Rookie Mistakes: Reflexive Spanish Verbs and Me

Because I’m a nerd like that, I spend a lot of time reflecting upon linguistics topics, especially those having to do with Spanish and English—their similarities, their differences, and why these things are so. I also revel in explaining such differences to people, as if they actually care. (My mom says she does, but I think she secretly goes into her characteristic I’m-listening-but-not-reallymom mode. And that’s fine. Because I have you all. [I know; try not to jump for joy. Or—alternately—do jump for joy. Just be sure the ceiling’s high enough and stuff, you know. I don’t want any blog-related injuries.])

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When I first started on what I like to sarcastically call my Spanish Language Journey (yes, I say the italics out loud), I was more concerned about memorizing all the maddening irregular verbs than the whys of it all. Nowadays, having progressed past where I was at fifteen (you may congratulate me now), I spend more time on carrying out all these things I have learned—in conversation with my permanent intercambio, Mario.

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Painfully (un)adorable. I know; please humor me.

In traditional intercambios, you’re supposed to spend a certain period of time speaking each language. In our intercambios, this does not happen. It’s more of a jumbled-up conversation, full of code-switching. So naturally, I mess up a lot. Mario does too, just not a lot. Sometimes I get why I messed up, like when I say “para que practique” when I should say “para practicar.” (I’m referring to myself here, if you care and know Spanish.) Duh, I get it. I just got all the exasperating subjunctive tense mixed up in my head. NO NEED TO CORRECT ME! NO NEED!

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But sometimes I mess up—at least according to Mario (what does he know?)—and I get it, but … no really, I don’t get it, so I try to memorize these rules and shut up about it already because there’s no reason not to do so.

Except, being me, there is a reason to do so. My brain won’t stop going over the same topics again and again until I give it respite by either 1) falling asleep, or 2) drinking red wine on my couch.


So, without further ado (oh, and there was lots of ado here), here’s a list of things that regularly give me pause—reflexive verb version. Students earning an online degree in Spanish may find this helpful for their own studies. Before I begin, I want to say I fully understand that some reflexive versions add emphasis (comerse vs. comer, pensárselo vs. pensarlo)

  • Se muere vs. muere. What, is se muere like the person died harder? Like, he died, but he did it up good?!
  • Lo sé vs. me lo sé. Um, don’t get me wrong, I do use lo sé most of the time, but there are some instances in which it’s okay—even appropriate—to use the latter. I always do it wrong, and it causes me no end of frustration. I’ll let it slip out, hoping desperately that I’ve finally (just this once!) used it correctly, but nope. Mario is always so (delightfully!) prompt at correcting me, and after he does so, I just want to collapse on the floor and throw a charming little temper tantrum. I just know that would make it all better, and I would suddenly, magically know how to do it right.
  • Me río vs. río. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to use this, but, ya know, I’m probably mistaken. Correct me please, Spanish speakers (and know-it-all English speakers too)!

Right now, that’s all I can think of. Help. Or don’t. I’m used to being lost in this area.

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25 comments

  1. Definitely confusing to me too! I think “morirse” is a little bit “softer” and less-serious sounding than “morir”, and implies dying of natural causes… But qué sé yo, I kind of use whatever comes to mind haha. The other two I mix them up as well, although I tend to use “reirse” almost exclusively.

    One of the things that still makes me go “grrr” on a consistant basis is “estuve” versus “estaba”, or general imperfect/preterite confusion when it comes to saying things like “I was (somewhere)” in the past. It sounds so simple but I think I overanalyze in my head depending on the context of what I’m saying.

    BTW, I love what you wrote, “My brain won’t stop going over the same topics again and again until I give it respite by either 1) falling asleep, or 2) drinking red wine on my couch.” So funny!

    1. I’m with you on “estuve” and “estaba”. I totally overanalyze every situation…same with the subjunctive, although that’s a lot clearer to me. I lot of my intercambios pull the “I don’t know, it just is” card when I ask why. Annoying!

      1. My trick (if you can call it that!) is to listen to Spaniards talk. Right now, that’s mainly Mario (obviously) and emulate what he says. I’m sure you do this too.

        He loves it when I pull out a very Spanish phrase, often having to do with using one of the following words/phrases: vale, pues, venga, o sea, es que. :)

  2. This is something I have problems with as well, especially morirse. I have a few students sitting here with me now, and I just asked them your morirse question. They really had to think about it. Based on their answer and on what I’ve heard spoken, it seems to me morirse is more informal and used in phrases like “Me voy a morir” or “Me muero de risa.” Morir may have a bit more serious of a tone?

    And I literally just asked my boyfriend the reirse question this morning (he’s britanico but with a very high level of Spanish). He thinks that reirse is reflexive when the cause of laugther is unknown. “Porqué te ríes?” Why are you laughing at yourself, because I don’t know? vs. No me rías. It’s obvious that you’re laughing at me. Perhaps?

    But like I have to tell myself (<–no escaping these damn reflexive verbs in either language), the questions that you're asking are difficult and complicated…even the Spanish have to stop and think about them. I think that proves you're on a much higher level than your feel sometimes. :)

  3. when you use “lo sé” is to explain to the other person that something that they said is information you already had. like your mom telling you to go to the store to buy milk after work and then two hours laters she coms back and then you go, “mamá, lo sé”. “me lo sé” is something i’d rather use when talking about the thing itself that you know and you’re trying to remember. for an exam, when doing some difficult task, when writing something someone else wrote… is the text or the information you’re talking about. “en el examen me pusieron el tema que me sabía”.
    was it clear enough?? i guess i’m not such a good spanish teacher!
    the other two is about “personality”, you make it more personal, more sentimental. I don’t use then without pronouns except for morir when you talk about a big number of deaths, but not for the people themselves:
    “han muerto 2000 personas” versus “mi tío se ha muerto”.

    1. Ooh Irene, gracias, tiene sentido lo que has dicho!

      I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand lo sé vs. me lo sé (or me sabía), but I’ll try! Thanks!

      1. I wasn’t aware of “me lo sé” so I consulted my Spaniard. He said while “lo sé” is very general, “me lo sé” means that you know something, and is usually used like Irene said to say you have something memorized, you know it off by heart, like in an exam. “Me lo sé todos los temas”. I didn’t ask about reír but from what I’ve seen they almost always use reírse. I’m corrected whenever I do otherwise.

  4. I really have to start paying attention again to Spanish since I´ve become linguistically fossilized! I enjoyed this funny post – you´ve a great sense of humour Kaley. And by the way I think I deleted a recent comment of yours from my blog (by mistake). I´m trying to find it but feel free to go back in and write it again!

  5. Hello,
    I’m from Brazil and I found your blog through Danielle’s blog. Congrats! As a Braziian speaker I have to say that ‘se muere’ is funny word for us. In Portuguese we don’t use the reflexive pronoun ‘se’ with the verb ‘die’. It doesnt even make sense to us. The reflexive pronoun is used to talk about yourself, like when you cut YOURSELF. So in this regard, Portuguese is like English. People just die in Portuguese, they dont die themselves..hehe

  6. oh I am loving this :) I never did master the subjunctive, perhaps I never will. Reflexive? Forget it! heh. But this was great education for me. This also reminds me that I need to listen to more Spanish so that I don’t lose it. I try to read a little bit every day but to listen, quite a different story!

    I love the way you write, very amusing ;) and don’t mind me while I peruse other older posts here. LOVE language-related stuff!!

  7. Hi, Kaley. I’m sure you’ve figured these out now that you’ve had two years of stuyding, but here’s my two cents:

    morir vs. morirse: morir and morirse can both be used when someone dies of natural causes (disease, something unknown, etc.) or when the cause is not expressed; however morir is exclusive to a death from a known external source (gunshot, etc.) and morirse is exclusive when used in the sense of “I’m dying of laughter”. Also, my professors here in Spain (I’m doing a Master’s program with Middlebury) tell me morirse has a connotation of being an emotional event for the speaker and do not recommend its usage in formal works.

    saber vs. saberse: from my understanding, you only use saberse when you’re talking about something you know by heart (for example, a difficult task, something you memorized, a book you know front to back, a recipe you can do by memory), like Irene and Cassia both said above, otherwise saber is used.

    reír vs. reírse: reírse, like morirse, es un verbo pronominal, and can add a personal emphasis to the laughter. It can also be used as “to laugh at”. If you express the cause of the laughter, you have to use reírse de or reírse por, but not reír de or reír por. When you just want to express the action of laughing, you can use reír or reírse.

    Hopefully I didn’t leave anything out, everything is clear, and I didn’t make an error.

    Saludos.

    1. Haha thank you! I have indeed understood it a bit better in time, but it’s still one of those “memorize, not really understand it” things for me, if you know what I mean.

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