Grammar Tips (#17): Personal pronouns (3): reflexive and reciprocal pronouns

Reflexive pronouns are a specific group of object pronouns that are used with when the action of a verb falls on the subject of said sentence (the equivalents in English are myself, yourself, himself, herself, and so on):

Subject pronoun Reflexive pronouns
Eu me
Tu te
Ele / Ela / Você se
Nós nos
Eles / Elas / Vocês se

#1. In terms of the actual pronouns used, the biggest difference lies on the 3rd person, which has se as the reflexive pronoun of all persons (ele, ela, você, eles, elas, and the pronouns of treatment).

Using the verb vestir-se (to get oneself dressed), we get the following:

  • Depois do banho, [eu] visto-me. After [taking a] shower, I get dressed.
  • [Tu] vestiste-te com facilidade. You got dressed easily.
  • [Nós] vestimo-nos para o baile. We get dressed for the party.

Notice that the rule of removing the -s from the 1st person plural verb after -nos is preserved here. Regarding the 3rd person, check the following examples with -se:

  • Ele veste-se para ir à festa. He gets dressed to go to the party.
  • Ela vestiu-se à pressa para não chegar atrasada. She got dressed in a hurry so as not to get late.
  • Você vestia-se enquanto eu esperava por si. You were getting dressed while I waited for you.
  • Eles/Elas vestiram-se depressa. They got dressed quickly.

#2: Notice the important departure with vocês, which is again counted as a third person pronoun of treatment for the purposes of finding a pronoun; it too takes se as its reflexive pronoun.

That means that unlike me, te, or nos (which are also reflexive pronouns), vos is only a direct/indirect object pronoun, with se taking its place when the action is reflexive. Compare the following sentences:

  • Tu feriste-me. You hurt me [hurt is in the past simple]. Here, me is a direct object pronoun [verb ferir]
  • Eu feri-me. I hurt myself [idem]. Here, me is a reflexive pronoun (since Eu is both the subject and object) [verb ferir-se]
  • Ele ferir-vos-á. He will hurt you [pl.]. Here, vos is a direct object pronoun.
  • Vocês ferir-se-ão. You [pl.] will hurt yourselves. Here, se replaces it since it’s a reflexive pronoun.

#3: The plural reflexive pronouns (-nos, -se when plural) may also be reciprocal pronouns whenever they imply an action being performed by all members of the group to each other.

In English, that’s the equivalent of saying “to one another”; “to each other”, which is only possible with a certain verbs that convey a shared experience.

For example, verb amar-se (“to love (oneself); to be in love with”) is commonly used in a reciprocal sense since it conveys the idea of two or more people loving each other (person A loves person B, which loves person A in turn):

  • Vê-se que¹ eles se amam muito. One can tell they love each other very much.
  • Vocês adoram-se. You like each other very much.

¹ Vê-se que” (lit. one can see, i.e. it’s plainly visible) is an impersonal expression borne out of the reflexive/pronominal verb ver-se (to see/find oneself)

This also means that some reflexive verbs have the potential of showcasing reciprocal actions when used with plural subjects, and that the same sentence with said subject may be ambiguous as to whether the pronoun is reflexive or reciprocal:

  • Nós lavamo-nos. We wash ourselves or We wash each other?

To make this distinction clearer, Portuguese uses a few additional pronouns (forms of mesmo for reflexive pronouns; forms of um ao outro for reciprocal pronouns). To explain the first group [forms of mesmo / próprio] we’d need to enter into the realm of tonic/prepositional pronouns, so it will have to wait for part #4 of this series.

When it comes to reciprocal pronoun um ao outro [lit. each other, one another], all you need to know to decline it is 1) the gender of the participants (masculine if mixed or you’re unsure); 2) whether it is a duo or a group of more than two people. This eventually yields:

Duo Group
Masculine or mixed/uncertain um ao outro uns aos outros
Feminine uma à outra umas às outras

Finally, please be careful when using any of these clarifying pronominal structures; if you have somehow already clearly established who the subject of your sentence is, using any of the above forms (or the ones with mesmo I’ll talk about later) would be considered unnecessary, cumbersome repetition; i.e. a form of pleonasm/redundancy.


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