.
Phew! That’s a lot of information. I hope you are not too confused, but if you have follow-up questions, you can talk with one of our live, native Spanish-speaking teachers! Sign up for a FREE class today to keep practicing with the different types of verbs! ¡Tú puedes!
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