The way reflexive pronouns work in Polish might not seem too intuitive to an English speaker. After all, English reflexive pronouns – words like oneself, himself, yourselves etc. – are only used in very specific contexts.
On a basic level, reflexive pronouns are used to signal that the object of a clause is the same as the subject. If that doesn’t sound too clear, here are a few examples from English:
I bought this for myself.
Mary enjoyed herself at the party.
They couldn’t defend themselves.
While English uses reflexive pronouns rather sparingly, Polish sentences are just full of them. Polish reflexives are indispensable when talking about actions directed at oneself – just like in English – but also in many other contexts which wouldn’t require a reflexive pronoun in English.
Polish is also (kind of) famous for its reflexive verbs – verbs which are merged with a reflexive pronoun. If you take away the pronoun, you can expect them to mean something completely different, or even nothing at all.
The most common Polish reflexive pronoun is się. Before we discuss anything else, take a look at the sentences below:
Nancy boi się psów. (“Nancy is afraid of dogs.”)
Uczymy się esperanto. (“We’re learning Esperanto.”)
Jedno z nas się myli. (“One of us is wrong.”)
Jak się czujesz? (“How do you feel?”)
Cieszę się, że się zgadzamy. (“I am glad that we agree.”)
Six occurrences of się in five short Polish sentences, and not a single reflexive pronoun in the English translations. This is why you need this guide.
(If you’d like to learn about reflexive possessive pronouns – swój, swoja, etc. – see the relevant section in the article on Polish possessive pronouns.)
Polish reflexive pronoun “się” and actions done to oneself (literal reflexivity)
Let’s start with the most obvious part: uses of się which coincide with various forms of oneself in English, or are quite easy to explain.
- Zranisz się. (“You will hurt yourself.”)
- Pozwól, że się przedstawię. (“Let me introduce myself.”)
- Tom powinien się umyć. (“Tom should wash.”)
Examples no. 1 and 2 are rather self-explanatory. The reflexive pronoun się signals that the “doer” does the action to themselves, which is the very essence of reflexivity.
Here, you cannot use regular personal pronouns to say “zranisz ciebie” or “mnie przedstawię”, just as you wouldn’t say “you will hurt you” or “introduce me” in their English counterparts. While reflexive pronouns are in many respects very similar to regular personal pronouns, there are very few contexts where the two can be used interchangeably.
You probably wouldn’t translate umyć się in sentence no 3. as “wash himself”, but it is quite easy to see why the reflexive pronoun is there. Tom is the doer of the action and at the same time its object. While it is not necessary to add himself in English, się is an absolute must in Polish.
One more thing: you’ve probably noticed the inverted word order in sentences no. 2 and 3: się comes before the verb instead of following it. There’s a good reason for that: się is always unstressed, so it cannot occur in stressed positions in the sentence. Because of this, it can never be the last word of a longer sentence or the first word of any sentence.
To avoid being the stressed word, się can either move to stand before the verb – just like in the examples above – or change into its stressed form: siebie.
Below are three sentences which are quite similar to the ones we’ve seen before, just with siebie in the stressed position:
- Ranisz siebie, nie mnie. (“You’re only hurting yourself, and not me.”)
- Najpierw przedstawiła siebie, a potem swojego męża. (“First she introduced herself, then she introduced her husband.”)
- Umyła swoje dziecko, ale zapomniała umyć siebie. (“She washed her baby, but she forgot to wash herself.”)
Polish reflexive pronoun “się” and actions done to each other (reciprocal reflexivity)
Polish reflexive pronouns are also used to talk about actions that are reciprocal, that is done by two entities to each other. In English, the usual way to talk about such actions is to simply add each other or one another to the verb, like in the sentence “These politicians really hate each other.” Here is how you do this in Polish:
- Szanujemy się, chociaż się nie lubimy. (“We respect each other, though we don’t like each other.”)
- Gdzie się spotkamy? (“Where are we going to meet?”)
- Tom często kłóci się z Julią. (“Tom often argues with Julia.”)
Example no. 1 contains two classic examples of reciprocity – both the respect and the dislike are mutual, which is apparent in the grammar of the Polish sentence, as well as its English translation.
Examples no. 2 and 3 are a bit more tricky: while the reciprocity is clearly marked with się in Polish, the English verbs “to meet” and “to argue” do not really require “each other” to make sense in this context. However, if you think about it, it is not that hard to see that the actions of meeting and arguing require the active participation of both parties.
As should be evident from the examples, the rule about moving the reflexive pronoun before the verb to avoid placing stress on się still applies. If some emphasis is required in the given context, się can be replaced with siebie, although this happens somewhat less frequently.
Most verbs appearing in reciprocal structures like szanować się (“to respect each other”) or lubić się (“to like each other”) can also be used without się. This kind of non-reciprocal use is actually much more common – you would often say things like “lubię Toma” (“I like Tom”) or “szanuję tych ludzi” (“I respect these people”).
However, kłócić się (“to argue”) is very rarely used without się – and even when it is, its meaning is rather different. Because of this, it is sometimes classified as a figurative reflexive, and not a literal one.
Polish reflexive pronoun “się” and fixed expressions (figurative reflexivity)
Since Polish loves its reflexive pronouns so much, its speakers often have no other choice but to use się in places where it doesn’t really make that much sense.
Well, it might seem a bit weird, but at least it’s not random: there’s a large group of expressions with się which are entirely fixed. Because of that, you have to learn them together with się, as if it was an integral part of the verb.
Here are some examples of lexically fixed reflexive verbs in context:
- Helen bawi się w ogrodzie. (“Helen is playing in the garden.”)
- Czy boisz się ciemności? (“Are you afraid of the dark?”)
- Coś się kończy, coś się zaczyna. (“Something ends, something begins.”)
- Z czego się śmiejesz? (“What are you laughing at?”)
- Nie interesuję się sztuką. (“I am not interested in art.”)
Bawić się in sentence no. 1 is the Polish equivalent of “to play” in the sense of “to enjoy oneself” – this might provide a clue as to why the verb is used together with the reflexive pronoun się. If you were to take away się, you would be left with the transitive verb bawić, which would typically be translated as “to entertain” or “to amuse”.
On the other hand, removing się from the reflexive verb bać się (“to be afraid”) in example no. 2 would leave us with bać, which is completely meaningless by itself.
A similar thing can be said about the verb śmiać się: though śmiać is not entirely meaningless, it is a rarely used verb that could be translated as “to dare”.
Sentences no. 3 and 4 show the reversal of word order in action: się is moved before kończyć, zaczynać and śmiać to avoid being the last word in the clause, which is typically stressed.
However, it must be noted that replacing się with siebie in a stressed position is not possible in fixed reflexive verbs. Thus, you will never see these verbs used as śmiać siebie, bać siebie or bawić siebie.
The verb uczyć się is a particularly interesting case:
Uczę się polskiego. (“I am learning Polish.)
Uczę polskiego. (“I am teaching Polish.)
By taking away się, you completely change the meaning of the sentence. This is why any native speaker would consider uczyć się and uczyć to be two completely separate verbs. So it’s not like uczyć się is seen as a variant of uczyć in which the teaching is done to oneself.
Polish reflexive pronouns and grammatical case
With all this talk of reflexive verbs, it’s easy to forget that się is actually a pronoun – and just like most other Polish pronouns, it has separate forms in several grammatical cases.
Why are the nominative and vocative forms missing from the table? Simply because they do not exist. Reflexive pronouns cannot act as the subject of the sentence or a form of address, so there’s no need for forms that would fulfill these functions.
The accusative and genitive forms are by far the most common ones – these are the familiar się and siebie forms we’ve been using so far to refer to the object of the sentence. What about the other cases?
The dative form sobie is used to indicate that the recipient (indirect object) of the action is the same as the doer. It’s different from the accusative in that an action expressed with the dative is not really performed on the object, but rather for the object or in relation to it.
Tom zrobił sobie kanapkę. (“Tom made himself a sandwich.”)
Nie ufają sobie. (“They don’t trust each other.”)
The instrumental form sobą is chiefly used with prepositions such as z (“with”), za (“behind”), pod (“under”), nad (“above”), and przed (“in front of” / “before”). You can learn more about prepositions and the way they interact with grammatical cases in the article “Everything you need to know about Polish prepositions”.
Zamknął za sobą drzwi. (“He shut the door behind him.”)
Rozmawiają ze sobą. (“They’re talking with each other.”)
The most common use of the locative form sobie is after prepositions such as o (“about”), w (“in”), po (“after”) and przy (“next to”).
Myślisz tylko o sobie. (“You only think about yourself.”)
Tom i Mary byli w sobie zakochani. (“Tom and Mary were in love with each other.”)
It is important to remember that się in reflexive verbs such as śmiać się (“to laugh”) or bawić się (“to play”) never changes its grammatical case – it can only appear as the short accusative form się.
Other uses of the Polish reflexive pronoun “się”
While the previous sections have covered most common uses of Polish reflexive pronouns, się also appears in some very specific structures that might seem just plain weird to an English speaker. Let’s try to make them a little less weird.
First, się can be added to almost any verb to create a depersonalized structure – essentially an action without a specified doer.
Jak się to wymawia? (“How is it pronounced?”)
Tak się nie robi. (“One just doesn’t do that.”)
Jak się tam jedzie? (“How do you get there [by car]?”)
A somehow similar impersonal use of się involves adding it to a verb when talking about an action that happens “by itself”, with nobody to blame for it.
Woda się gotuje. (“The water is boiling.”)
Pogoda znowu się popsuła. (“The weather broke again.”)
Robi się ciemno. (“It’s getting dark.”)
(Quite useful when you’re trying to worm your way out of a slippery situation. By saying “zupa się wylała” you can claim that the soup “spilled itself” and get away with it.)
Then, there is the popular structure da się, which is usually translated as “is possible”:
Da się to naprawić? (“Is it possible to fix it?”)
Tego meczu nie dało się wygrać. (“It was impossible to win this match.”)
Nie da się tego opisać słowami. (“Words cannot even begin to describe it.”)
Most common Polish reflexive verbs
To finish up, here’s a list of 15 common reflexive verbs which did not appear in the previous sections, but are still very useful to know:
nazywać się – “to be named”
Nazywam się Jan Kowalski. (“My name is Jan Kowalski.”)
podobać się – “to like” (used with the dative; comparable to “appeal to sb” in English)
Jak ci się podoba Japonia? (“How do you like Japan?”)
dziać się – “to happen”
Co tu się dzieje? (“What is happening here?”)
wydawać się – “to seem”
Wydawał się być dobrym człowiekiem. (“He seemed to be a good person.”)
modlić się – “to pray”
Jak często się modlisz? (“How often do you pray?”)
stawać się – “to become”
Z wiekiem stał się słabszy. (“He has become weaker with age.”)
zgadzać się – “to agree”
Nie mogę się z tobą zgodzić. (“I can’t agree with you.”)
spóźniać się – “to be late”
Tom rzadko się spóźnia. (“Tom is seldom late.”)
opiekować się – “to look after”
Opiekowała się pacjentem. (“She looked after the patient.”)
napić się – “to drink” / “to have a drink”
Chciałbyś się czegoś napić? (“Would you like to drink something?”)
martwić się – “to worry” / “to be worried”
Bardzo się o ciebie martwimy. (“We’re very worried about you.”)
nudzić się – “to be bored”
Nasz syn znowu się nudzi. (“Our son is bored again.”)
budzić się – “to wake up”
O której zwykle się budzisz? (“What time do you usually wake up?”)
pojawiać się – “to appear”
Na horyzoncie pojawił się dym. (“Smoke appeared on the horizon.”)
wahać się – “to hesitate”
Przez chwilę się wahała. (“She hesitated for a moment.”)
The Polish Pronouns Grammar Challenge
Since Polish reflexive pronouns are used to express so many different things, you cannot expect to learn them all by memorizing a list of rules. The most effective way to master them is to keep using them in real contexts until it all sinks in.
Take up the Polish Pronouns Grammar Challenge and start learning by filling in clozes in actual Polish sentences.