Russian Reflexive Verbs
Reflexive verbs in Russian are used to indicate the concept of ‘self’. For example ‘I dressed myself’. Notice in this sentence that the subject and the object are actually the same person.
When this happens in English we use the word ‘-self’, or simply omit the object. In Russian you simply add “ся” or “сь” to the verb. You can think of this as being a short way to write “себя” (self).
The reflexive form is also used for intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs are those verbs which have a subject, but no object.
A short discussion of the reflexive pronouns (себя and свой) is also included below. They are included in this section so that you can compare them to reflexive verbs.
Forming Reflexive Verbs
Reflexive verbs are formed almost the same as all other Russian verbs. The only difference is that you add “ся” or “сь”.
Conjugate the verb in the normal way then..
Add “сь” when the verb ends in a vowel.
Add “ся” when it does not end in a vowel.
Одевать - To dress.
Одеваться - To dress oneself.
Я одеваюсь - I dress myself.
Ты одеваешься - You dress yourself.
Она одевается - She dresses herself.
Simple Reflexive Verbs
The first group of reflexive verbs are those which are clearly reflexive. The subject and the object refer to the same thing and you would use ‘-self’ in English. In Russian the reflexive form is always used, unlike English it is not possible to omit it.
Compare the normal and reflexive forms below.
Я одеваю Анну - I am dressing Anna.
Я одеваюсь - I am dressing myself.
Here are some other words commonly used in the reflexive form.
Мыть (ся) - To wash.
Брить (ся) - To shave.
Раздевать (ся) - To undress, to take your coat off.
Готовить (ся) - To prepare, get ready.
Reciprocal - Each Other
Quite similar to the use above is the reciprocal meaning. In English this use is normally translated as ‘each other’.
Мы встретились в кафе - We met (each other) at the café.
Мы поцеловались - We kissed (each other).
A lot of verbs by their very nature have no object, simply a subject. These are known as intransitive verbs. In Russian these verbs normally use the reflexive form. Here are some examples.
Улыбаться - To smile.
Смеяться - To laugh.
Надеяться - To hope, to wish.
Even when these verbs form sentences there will not be an accusative case. Depending on the verb, a different case or preposition will generally be used. This can sometimes be hard to predict, so when you see or hear these words being used, try to remember the sentence structure.
For example in the following sentence the dative case is used to indicate ‘to/at’.
Она мне улыбается - She is smiling at me.
Sometimes a preposition is used.
Она смеётся над вами - She is laughing at you.
Reflexive Verbs meaning ‘to be’
In Russian reflexive verbs are used to indicate the idea of ‘to be’, or express the state of something. These verbs are generally intransitive, like the verbs detailed above there is no object. Again, it is a good idea to try and remember how these words are used when you see them, although the instrumental case is common.
Here are some examples (common case usage is included in brackets)....
Гордиться (+inst) - To be proud.
Сердиться (на +acc)- To be angry.
Интересоваться (+inst) - To be interested in.
Заниматься (+inst) - To be engaged in.
Пользоваться (+inst) - To use, to be using.
Увлекаться (+inst) - To be keen on.
Ошибаться (в +inst) - To be mistaken.
Verbs used in an intransitive manner.
When normal verbs are used in an intransitive manner the reflexive form is used. Verbs like ‘open’, ‘close’, ‘begin’, ‘finish’, ‘continue’ can be used in such a manner. They can be used without an object of the sentence. Compare the following sentences...
Иван открыл дверь - Ivan opened the door.
Дверь открылась - The door opened (itself).
Иван начинает фильм - Ivan starts the film.
Фильм начинается - The film begins.
Notice that the thing which opens or begins becomes the subject, and there is no longer any object of the sentence. Below are some more examples of words that are used in this manner...
Продолжать(ся) - Continue.
Открывать(ся) - Open
Закрывать(ся) - Close
Начинать(ся) - Begin
Кончать(ся) - End
The same concept applies to verbs that are use to indicate a permanent state of something. Because the verb is used without an object it takes the reflexive form.
Собака кусается - The dog bites.
Russians commonly use impersonal speech to express feelings or the state of something. Impersonal speech is when the person affected is in the dative case (or omitted), commonly “мне” (to me). You can often translate this to English as “I feel”, “I feel like”, “I like”, “I would like”.
Certain verbs are naturally impersonal, others are used in this way to soften their meaning. Notice that using the impersonal form softens ‘I want’ to ‘I would like’. The verb нравиться (to like) always uses in this form.
These verbs are in the reflexive form because they are expressed without an object of the sentence. (This is simply a grammatical feature of Russian because the dative case is used, and there is no accusative. When translated to English there may be an object.)
Мне нравится Москва - I like Moscow.
Мне хочется в театр - I would like to go to the theatre.
Мне не сидится дома. - I don't like to stay home.
Note: Not all impersonal speech uses this form. Some impersonal sentences are formed using other methods.
Passive Voice (Advanced)
The passive voice is when a sentence is changed around to make the subject something that would normally be the object of the sentence. As a result the grammar in English and Russian is much more complex. It is rare to use the passive voice in Russian. It is better to avoid using it.
When the passive voice is used with an imperfective verb, the reflexive form is used.
Свет отражается зеркалом. - The light is reflected by the mirror.
Notice how the verb ‘reflect’ is kind of used backwards. It would be better to convert this to active voice before translating to Russian, and avoid such a complex grammar structure. (Зеркало отражает свет. - The mirror reflects the light).
Себя - Self
The Russian pronoun “Себя” also means self. It is used in more complex sentences when the use of a reflexive verb is not suitable. Reflexive verbs refer only to the object of a sentence. “Себя” can be used in other parts of the sentence (ie different cases).
Он говорил о себе - He talked about himself.
Себя always refers to the same person or thing as the subject of the sentence. The use of себя is a requirement, you may not use a normal pronoun instead.
Себя takes the same forms as “Тебя” (Ты) when used in different cases. (It does not exist in the nominative case)
Note: Себя always means ‘-self’. (It never implies ‘to be’, or has an intransitive meaning).
Reflexive verbs are used in preference to “Себя” when it is possible. You should not combine reflexive verbs and “Себя” in the one sentence, unless they have a distinctly different meaning within that sentence. (For example the verb may intransitive, and себя may be used to indicate ‘-self’ after a pronoun).
Она смеётся над собой - She is laughing at herself.
Свой - Ones own
Свой is the Russian reflexive possessive pronoun. It is used like Мой (my), and has the same forms.
It is used when the owner of something is the subject of the sentence clause. (Its use is required in the 3rd person, and optional in the 1st and 2nd. Although it is almost always used if the subject is ты).
Иван любит свою собаку - Ivan loves his (own) dog.
Reflexive verbs are used to indicate the concept of ‘oneself’. When the sentence’s subject is also the object. The reflexive form of a verb is also used for intransitive verbs, those verbs that have no object.
There are some uses of the reflexive forms which just don’t seem to fit the above patterns. You will just have to learn these as you meet them.