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I verbi riflessivi

Verbs, verbs, verbs, everywhere! Verbs are probably the most confusing elements for students when learning a new language and yet so important. In Italian as in English, the language system is based on a structure formed by 'Subject', 'Verb', and 'Object'. But verbs can have many faces. In this article, we will discuss the concept of 'reflexive verbs'.

Verbs again

Verbs can be seen as the bone structure of a language, and they cover a fundamental role in verbal and written communication. In a previous article , you learnt that verbs allow us to express the idea of actions and to place those actions in a time-frame, to give directions, define the grade of formality we want to achieve, and many other features. In another one, we discussed the use of the 'si impersonale' . With all these notions clear in mind, we are now ready to tackle the topic of reflexive verbs, or 'verbi riflessivi'.

Sentence structure

In Italian, English, and a big block of the languages out there, positive sentences are generally organised in a structure based on Subject + Verb + Object (SVO). This formula applies to many languages, and offers a system that generally implies the presence of an agent (the subject AKA 'who does the action'), a verb (the verbal part AKA 'the action'), and an object (the item or person on which the action occurs).

In the example above, we can see that Giovanni (subject) drinks (verb) a beer (object), no matter how you want to look at this, the beer is gone because it was the object of the sentence! The verb used in the sentence is 'beve', a verb belonging to the 2nd coniugazione (more on this here), present tense, and 'active'. An active verb is a verb that enables a subject to fulfill an action (as 'beve' allowed Giovanni to enjoy his beer!)

A reflexive story

Now let's consider another scenario, and change the rules! Giovanni had more than a few beers last night and today he risks to be late for work, let's help him to deal with it.

First thing first, his phone ringing is not enough, he needs to wake up, get up, get dressed, and brush his teeth, at least. But there's something weird about this situation. Now, Giovanni is in the bathroom and he's looking at himself in the mirror and he gets even more confused.

Giovanni notices that while he wakes up, gets up, gets dressed, and brushes his teeth, he's at the same time the agent (subject) and the person on which the action occurs (object). He's not tripping. The situation described shows how sometimes, in Italian sentences, the subject can be the object of a sentence. When this event occurs we have a 'verbo riflessivo'. As suggested by their names, these are verbs that create a sort of 'reflection'. When you look at yourself in a mirror (as our drunk friend Giovanni) you will see the reflection of your image. All the verbs mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, in Italian are 'verbi riflessivi' because all those actions are done by a subject on him/herself.

How does it work?

To use correctly this verb form in Italian we need a series of pronouns called 'pronomi riflessivi' to place before the verb:

mi - ti - si - ci - vi - si (io) - (tu) - (lui/lei) - (noi) - (voi) - (loro)

These pronouns are used along with the regular forms of the verbs that you are already aware of. For instance, if we want to translate the expressions 'Giovanni wakes up' we will need to use the pronoun 'si' (referred to lui/him [Giovanni]) and the third person singular of the verb 'svegliare' : 'sveglia' ; and do the same for the other verbs!

Giovanni si sveglia Giovanni si lava Giovanni si veste Giovanni si lava i denti

This system applies also to those called 'reciprocal verbs', in which two or more people express a reciprocal action. This can be commonly seen in an informal way to greet people 'ci vediamo'. When we use this expression, we intend to say that we will see each other again. Another possible example could be done with verbs such 'abbracciare'/'to hug', an action, generally, reciprocal! e.g. '(loro) si abbracciano'

Last suggestion, there's not such a thing as a complete list of 'verbi riflessivi' and even if it was it would be pointless because sometimes in the spoken language supposedly active verbs are used in a reflexive way, as usual 'go with the flow', and now that you understand them you will pick them up more easily!

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