Reflexive Verbs

A reflexive verb is one that refers back to the subject using a reflexive pronoun, as in "Give yourself a break!" We covered the reflexive pronouns in Section IV.2, but here they are again:

Singular Plural Formal
1st 2nd 3rd 1st 2nd 3rd 2nd
ACC mich dich sich uns euch sich sich
DAT mir dir
English myself yourself him-/her-/
ourselves yourselves themselves [yourself/

As in English, most verbs can take a reflexive pronoun in one of these positions, but some verbs require them. These reflexive verbs in German are usually given with the 3rd person pronoun sich in front of the infinitive. This may seem redundant at times, but there are two reasons you need to learn them this way:

  1. There are many actions that drop the reflexive pronoun in English but not in German, so you can’t just translate them word for word. For example, in English you’d say I’m going to shower, but in German you say I’m going to shower myself. (Ich werde mich duschen). By learning the verb shower as sich duschen rather than just duschen, you’ll remember when you have to include a reflexive pronoun.  [But if you use these verbs non-reflexively (to shower someone with compliments), then you don’t need the pronoun.]
  2. Some verbs in German have different meanings in their reflexive and non-reflexive forms. For example, versprechen means to promise, but sich versprechen means to misspeak; umziehen means to move house, but sich umziehen means to change clothes.

As far as where to put the reflexive pronouns, they usually go right after the conjugated verb. In questions or subordinate clauses, where the conjugated verb moves to the end, the reflexive pronoun comes after the subject:


The reflexive clauses that sound the most unnatural to English speakers are those where the reflexive pronoun has to be used in addition to a separate direct object. This usually occurs with parts of the body:

German: Ich wasche mir die Haare. Er putzt sich die Zähne.
Literal English: “I wash myself the hair.” “He cleans himself the teeth.”
Correct English: I wash my hair. He cleans [brushes] his teeth.