Reflexive Verbs with the Dative Case


A number of verbs use the reflexive pronoun in the dative case. Only two of the dative reflexive pronouns are different from their equivalent accusative reflexive pronoun. These are mich and dich which become mir and dir respectively. Let's find out more.

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Reflexive verbs are used in sentences in which the subject and object are the same. For example, I can look at my dog, in which case my dog is the direct object of the sentence, and I am the subject of the sentence. But if I looked in the mirror, I would look at myself. In this example, I am the subject but also the direct object of the sentence, and the verb is now reflexive.

In English, reflexive pronouns end in -self, regardless of whether the reflexive pronoun is the direct or the indirect object. In German, we need to use a different “set” or pronouns for direct object reflexive pronouns (accusative), and indirect object pronouns (dative case). 

1. Dative Reflexive Pronouns 

It is important to remember that dative pronouns and dative reflexive pronouns differ slightly. We use dative reflexive pronouns only when the subject and the indirect object are the same. If the subject and the indirect object are not the same, we use regular dative pronouns. 

Er kauft dir ein Buch. He buys you a book. 
He is the subject, and you are the indirect object. Not reflexive! 
Er kauft sich ein Buch. He buys himself a book. 
He is the subject and the indirect object. Reflexive!

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Note that regular dative pronouns and reflexive pronouns are the same for “ich, du, wir, ihr”, and change to “sich” for “er, sie, es, Sie”. 

2. Reflexive Verbs with Dative 

When learning reflexive verbs, both with the accusative and the dative, it is important to remember that not all reflexive verbs in German are also reflexive in English. There are many German reflexive verbs that are always used with the dative case. When looking these up in the dictionary, we will notice the infinitive pronoun “sich”, and often the word “etwas'” (something. 

For example, the verb “vorstellen” can appear in different ways. The non-reflexive, separable “vorstellen” verb means “to stand in front of”. However, it can also be reflexive using accusative reflexive pronouns. Then it will be written as “sich vorstellen”, which means “to introduce oneself”. When it is used as a dative reflexive verb, it will be written as “sich etwas vorstellen”, then it means “to imagine something (to oneself)”. Here we already notice that the translation “to imagine” is not used reflexively in English, but it is a reflexive verb in German. 

Here is list of reflexive verbs that are commonly used with the dative case:
sich etwas anziehen – to put something on
sich etwas brechen – to break something
sich die Haare bürsten – to brush one’s hair
sich die Haare kämmen – to comb one’s hair
sich etwas kaufen – to buy oneself something
sich die Zähne putzen – to brush one’s teeth
sich die Hände waschen – to wash one’s hands

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:

Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

Specific Capabilities at this Level

I can write short, simple notes and messages relating to matters in areas of immediate needs. I can write a very simple personal letter, for example thanking someone for something.
Spoken Production:
I can use a series of phrases and sentences to describe in simple terms my family and other people, living conditions, my educational background and my present or most recent job.
Spoken Interaction:
I can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
I can read very short, simple texts. I can find specific, predictable information in simple everyday material such as advertisements, prospectuses, menus and timetables and I can understand short simple personal letters.
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.