Unit 5: Prepositions, Reflexives
A reflexive pronoun is a reference back to the subject. In the English sentence, “I dress myself,” the reflexive pronoun is “myself.” In German, just as with other pronouns, reflexive pronouns come in a greater variety than they do in English, and they reflect the case and number of the subject.
First let’s consider a third-person example, because in this case the distinctive word sich will be the reflexive pronoun. The separable-prefix verb anziehen is a verb that – only when used reflexively – means “to dress oneself / to get dressed.”
Er zieht sich an.
He dresses himself. / He gets dressed.
Jeden morgen ziehen sie sich an.
Every morning they dress themselves.
Contrast this with the non-reflexive use of anziehen (to put on an article of clothing):
Er zieht die Jacke an.
He puts on the jacket.
Because the meanings of verbs can be quite different when used reflexively, it is important to recognize when pronouns are reflexive or not.
The only instantly recognizable reflexive pronoun is sich. This pronoun is used for all third-person singular and third-person plural reflexive references. English equivalents of sich are: “himself,” “herself,” “itself,” “themselves,” and (formal only) “yourself/yourselves.” Whereas the German reflexive pronoun for all other situations is simply the normal pronoun for that subject as you learned them in Unit 2.
For example, mich and uns are reflexive pronouns in the next two sentences, corresponding in each case to the sentence subjects ich and wir:
Ich ziehe mich an.
I get dressed.
Wir ziehen uns an.
We get dressed.
If a direct object is also present in the sentence, the reflexive pronoun will appear in the dative form instead of the accusative form. Example:
Ich kaufe mir einen Hut.
I am buying myself a hat.
Kaufst du dir morgen eine neue Armbanduhr?
Are you going to buy yourself a new watch tomorrow?