Understanding the Reflexive Verb Conjugations- an explanation, sort of...

Hey folks, I learned something neat and interesting about reflexive verbs in Italian, and I thought that I’d share. This is really long, so you’ll need to pay attention if you want to stick with it. (Sorry!)

It all began when I found out what makes the verb SENTIRE into “to hear” or “to feel”. The way that it was explained to me is that SENTIRE is usually “to hear” and there is actually a different verb form, called SENTIRSI that is used when you want to use “to feel” or “to hear yourself”. (In a similar vein, LAVARE and LAVARSI exist, for “to wash” and “to wash oneself”, but for now...)

OK then; I’ll deal with SENTIRE first, since I have to, in order to explain the other.

Since it is an –IRE ending on the SENT infinitive, we know (or you’ll find out) the conjugation is:

io sento

tu senti

lui sente (also lei sente, and Lei sente, formally)

noi sentiamo

voi sentite

loro sentono (also Loro sentono, formally)

Now, in every case except the one where the subject is also doing the action of the sentence, you can put a direct object pronoun in front of the conjugated verb form.

I know that that all sounds like Martian to people who don’t yet know grammar and parts of speech, so here are some examples:

Ti sento = I hear you ; Ti is the direct object pronoun for “you”, while sento is “I hear”, the conjugated verb form of SENTIRE that goes with io.

Mi sente = He hears me (also she, or it, hears me)

Ci sentono = They hear us

Li sentiamo = We hear them

The exceptional case that I mentioned earlier is when you talk about an action affecting yourself, or someone else talks about themself in the same way. “The subject (you) is also doing the action in the sentence (you are the only person in the sentence; it is about you)”. That is when the whole issue of reflexive conjugation happens, but not just yet—wait for it!

Ignoring the instances for “Formal YOU” for this section, these are the direct object pronouns that you have to know (memorize):

mi (me)

ti (you)

lo (he, or it as a masculine noun or an indistinct gender)

la (she, or it as a feminine noun)

ci (us)

vi (you, plural; “all of you”/ “you all)

li (them, masculine plural or mixed genders)

le (them, all nouns are feminine plural)

Bad news, people; that Clitics lesson that you hate so much? You really do need to know it, and know it well!

Here comes the Reflexive Verb part, and SENTIRSI in particular. Finally. Sentirsi is conjugated in the exact same way as Sentire is. Why does it exist, then? Because you only need it when you talk about yourself doing the action, or others doing the action to themselves. In English, it is the word self that makes a verb reflexive. (The action reflects back on the person performing it. I realize that “reflex” and “reflect” are completely different, but it’s a good mnemonic tool)

Thus, for SENTIRSI the object that changes is the person, not the action.

Examples will make things much clearer (ignoring Formal YOU, once again). First a reminder of SENTIRE followed immediately by SENTRSI:

io sento (I hear)

tu senti (you hear)

lui sente (he hears)

lei sente (she hears)

noi sentiamo (we hear)

voi sentite (you all hear)

loro sentono (they hear)

mi sento (I feel, or I hear myself)

ti senti (you feel, or you hear yourself)

si sente (he feels, or he hears himself)

si sente (she feels, or she hears herself)

si sente (it feels, or an indistict gender, as in English: “one feels”, or it hears itself/ one hears oneself)

ci sentiamo (we feel, or we hear ourselves)

vi sentite (you all feel, you hear yourselves)

si sentono (they feel, or they heal themselves)

Note: the use of si instead of lo, la, li, or le is the only change to the direct object pronoun chart from earlier on

You should think of the reflexive pronouns in terms of “self” or “selves”; mi = myself, ti=yourself, etc.

The context of the rest of the sentence is the biggest clue as to how to translate something, but let’s imagine that you are talking about your health. All about how you feel. In English, you might say, “I feel sick”. You wouldn’t say, “I hear sick” so of course there is a big clue in what verb I would choose in English. In Italian, if you hear something, another person (or noun) is usually involved. Unless you hear yourself, of course, which is why there is an instance for that. If you feel sick, “you” (as the subject) and “feeling sick” (as the action) makes the sentence reflexive. There is no one else feeling sick in the sentence, just you. So it is:

Mi sento malato (or malata, if you are female), which is roughly “I, myself, feel sick”—and we’re assuming that earlier events discussed would make the meaning apparent.

I’m going to repeat my examples for SENTIRE below and add ones for SENTIRSI in with them. You should be able to tell the difference now (if you haven’t given up or fallen asleep—I told you that this was long!)

Ti sento = I hear you

Mi sento = I hear myself, or, I feel ____....

Mi sente = He hears me

Si sente = He hears himself, or, He feels ____....

Ci sentono = They hear us

Si sentono = They hear themselves, or, They feel ____....

Li sentiamo = We hear them

Ci sentiamo = We hear ourselves, or, We feel ____....

Can you spot the differences? If the subject is a different person than the conjugated verb portion leads you to understand, then the sentence is not reflexive. If the subject is the same then it is reflexive.

July 10, 2014


I used a tricky verb in my essay (!), sentire, but the concept may be easier to grasp with a verb like vedere, “to see”, since that word does not have two (or more) meanings.

But, technically, there are also two forms of that verb at work here: VEDERE and VEDERSI

Ti vedo allo specicho. I see you in the mirror.

(there are two people in the sentence; me and you. Non-reflexive)

Mi vedo allo specchio. I see myself in the mirror.

(there is only myself in the sentence. Reflexive)

Ci vedono allo specchio. They see us in the mirror.

(even though there are more people inolved, it is still just two different groups of people. Non-reflexive)

Ci vediamo allo specchio. We see ourselves in the mirror.

(there is only one group in the sentence. Reflexive)

July 10, 2014

Thanks for a great explanation of Italian reflexive verbs, mabby! I'm working on the Gerunds lessons now! ugh! Onward!

July 10, 2014

Good explanation. I would also add that in the plural some of the reflexive forms can also be reciprocal verbs (where two parties perform an action on each other). For example, "ci vediamo" could be "we see ourselves" and also "we see each other." "Ci vediamo" is an especially common one because it is often used where in English we would say "see you" ("See you later" becomes "Ci vediamo dopo," literally, "We'll see each other later."). I also love that in Italian, instead of saying, "Talk to you later," you say, "We'll listen to each other later" ("Ci sentiamo dopo.").

July 11, 2014

I've been trying to understand this for ages and it's just starting to make a bit of sense! Thank you!

November 8, 2014

Tip: compound tenses always use essere, not avere, if the verb is reflexive. ( .. and hence the verb will have past participle agreement as well.)

July 13, 2014

You're right, xyphax! I checked my notes and found my note that says: "avere verbs can be reflexive but essere verbs cannot be reflexive!" You're the greatest!

July 13, 2014

Good stuff, Mabby. Here's a list of common reflexive verbs:

July 13, 2014

Here's an excellent comment from Itastudent on the verbs fermare / fermarsi:$from_email=comment&comment_id=5365405

November 9, 2014

I don't quite get it...I looked up the english translation of an Italian song and why would it be that Mi mancherai= i will miss you?....I'm guessing...(for me) you will miss....should it not read ti mancherò?

March 13, 2018

I believe Mancare is 'to be missing.' Therefore, Mancherò is 'I will be missing', Ti mancherò is 'I will be missing to you' or 'you will miss me' and Mi mancherai is 'you will be missing to me' or "I will miss you'

September 15, 2018
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