Do you find the verbs in this conversation confusing?

—¡Qué calor! Así no se puede estudiar. Voy a darme un paseo por la playa y sigo en la biblioteca, que allí por lo menos tienen aire acondicionado.
“It’s so hot! It’s impossible to study like this. I’m going for a walk on the beach and I’ll continue (studying) at the library. At least there they have air conditioning.”

—¿Te vas ya? Si me esperas cinco minutos, voy contigo.
“Are you leaving right now? If you can wait five minutes (for me), I’ll go with you.”

—Venga. Termina y mientras aprovecho para darme una ducha.
“Cool. Finish what you’re doing and I’ll go take a shower”.

Since they’re accompanied by reflexive pronouns (me te se nos os), it’s common to think that they must all be reflexive verbs, but “I’m going to give myself a walk” makes no sense, and neither does “Are you leaving yourself right now?” So, what’s the deal?

The secret to making sense of these verbs is to realize that they belong to different families, each with its own hopes and dreams:

  1. Verbs with an object pronoun
  2. Impersonal verbs
  3. Emphasized verbs
  4. Verbs with pronominal twins

So, instead of lumping them all as reflexive verbs, let’s look at each family in turn. Once you understand what makes them tick, it’s much easier to spot their members.

1. Verbs with an object pronoun

This family is the most common, so think of it as your default. If you see a verb accompanied by lo, la, los, las, le, les, you can confident that it belongs here (since it has an object pronoun).

However, if the verb is accompanied by me, te, se, nos, os, it could belong to a different family instead, so before you can be sure you’ll have to do a mental check to see if it’s a direct or an indirect object.

Dale la mano a tu hermano y esperadme aquí.
Hold your brother’s hand and wait for me here.

As we saw in the prequel to this article, le is an indirect object pronoun, so we can be confident that the usage of dar in this sentence belongs to this family.

Let’s apply the plug test to the me that accompanies esperar. Does this sentence make sense? “De todas las cosas que podrías esperar, estas esperando a tu madre” (Of all the things you could wait for, you’re waiting for your mother).

It does make sense, so the me in esperadme must be the direct object and esperar must belong to this family.

Side note: If instead of “a tu madre” we had used “a mí” as the direct object in the plug test, we could have fallen for this trap: estás esperando a mí. This doesn’t work because you can’t replace a direct object pronoun (me) with another pronoun (a mí). You have to include both of them: estas esperándome a mí.

You can’t replace an object pronoun with another pronoun.

If that seems a bit confusing, go back and read the prequel to this article where we talked about direct and indirect objects, duplication and other pronoun matters: Making Sense of the Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns.

Back to the object pronoun family:

—¿Me oyes o qué? ¿Al final vas a venir?
“Can you hear me or what? What’s the deal, you coming?”

—Sí, sí. Me visto y salgo ahora mismo.
“Yes. I’ll get dressed and head right over.”

Me oyes and me visto both have me as the indirect object pronoun. The difference between them is that in “me visto”, the subject (yo) performs an action on the same person as the indirect object (me), and in “me oyes” the subject () and the pronoun (me) refer to different people.

Verbs like “vestirse” get their own special name: reflexive verbs (or reciprocal verbs when the subject is plural), but don’t let that fool you into thinking they deserve to be in their own category—they’re still regular members of the object pronoun family.

Another common pitfall is to assume that all verbs with a reflexive pronoun must be reflexive verbs. But as we’ll see in the next section, being direct and indirect objects is only one of the jobs that reflexive pronouns are good at.

2. Impersonal verbs

This family is all about verbs with no subject, and it’s ruled by the pronoun se:

Solo se vive una vez.
Life is only lived once (YOLO!).

Se habla español.
Spanish spoken.

Qué bien se está aquí.
Being here is so nice.

The biggest gotcha comes from thinking there is no subject when it is actually implied:

—Ayer vi a tu hermano y casi no lo reconozco.
“I saw your brother yesterday and I almost didn’t recognize him.”

—Sí, hace meses que no se afeita.
“Yeah, he hasn’t shaved in months.”

The second sentence doesn’t belong to the impersonal family because the subject was identified in the first sentence (afeitarse belongs to the object pronoun family).

Passive se impersonal

Another place for the subject to hide is the direct object:

Pedro se hace una tortilla para cenar.
Pedro cooks himself an omelette for dinner.

Una buena tortilla española se hace con huevos, patatas y cebolla.
A good Spanish omelette is made with eggs, potatoes and onion.

The first sentence has Pedro as its subject, so it doesn’t belong here, but how about the second one? Is “una buena tortilla española” the subject of that sentence?

Kind of. The verb in these sentences contains a passive se, which means that “una buena tortilla española” is the direct object and also the patient subject.

The passive se should probably have its own article one day, but if you want to learn more now, I recommend this post by Hispanoteca.

Double pronoun impersonals

Some verbs can belong to both the impersonal family and the object pronoun family at the same time:

Ay, perdona. Se me olvidó que no comes carne.
Oh, sorry. I forgot you don’t eat meat.

Se nos estropeó el coche en el peor momento posible
Our car broke down at the worst possible time

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the pronouns, so take it in two steps:

  1. the passive se is suggesting that the event happened by itself (since there is no subject)
  2. the indirect object pronoun (me, nos) is indicating that the event happened to you (so, you’re the victim).

Combining both pronouns is a handy way of shirking responsibility for mental slip ups or car breakdowns.

3. Emphasized verbs

The pronouns in this family emphasize a specific aspect of the verb. The most common type of emphasis focuses on the way you perceived an experience. This makes sense when there was something remarkable about it: it was surprisingly enjoyable, or incredibly painful, or it took a crazy amount of effort to complete. Whatever it may be, you can use a pronoun to focus the sentence on this feeling. This is very common with verbs of consumption:

—¿A que no sabes lo que me he comprado? ¡Un dron con cámara!
“Guess what I bought. A camera drone!”

—¡No jodas! ¿Y qué tal?
“Get out! So, what’s it like?”

—Pues, todavía no lo he probado. Pero me he visto todos los tutoriales en YouTube.
“Well, I haven’t tried it yet. But I’ve finished binged-watching all the tutorials on YouTube.”

The me pronoun acts as a signal to indicate that the act of buying or watching didn’t feel neutral at all, it was a big deal: The purchase felt awesome! We watched tutorials for hours! It’s the grammar equivalent of adding an Instagram filter.

And speaking of Instagram, emphatic pronouns are almost always used when talking about eating and drinking (even if the experience wasn’t that remarkable):

—Qué ganas tengo de tomarme un helado.
I’m dying to get an ice cream.

—Yo también. Me termino la ensalada y vamos al quiosco a comprarlos.
Me too. Let me finish the salad and we’ll go to the stand to buy them.

Just remember that this usage doesn’t work when talking about food in general, you have to refer to a specific meal or a specific quantity:

¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beberme cerveza.
What do you guys want? I’m going to drink beer.

To fix it, you have two options: either get rid of the pronoun, or be more specific:

¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beber cerveza.
What do you guys want? I’m going to drink beer.

¿Vosotros qué queréis? Yo voy a beberme una cerveza.
What do you guys want? I’m going to drink a beer.

4. Verbs with pronominal twins

Even if they look similar, regular verbs and their pronominal counterparts have very different personalities, so you should treat them as completely different verbs.

Me estoy dejando perilla. ¿Qué te parece?
“I’m growing a goatee. What do you think about it?”

“Me parece que no voy a dejar que me vean contigo en público.”
I think I won’t let myself be seen in public with you.

These are only two of the many different meanings that dejar and dejarse have. The best way to deal with all the variation in this family is to grab your butterfly net and start collecting. Rather than going through long lists of pronominal verbs and looking for mathematical rules to decipher their meaning, embrace the chaos and grow your own collection sentence by sentence.

The advantage of learning whole sentences is that you get the context around the verb for free. Instead of reviewing exhaustive lists of verbs and meanings, write down sentences that you find challenging and revisit them often.

For example, let’s say you come across this heated exchange in your favorite telenovela:

—¿Se te ha olvidado quién te dio de comer cuando te echaron del trabajo?
“Did you forget who fed you when you lost your job?”

—No entiendes nada. ¡Olvida lo que te he dicho!
“You don’t understand anything. Forget what I said.”

—¿Cómo quieres que me olvide ahora que sé que me engañaste con otro?
“How do you expect me to forget now that I know you cheated on me?”

Let’s say you’re confused by the three usages of olvidar:

  1. The first sentence uses a double pronoun from the impersonal family to sarcastically imply the role of victim.
  2. The second sentence uses the regular subject-driven imperative form of olvidar.
  3. The third sentence uses olvidar’s pronominal twin. In this case, the only difference between olvidar and olvidarse is that the first is transitive and the second is intransitive (which explains why we can say olvídalo but we can’t say olvídatelo).

Now you have the all the information you need to make sense of all those verb variants. That’s step one.

Step two is internalizing that information so it becomes automatic. The best way I know of mastering arbitrary expressions is The Scaffold Technique: read the sentence, look away, try to repeat it from memory, notice which words you forget (usually pronouns), read it again, look away, try to repeat it from memory, repeat. If you can still remember it the next day, you will never forget it.

Step three is to continue collecting sentences with pronominal twins and noticing subtle patterns every day. Here is another example:

No me creo que tu hermano se haya ido de casa.
I can’t believe your brother ran away from home.

Rather than thinking of these verbs as creerse and irse, it’s easier to remember them in the present form surrounded by their context:

  • alguien se cree algo
  • alguien se va de un sitio

Doing this makes it easier to pick up on important details, like the fact that pronominal twins can also be transitive (se lo cree), or that intransitive verbs tend to be followed by a preposition (irse de, ponerse a, olvidarse de). The fun never ends.

Spanish Takeaways

  • The object pronouns form the most common family (Te lo regalo, I give it to you). It pays to get good at distinguishing direct objects from indirect ones.

  • Reflexive verbs are only a special case of the object pronoun family: they still make sense when you add “myself” or “each other” after the verb (Me vi en el espejo, I saw myself in the mirror).

  • A reflexive pronoun (me te se nos os) doesn’t always mean the verb is reflexive (Te ves bien, you look good (pronominal twin)).

  • Verbs that belong to the impersonal family don’t have a subject (explicit or implicit). This includes the passive se (No se puede pasear con este calor, you can’t go for a walk with this heat) and the victim-playing double pronoun impersonal (¿qué se le va a hacer?, what can one do about it? That’s just the way things are).

  • The emphatic family transforms a neutral experience into a remarkable one (Me pasé toda la tarde ordenando mi armario, I spent the whole afternoon organizing my closet). Get comfortable using it when talking about food, and expand your awareness of what a consumption verb can be.

  • The pronominal twin family has the most variation, but it’s also the most rewarding to master. Take it one verb at a time. Look for patterns, not algorithms. Having a rational understanding of the meaning can be useful, but to really master the details you need to internalize whole sentences.

Now, it’s your turn

Remember the dialogue at the beginning?

—¡Qué calor! Así no se puede estudiar. Voy a darme un paseo por la playa y sigo en la biblioteca, que allí por lo menos tienen aire acondicionado.
“It’s so hot! It’s impossible to study like this. I’m going for a walk on the beach and I’ll continue (studying) at the library. At least there they have air conditioning.”

—¿Te vas ya? Si me esperas cinco minutos, voy contigo.
“Are you leaving right now? If you can wait five minutes (for me), I’ll go with you.”

—Venga. Termina y mientras aprovecho para darme una ducha.
“Cool. Finish what you’re doing and I’ll go take a shower”.

Try to categorize the verbs in bold into one of the four families. You can email me your answer along with any questions, or post it in the comments below.

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(Butterflies courtesy of Alice Noir)