Portuguese reflexive verbs are formed by adding the reflexive pronouns me, te, se, or nos. When the direct object or indirect object represents the same person or thing as the subject of the verb, it’s expressed by a reflexive pronoun.
In other words, we use reflexive pronouns when the action is something one does to oneself. In English, this would be words like myself, yourself, himself, ourselves, themselves, etc. For example, in the sentence “She convinced herself”, she is both the subject and the object, so we use herself as the reflexive pronoun.
You’ll notice that Portuguese reflexive pronouns share most of the same pronouns as the Portuguese clitic object pronouns. The only difference is in the 3rd person, both singular and plural: se.
For this learning note, we’re going to focus on the clitic reflexive pronouns, which are unstressed. These are the pronouns that are added to make verbs reflexive. Then in another learning note, we’ll cover si and consigo, which are stressed pronouns and are generally not used to indicate reflexivity.
Reflexive Pronouns in Portuguese
|Subject pronouns||Reflexive pronouns|
|Ele / Ela / Você||se|
|Eles / Elas / Vocês||se|
When it comes to placing these pronouns within a sentence, you can follow the same rules as the rest of the clitics.
Let’s have a look at each pronoun individually, using one of the simplest Portuguese reflexive verbs, vestir-se to dress oneself
Nos is the equivalent of ourselves. Example:
Vestimo-nos com os nossos disfarces de Carnaval. We dressed ourselves with our Carnival costumes.
Notice when adding -nos that the -s at the end of 1st-person plural verb forms is always dropped: vestimos + nos = vestimo-nos.
Note: This rule about just dropping the -s in the 1st person plural only applies to the clitics -nos and -vos. You can also read this Learning Note on 3rd Person clitic object pronouns to learn more about other contexts in which you have to drop and/or add a letter when using clitics.
Se is used for all the other pronouns: ele, ela, eles, elas, você, and vocês. Here, se stands in for himself, herself, itself, themselves, yourself(formal), and yourselves (talking to a group).
Ele veste-se muito bem. He dresses himself well.
Ele não se veste nada bem. He really doesn't dress himself well.
Você vestiu-se de Pai Natal. You dressed yourself as Father Christmas.
As crianças vestiram-se de gnomos. The children dressed themselves as elves.
Os pais vestiram-se de renas. The parents dressed themselves as reindeer.
The plural forms of the reflexive, nos and se, are also used to express a mutual (reciprocal) action between two or more people. In English, the equivalent is each other. You can call these pronomes recíprocos reciprocal pronouns. For example:
Nós abraçamo-nos. We hugged each other.
Eles não se cumprimentam. They don't greet each other.
Portuguese Reflexive Verbs
Verbos reflexos are also known as verbos pronominais reflexos (pronominal reflexive verbs) because they combine themselves with the clitic pronouns we mentioned above: me, te, se, and nos. The action expressed by the verb “falls” on the subject represented by the pronoun (i.e. whoever takes the action).
Some verbs are always reflexive, while some can exist in both reflexive and non-reflexive forms. With the latter, however, the meaning of the verb can change accordingly. Let’s look at some examples:
Encontrei um euro no chão I found a euro on the floor
Encontrei-me com o João na terça I met up with João on Tuesday
Pergunta-lhe se está tudo bem Ask him if everything is fine
Pergunto-me se está tudo bem com ele I wonder if everything's ok with him
In the first pair, you can see that the verb encontrar means “to find” in the first sentence, while the reflexive verb encontrar-se in the second means “to meet up”.
Then, in the second pair, the verb perguntar means “to ask” while in the second sentence, it becomes the reflexive verb perguntar-se which means “to wonder”.
How do I know the difference?
The difference in meanings between the two “versions” of a verb can usually be understood given the context. For example, “meeting up with” someone is basically the same as “finding yourself with” someone, even though we wouldn’t word it like that in English. “Wondering” something is basically the same as “asking yourself” something.
Which verbs are always reflexive?
Now, as mentioned above, some verbs are always reflexive and have to be paired with a reflexive pronoun (except when in the past participle form). This is the case with the verbs arrepender, queixar and zangar, for example.
You can’t just say Eu arrependo or Eles queixam; you need to add a pronoun to the sentence.
Eu arrependo-me do que disse I regret what I said
Eles queixam-se do barulho They complain about the noise
Note: If you use the past participle of these verbs, you don’t need to add a pronoun. Eu estou arrependido I am sorry
Portuguese Reflexive Verbs in English
Some reflexive verbs like ver-se are also reflexive in English: Eu vi-me no espelho I saw myself in the mirror. As you may have noticed, however, there are also many that are reflexive in Portuguese, but not in English. In other words, sometimes a verb requires a pronoun in Portuguese, but can stand alone in English. Below are some examples:
Eles lembram-se do meu aniversário They remember my birthday
Eu rio-me muito contigo I laugh a lot with you
Ela atrasou-se She's late
Sentes-te bem?Do you feel well?
Eu levantei-meI got up
Other examples include: vestir-se to get dressed, esquecer-seto forget, zangar-seto get mad, chamar-seto be called and divertir-seto have fun, to name a few.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic, check out this Learning Note on Reflexivity with Tonic Pronouns. It will cover words like comigo, contigo, etc, as well as how to add próprio or mesmo to a phrase to emphasize the reflexive nature of a verb even more. Then you can practice those concepts within the Tonic Pronouns unit.