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Don’t Let the Reflexive Verbs in Portuguese Crush You

Reflexive Verbs in Portuguese - a Guide

And I mean it.

If you let them do it, the reflexive verbs in Portuguese will crush your soul.

Sometimes my students tell me about their goals. They intend to go to Brazil, maybe take up residence here, or just spend some time.

And that kind of goal usually involves passing the official Brazilian Portuguese proficiency examination, CELPE-BRAS.

(Of course, sometimes they just want to challenge themselves but why would they go through so much effort when they could just enjoy it beats me.)

And then they tell me: Eu estou preparando para o teste.

If they were talking to a Brazilian who isn’t used to speaking with foreigners, they’d probably hear this question:

Que legal! O que você está preparando para o teste?

In addition to having a big question mark face, you would probably repeat what you just said in the hopes of making yourself understood.

And eventually you would.

But was that misunderstanding necessary?

If you’re reading this article up to here and don’t know what was wrong up there, you need to go on and finish this article.

Specially if English is your native language and you don’t speak Spanish.

Most of my students make this mistake for some time before we make a concerted effort to get rid of it.

And in this almost definitive guide (and later I will tell you why “almost”) you’ll have everything you need to solve this problem and speak with confidence.

Reflexive verbs in Portuguese?

First, although I try to keep grammatical terminology to a minimum here I do need to make a foray into grammar minutiae.

If you ask a Brazilian what’s a reflexive verb, they’ll look at you puzzled.

And if you ask them what a pronominal verb is, it would be game over for them.

After all, their high school experience tells them they’re completely unable to see the difference between those two.

But we don’t need to overcomplicate.

A verb is an action — you probably heard that in high school. And when the doer of the action does it on him or herself, the action is reflecting back onto the doer.
That’s a reflexive verb.

When you hurt yourself with something, you would say — I hurt myself!

Common reflexive verbs are:

levantar-seget up
machucar-sehurt (oneself)
sentar-sesit (down)
deitar-selay down
lavar-sewash yourself
vestir-sedress yourself

A pronominal verb has the same structure as the reflexive verbs but the pronoun is there just because.

It’s a grammatical requirement.

It’s like when you wanted to go somewhere and you had to carry your little brother along with you.

It made no sense but you had to do it.

When you conjugate those verbs, they look like this:

Eume levanto
Tu*te levantas
A gente, você, ele/elase levanta
Nósnos levantamos
Vocês, eles/elasse levantam
Tu is here but it’s not correctly used in Brazil as I explain here.

But do I need to know all of that?

Not really.

When you’re learning a new verb, just check to see whether it must be used with that “eu me, você se”.

If it is, put it in the reflexive verb box.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

In the examples below I grouped the reflexive verbs in the first part and the pronominal verbs in the second part.

Reflexives (just remember, this division is here just to illustrate, but we don’t really differentiate them in everyday language)

  • Não me levanto cedo aos domingos. É meu dia de folga e eu gosto de me levantar mais tarde. I don’t get up early on Sundays. It’s my day off and I like getting up later.
  • Você já se lavou? Antes de jantar vá se lavar.Have you already washed yourself? Before having dinner go wash yourself.
  • Você pode esperar um pouco? É que eu ainda não me vesti.Can you wait a little bit? It’s just that I haven’t gotten dressed yet. (Literally: dressed myself).
  • O Pedro se feriu com um caco de vidro.Peter hurt himself with a glass shard.
  • A Maria se viu no espelho e ficou muito feliz com o resultado.Mary’s saw herself on the mirror and was very pleased with the result.

Pronominal use (looks and feels like the reflexives, though)

  • Eu estou me queixando, porque não concordo com essas regras. I am complaining because I don’t agree with these rules.
  • Como você se chama? What’s your name? (Literally: what do you call yourself?)
  • Eu me lembro de tudo que vocês disseram no ano passado.I remember everything that you said last year.
  • Eu fui para a padaria e me esqueci do guarda-chuva lá.I went to the bakery and I forgot my umbrella there.

Let’s stop for a moment.

If you grab your looking glass and examine the next two examples, you’ll see something different.

They express reciprocal action.

It’s what you use “each other” and “one another” in English to express.

We don’t need to dwell much upon those.

  • Eles estão se encontrando no shopping todos os sábados.They’ve been meeting each other in the shopping mall every Saturday.
  • A gente já se viu antes aqui?Have we seen each other before?

Where do I put the pronoun when I use reflexive and pronominal verbs in Portuguese?

If we are talking about Brazilian Portuguese, then we generally use the pronoun before the verb.

And I say generally.

And when you go to the bakery to buy some loaves of bread and strike up a conversation with Mr. Manuel you will always hear the pronouns before the verb.

There are situations when you have to place the pronoun after the verb. We’ll take a look into that in a moment but you’ll see Brazilians disrespect even that.

  • Eu me chamo João. I’m John.
  • Quando ele se deita, quase nunca quer sair. When he lies down, he almost never wants to leave.

When should I place the pronoun after the verb?

There are three main situations for this.

And if you are preparing for the Portuguese examination, you do have to take them into consideration.

When you use the imperative in Portuguese.

You’ll hear that in conversations sometimes, too. But you can see this kind of placement most commonly in writing.

  • Por favor, sente-se. A aula está para começar.Please, sit down. The class is about to start.
  • Vista-se logo para que possamos sair.Dress quickly so that we can go out.

When the verb starts the sentence.

If you speak like that in Brazil you will sound like a book.

And if you don’t know, books are much despised here.

  • Levantei-me e vi os pássaros cantando. I got up and saw the birds singing.

When there is an impersonal sentence with the infinitive.

Again, this one is mostly written.

You might hear that in some formal situations — especially if you are a college rat like me — but most people think that doesn’t sound natural in Brazilian Portuguese.

  • Não é bom queixar-se tanto. It’s not good to complain so much.

What if I am learning European Portuguese and want to use reflexive verbs?

Bear in mind that the rules for European Portuguese are not the same as the Brazilian Portuguese rules.

If you want a more in-depth explanation and exercises for European Portuguese, I suggest you take a look at this book (affiliate link).

What if I am using two verbs and one of them is reflexive?

The reflexive pronoun usually goes in the middle of the verbs.

  • Ele se está queixando. (x) He is complaining.
  • Ele está se queixando. (✔) He is complaining.

I see many of my Spanish-speaking students making this mistake.

But just so you know, this isn’t entirely a mistake.

Brazilians have heard that kind of sentence — and especially, read it in high school.

Thus, it’s not entirely foreign to them. It’s just — unusual.

Sometimes, verbs can be reflexive, too.

And that’s so tricky.

They change their meaning according to their usage.

  • Ele me pergunta se isso ainda vai ter fim. He asks me whether this is going to end someday.
  • Eu me pergunto se isso ainda vai ter fim. I wonder whether this is going to end someday.
  • Ela se encontrou com o advogado. She met up with her lawyer.
  • Ela encontrou um advogado. She found a lawyer.

And is there a good way to know whether a verb can be reflexive with a different meaning or not?

Not really. Just make a note when you see one of them.

And try to use these verbs on purpose in your next conversation.

The more you do, the better you can recall them.

Wrap up

I said above that this was an almost complete guide.

And it is.

For it to be complete, it would have to provide for a lot of practice.

Which is what I try to do in the quiz below.

(And don’t worry, it’s only five questions and you just have to tell whether the pronoun should come before or after the verb.)

And if you’re ready to take the next step and include some practice in your theories, you can get in touch with me.

More than 100 students did so and they’ve been all happy.

(And, of course, you can always head back to the grammar section for more detail-rich articles on all things Portuguese.)