Reflexive verbs for involuntary or accidental actions

Jun 24, 2022 • 4 minutes
Reflexive verbs for involuntary or accidental actions

Most of you are already familiar with the concept of reflexive verbs in Spanish. If you have taken only level one, you know the verbs we are going to label in this article as” directional verbs”. By directional verbs I mean the only change between a non-reflexive verb and a reflexive one would be who is receiving the action and hence the directional term. Let’s look at the verb “afeitar - to shave” to understand this further:

  • Non reflexive use of “afeitar”

José es barbero y él siempre afeita a sus clientes con cuchillas de la mejor calidad.

José is a barber and he always shaves his customers with razors of the best quality.

  • Reflexive use of “afeitar” -> afeitarse

A Nelson no le gusta ir al barbero, pero él se afeita cada día.

Nelson doesn’t like to go to the barber, but he shaves every day.

As you see in these examples there is a change of direction in the flow of the action. These verbs are a little easier to understand as there is a subject and an object. Of course in reflexive verbs, they are the same person.

If you have already taken levels two and three, you have already seen some reflexive verbs that wouldn’t have an object in their English counterpart. We are talking about “irse, hacerse and quedarse”. As some of you already know, these verbs are going to mean something different from their non-reflexive counterparts. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Ir vs irse - to go vs to leave

Juan fue a la tienda anoche.

Juan went to the store last night.

Pedro y Luisa se fueron del concierto muy tarde.

Pedro and Luisa left [from] the concert very late.

  • Hacer vs hacerse - to do/make vs to become

Martha y Felipe no hicieron nada ayer.

Martha and Felipe didn’t do anything yesterday.

Sara se hizo abogada hace diez años.

Sarah became a lawyer ten years ago.

This is a very common occurrence with reflexive verbs and you should memorize the two verbs (reflexive and non-reflexive) independently. Here are a few more examples:

acordar - to reach an agreement

acordarse - to remember

dormir - to sleep

dormirse - to fall asleep

levantar - to lift

levantarse - to get up

negar - to deny

negarse - to decline

pasar - to pass

pasarse - to exceed doing something or to cross the line

It is important to mention that at least these actions could be considered voluntary. Now we are going to dive into reflexive verbs that often indicate involuntary or accidental actions:

  • caerse - to fall down.

Nelson se cayó cuando estaba corriendo en el parque.

Nelson fell down when he was running in the park.

Note: “Caer - to fall” only indicates the effect of gravity. For example: Las hojas caen de los árboles en otoño. - Leaves fall from trees in Autumn.

  • golpearse - to hit oneself.

María se golpeó el tobillo mientras caminaba a oscuras.

María hit her ankle while she was walking in the dark.

Note: If we had said “María golpeó su tobillo” it would sound like an intentional action, and for some it would sound as if her ankle were not attached to her calf.

  • marearse - to get dizzy.

Arturo nunca se ha mareado en un barco, él podría ser un pirata.

Arthur has never gotten dizzy in a ship, he could be a pirate.

  • perderse - to get lost.

Marina y Sofia se perdieron en el centro la semana pasada.

Marina and Sophia got lost downtown last week.

Note: “Perder - to lose” is usually used with nouns, for example: Sofia perdió su billetera - Sophia lost her wallet.

  • quemarse - to burn oneself.

Alberto se quemó la mano mientras cocinaba.

Albert burned his hand while cooking.

Note: If we had said “Alberto quemó su mano” it would sound like an intentional action, and for some it would sound as if his hand were not attached to his forearm.

  • romperse - to break a body part.

Karla se rompió la pierna izquierda en la carrera de ciclismo.

Karla broke her left leg in the biking race.

Note: If we had said “Karla rompió su pierna” it would sound like an intentional action, and for some it would sound as if her leg were not attached to her body.

  • tropezarse - to trip.

Ayer me tropecé con algo que estaba en el suelo.

I tripped with something on the floor yesterday.

Finally, let’s talk about some reflexive verbs commonly used with non-living things in which the subject is often placed after the verb:

  • dañarse - to break down.

Ayer se dañó la televisión.

The television broke down yesterday.

Note: We could also use: “estropearse” and “averiarse”. In some countries you could also use “romperse”, but in other countries “romperse” is only used when there is physical damage.

  • hundirse - to sink

El Titanic se hundió en 1912.

The Titanic sank in 1912.

  • inundarse - to get flooded

Con tanta lluvia, se inundó el valle.

With so much rain, the valley was flooded.

  • quemarse - to burn

¡Se quemó el arroz!

The rice got burned.

Well, that is all for today. I hope this article gave you a deeper insight into reflexive verbs in Spanish.

Nelson Navarrete

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