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It seems that reírse ("to laugh") is always used with the reflexive.

  • Yo me río. (I laugh.)

  • Él se rió. (He laughed.)

  • Nos reíamos durante toda la película. (We laughed during the entire movie.)

As I understand Spanish verbs, the reflexive can be used (as in this context) to change a transitive verb to an intransitive; i.e. as if the subject is performing the verb on himself/herself/itself. This makes sense for reír, but now it seems that the reflexive is redundant and extraneous.

Seeing how reírse is always intransitive anyway, I'm curious:

Question

Could reír be used without the reflexive, and/or could it be used transitively? How might that translate to English (if at all)?

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    This is a quasi-reflexive construction: it has reflexive form, but not really reflexive meaining. In fact, you can say use the verb reír in non-reflexive form, though it is unusual and old fashioned. The origin of the quasi-reflexive construction, nevertheless, is beyond my knowledge, so I cannot give a good answer for your question. – Gorpik Feb 8 '17 at 22:03
  • I've added translations to my answer - I'll leave it at that because it's actually answering to more than was asked. – pablodf76 Feb 9 '17 at 12:58
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First things first:

  1. Yes, reír can be used without the "reflexive";
  2. No, reír cannot be used transitively.

Now on to the details:

The use of the (formally reflexive) pronouns with verbs like reír or comer has been analyzed as a kind of mediopassive voice construction that conveys a sense of action of the subject for the subject's own sake.

Spanish grammar is presented traditionally as having two grammatical voices: active and passive, the latter being expressed periphrastically by the verb ser plus the passive participle of the main verb. There are also phrases like La puerta se cayó or Se rompieron los platos, which are not exactly reflexive, and can be termed a form of middle voice.

Finally there are phrases where the "reflexive" pronoun is optional, as with reír (yes, you can say Reímos mucho instead of Nos reímos mucho, though the latter is much more common). These are usually of a kind that allow a mediopassive meaning of benefaction for the subject. That's why you usually find reírse instead of just reír, and also why you'll find people saying things like

¡Me comí una pizza grande yo solo!
Tus amigos se tomaron toda la cerveza.
No te imaginas lo que nos compramos.
Fue de viaje y se trajo un montón de souvenirs.

In each of these examples the "reflexive" pronouns could all be removed and the sentences would still be perfectly grammatical, but they would sound either oddly distant or formal or missing the emotional touch that their context demands.

Things are not that clear-cut, of course (middle and mediopassive voice are somewhat blurry categories), but there you have it.

ADDENDA: I realized I didn't reply to the last part of the question, because it seems to be tied to reír as transitive verb, which is impossible, but I figure it could be useful to know how one might translate a "self-benefactive" mediopassive phrase of this kind into English. For reír(se) this doesn't seem possible. In Spanish the closest thing would be something like

Reí para mí.
Reí para mis adentros.

which translate as "I laughed [quietly] to myself". This doesn't convey the idea of reírse and indeed it may imply exactly the opposite.

For transitive verbs that denote acquisition of goods the emotional expressiveness can be expressed in English, as in Spanish, with a pseudo-reflexive, although in a much more general way:

Fui a la tienda y me compré el vestido más caro.
"I went to the store and got myself the most expensive dress."

Note that there might be a problem translating cases like the following, where the subject does something that benefits themself (emotionally) but that is intended for other people:

Se trajo regalos para toda la familia.
*"He got himself gifts for the whole family."

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  • Curiously the DRAE dle.rae.es/?id=VnAMCA7 as its first meaning has it as a transitive verb (if I understand the abbreviations correctly). – mdewey Feb 9 '17 at 14:10
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    @mdewey Indeed it's marked as transitive, and I don't get it. It says here that in Spain you can say Nadie le ríe los chistes but I've never heard something like that and I don't think that usage is common. (I'd say Nadie se ríe de sus chistes.) – pablodf76 Feb 9 '17 at 16:42
  • Thank you for answering a question I had, how to say "nobody laughs at his jokes". – mdewey Feb 9 '17 at 17:01
  • @pablodf76 here you say that the pronoun "me" in "comerme una pizza" expresses benefaction for the subject, which is an ethical dative. However, in spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/26171/… , you say that reflexive pronoun in the same expression indicates a complete consumption (aspectual dative). I can see that the latter implies the former, but I don't think that the other way around is valid (a benefit of eating a pizza does not imply that I have eaten it entirely). Could you please explain better? – Alan Evangelista Dec 17 '19 at 23:08
  • @AlanEvangelista I was going to revise the examples but I'm guessing they're OK in this context. Here as you see I don't speak of datives; that question was answered later and it's better researched. Comerse una pizza is no doubt an aspectual dative, and it can be also a dative of interest. It's not an ethical dative (it doesn't show concern or involvement). – pablodf76 Dec 18 '19 at 11:08

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