Reflexive Verbs in English Part One

One of the areas that some of my language learners have difficulty is around the differences in reflexive verbs between English and German.  Because reflexive verbs are used more commonly in German, learners tend to fall into two groups.  The first group simply translates literally from German to English and thereby adds reflexive verbs where they shouldn’t be.  An example of this is with “We see us next week” because they are translating directly from “wir sehen uns nächste Woche”.  The second group of learners decides that since there aren’t as many reflexive verbs in English that they can just drop all reflexive verbs.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, there are three general guidelines regarding the use of reflexive verbs in English:

  1. Certain verbs are always reflexive, such as I hurt myself with the hammer.

These are the ones that you will have to learn to develop a feel for over time.

  1. As an object of a preposition referring to a subject.

For example, I bought myself a new dress at H&M.  He needed some time by himself, so he booked a vacation alone.

  1. To place emphasize on something. These are usually the trickiest for language learners because the use of reflexive verbs here is based upon feelings and the message that the individual is trying to convey and not on grammar rules.

A good example is, My son insisted on completing his homework by himself.  The sentence is correct as, my son insisted on completing his homework.  However, using a reflexive (himself) here shows what the person making the statement thinks is important.  In this case, it is not that the homework was completed but that the son didn’t want any help.