German Reflexive Verbs [& How to Form Correct Sentences]

german reflexive verbs

As an English speaker, you could be forgiven for not being familiar with reflexive verbs. We do have them, but reflexive verbs in German are far more common.

What can seem like a confusing topic for English speakers, is actually quite straightforward once you know what German reflexive verbs are and how to use them.

After reading this post you will know:

  • What German reflexive verbs & pronouns are
  • How to correctly use reflexive verbs and separable reflexive verbs in a sentence
  • How the German cases can affect reflexive verbs & pronouns
  • 17 of the most common reflexive verbs

What Are German Reflexive Verbs?

German reflexive verbs are verbs which ‘reflect’ back to the subject. The subject and the object are the same. They are used to clarify that the verb is being used by the subject itself.

Like I said, reflexive verbs are less common in English, but to give you an idea, here are some examples:

  • I introduce myself
  • The cat washes itself
  • Lena teaches herself German

In these examples you can see how important the reflexive verb is in order to clarify that the subject is performing the action on him or herself.

In the last example in particular, if we didn’t use a reflexive verb, Lena would teach German (to other people) rather than to herself.

What Are German Reflexive Pronouns?

German reflexive pronouns go hand in hand with German reflexive verbs. In English we use the reflexive pronouns: myself, yourself, itself etc.

In German, there are two types of reflexive pronouns (accusative and dative) depending on which German case we use (don’t worry, you’ll learn more about that later).

AccusativeDativeEnglish
michmirmyself
dichdiryourself (informal)
sichsichhimself / herself / itself
unsunsourselves
eucheuchyourselves
sichsichthemselves
sichsichyourself / yourselves (formal)
German reflexive pronouns

How Do You Know if a Verb is Reflexive in German?

If you’re learning some new verbs, how can you tell if they’re reflexive verbs? It’s quite straightforward. If you are looking up new verbs in a dictionary if a verb has the pronoun sich in front of it, it’s a reflexive verb.

  • sich + infinitive verb
  • example: sich + vorstellen (to introduce oneself)
german reflexive verbs: dictionary showing sich vorstellen

How to Form German Reflexive Verbs

So now you know what reflexive verbs and pronouns are. Let’s take a look at some German reflexive verbs in action. We’ll start with a very common German accusative reflexive verb: sich waschen (to wash).

The way reflexive verbs are formed is as follows:

  • The subject takes position 1 (in this example, the subject is the nominative pronoun ich)
  • The verb is conjugated and goes in position 2
  • Choose the correct reflexive pronoun for the subject ich = mich. That takes position 3
Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
English
IchwaschemichI wash [myself]

In the next example we use a noun as the subject. In this case we are talking about the subject in the ‘3rd person’, the nominative pronoun would be er / sie / es.

SubjectVerbPronounEnglish
Die Katzewäschtsich The cat washes [itself]
  • The subject takes position 1 (Die Katze)
  • The verb is conjugated and goes in position 2
  • The correct reflexive pronoun for the 3rd person: er/sie/es = sich goes in position 3

German Reflexive Verbs with Prepositions

You may have already encountered verbs with prepositions, which is a verb which is paired up with a preposition such as ‘interested in‘, ‘look after‘ and ‘waiting for‘.

Well some German reflexive verbs also take certain prepositions. In a dictionary you will see the following:

  • sich + infinitive verb + preposition
  • example: sich + freuen + auf (to look forward to)
german reflexive verbs: dictionary showing sich auf freuen

To use German reflexive verbs with prepositions in a sentence we use the following structure:

Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
Position 4
(Preposition)
The Rest
Ichfreuemichaufdeinen Besuch
Ilook forward[myself]toyour visit

The sentence structure remains the same as before, with the preposition slotting into position 4. The rest of the information follows after.

By this point you probably realise that reflexive verbs in German don’t make a lot of sense in English. The use of the pronoun (myself) does seem unnecessary. However if you want to speak German correctly, you will need to get used to using reflexive pronouns when the verb demands it.

Reflexive Verbs in Sentences with 2+ Verbs

A lot of the time you’ll encounter more than one verb in a sentence. If one of these verbs in a reflexive verb, and one isn’t, we need to pay attention to where the reflexive pronoun goes. For the follow examples, let’s use a new reflexive verb: sich beeilen (to hurry oneself):

Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
Ichbeeilemich
Ihurry[myself]

So we have our basic sentence. Let’s say we want to add the modal verb mussen (must / have to). Modal verbs always take priority over other verbs in a sentence, so they always get position 2. They’ll happily kick any other verb out of position 2 in order to go there themselves.

The reflexive pronoun (mich) is a stubborn thing, and won’t move out of position 3 no matter what.

Following normal German sentence structure, if position 2 is taken by a verb, the other verb has to go, unconjugated (infinitive form) right to the end of the sentence.

So now we have a sentence which looks like this:

Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Main Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
The End
(Reflexive Verb)
Ichmussmichbeeilen
Imust[myself]hurry

The same rules apply if we want to add additional information to the sentence. The reflexive pronoun stays in position 3, any other information goes after that. The reflexive verb goes right to the end:

Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Main Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
Other InfoThe End
(Reflexive Verb)
Ichmussmichvor der Arbeitbeeilen
Imust[myself]before workhurry

Using Reflexive Verbs in Questions

To use a German reflexive verb in a question, the usual question sentence structure applies. The conjugated verb and the subject swap over. The reflexive pronoun remains in position 3. Any other information goes after it.

Let me introduce you to another common reflexive verb: sich fühlen (to feel)

Ich fühle mich schlechtI feel [myself] bad
Position 1
(Verb)
Position 2
(Subject)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
Other Info
Fühlstdudichheute besser?
Feelyou[yourself]today better?
Do you feel better today?

How to Use Separable Reflexive Verbs in a Sentence

In German, many verbs have separable prefixes. And to give you an added challenge, some of these separable verbs are also reflexive verbs.

Separable reflexive verbs in German behave in the same way as regular separable verbs. The prefix is separated and goes right to the end of the sentence.

For this example, here’s a very useful separable reflexive verb: sich umschauen (to look around)

Let’s take a look at how you form a sentence with this verb:

Position 1
(Subject)
Position 2
(Verb)
Position 3
(Pronoun)
Other InfoVerb
Prefix
Ichschauemichnurum
Ilook[myself]justaround
I’m just looking around

You can see that the usual sentence structure applies, we just separate the prefix and remember to send it to the end.

Rambling story warning: Ich schaue mich nur um is one of my favourite ‘get out of jail’ phrases for tourist situations. Many times I’ve wandered into a shop in Bremen, to be greeted by a staff member offering help.

On my earlier visits, when my tourist German was dodgy to say the least, I used this phrase a lot to get myself out of sticky situations where I might actually need to have a conversation!

How the German Cases Affect Reflexive Verbs

I’m sure you’ve already heard of (and probably banged your head again a wall because of) the four German grammatical cases.

Well they also like to get involved with German reflexive verbs as well. Remember the table of reflexive pronouns I showed you at the beginning of this post? Here it is again:

Accusative
(Direct Object)
Dative
(Indirect Object)
English
michmirmyself
dichdiryourself (informal)
sichsichhimself / herself / itself
unsunsourselves
eucheuchyourselves
sichsichthemselves
sichsichyourself / yourselves (formal)
German reflexive pronouns

Accusative

Some reflexive verbs demand the accusative case. This is generally when the subject and the object in the sentence are the same, you are doing something to yourself. This means that we have a subject (nominative) and a direct object (accusative):

Ich wasche mich (sich waschen)I wash [myself]
Ich stelle mich vor (sich vorstellen)I introduce myself
Wir setzen uns zusammen ins Café (sich setzen)We sit [ourselves] together in the café

Dative

Other reflexive verbs demand the dative case. This is usually when we introduce an indirect object into the sentence, we are doing something to another object rather than ourselves:

Ich wasche mir die HändeI’m washing [myself] the hands

In this example, we have introduced another object, die Hände, to the sentence. Now we are no longer washing ourselves, we are washing the hands. Die Hände are now the direct object and take the accusative case. The pronoun becomes the indirect object and takes the dative case.

Ich ziehe mir einen Mantel an (sich anziehen)I put a coat on [myself]

In this example, ein Mantel is the direct object, so that takes the accusative case. The reflexive pronoun is now the indirect object and takes the dative case.

Anziehen is also a separable verb, so the prefix ab- is separated and goes to the end.

Two Way German Reflexive Verbs

Lastly, there are a few German reflexive verbs which can take either the accusative or dative case, and when they do, they end up with completely different meanings. You do need to watch out for these sneaky reflexive verbs!

Here are some examples:

VerbAccusative MeaningDative Meaning
sich vorstellento introduceto imagine
Ich möchte mich vorstellen I would like to introduce myself
Ich kann es mir vorstellenI can imagine it
VerbAccusative MeaningDative Meaning
sich aufstehento fancyto stand on
Ich stehe auf dichI fancy you
Ich stehe auf dirI stand on you

German Reflexive Verbs List

Reflexive VerbMeaningCase
sich waschento washA
sich freuen aufto look forward toA
sich beeilento hurryA
sich fühlento feelA
sich umschauento look aroundA
sich vorstellento introduceA
sich vorstellento imagineD
sich setzento sitA
sich anziehento put onA
sich aufstehento fancyA
sich aufstehento stand onD
sich rasierento shaveA
sich verabschidento say goodbyeA
sich verletzento injureA
sich wünschento wishD
sich merkento memoriseD
sich erinnernto rememberA

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