Reflexive verbs (also called pronominal verbs – verbes réfléchis or verbes pronominaux in French) play an important role in the French language. They have a particularity: these verbs are always accompanied with a reflexive pronoun. These reflexive pronouns technically mean “myself”, “yourself”, “himself”, “ourselves”, “themselves”.
I. What are the use, the form and the types of the reflexive verbs?
Since a reflexive verb always needs a reflexive pronoun, let’s first see how the reflexive pronouns matches with the subject pronouns :
Subject pronoun : je
Reflexive pronoun: me (m’)
What it means: myself
Subject pronoun : tu
Reflexive pronoun: te (t’)
What it means: yourself
Subject pronoun : il/elle/on
Reflexive pronoun: se (s’)
What it means: himself/herself/itself/oneself
Subject pronoun : nous
Reflexive pronoun: nous
What it means: ourselves
Subject pronoun : vous
Reflexive pronoun: vous
What it means: yourself (formal)/yourselves (formal or informal)
Subject pronoun : ils/elles
Reflexive pronoun: se (s’)
What it means: themselves.
Now, where to place the reflexive pronoun in a sentence ?
Here is the sentence formation pattern:
Subject pronoun + reflexive pronoun + reflexive verb
One way to use the reflexive pronouns is when someone is speaking about an action they’re doing to themselves, just like in English.
Je ME motive pour finir mes devoirs. = I’m motivating myself to finish my homework (see how the reflective pronoun ME is placed before the verb motiver).
Tu TE regardes dans le miroir ? = You’re looking at yourself in the mirror?
Nous NOUS faisons des biscuits. = We’re making some cookies for ourselves.
Ils SE regardent un film. = They’re watching a movie by themselves.
However, we use these reflexive pronouns a lot more than we do in English. Many verbs in the French language need them. These verbs are called reflexive verbs.
So the question is: WHICH VERBS fall in the category of reflexive verbs? Well, since the definition of a reflexive verb is not straightforward, we have divided this category of verbs into 3 main groups: Common everyday action verbs; Reciprocal verbs; Just because they are (or idiomatic verbs).
1) Common everyday action verbs: some typical actions one does to himself/herself to get ready in the morning or evening:
Se réveiller = to wake up
Se lever = to get up
Se laver = to wash
Se raser = to shave
Se doucher = to take a shower
Se sécher = to dry up
S’habiller = to get dressed
Se brosser les dents = to brush one’s teeth
Se maquiller = to put on make up
Se préparer = to get ready
Se coucher = to go to bed.
Important NOTE: If you’re doing these actions to someone else, then don’t add the reflexive pronoun.
Je réveille mon enfant tous les matins à 8h. = I wake up my child every morning at 8am.
Notice how the action réveiller (to wake up) is done to the child, not to oneself.
Here is an example of someone relating their typical morning, before going to work:
Le matin, je me réveille à 7h, puis je me lève immédiatement. Et voici ma routine : je me douche, me rase, m’habille, je prends mon petit déjeuner et je me lave les dents. Je me prépare en 45 minutes. Je réveille ma femme avant de partir .
In the morning, I wake up at 7, then I get up immediately. And here is my routine: I take a shower, shave, get dressed, have breakfast and I brush my teeth. I get ready in 45 minutes. I wake my wife up before leaving.
Note: With the pronouns me, te and se, the e is dropped when the verb starts with a mute h or a vowel. In the paragraph above, notice how habille has just a m’ before the verb: je m’habille.
2 ) Reciprocal verbs:
These verbs are actions or feelings that you do/have with another person: to/for each other, one another. For instance, if you’re talking about 2 people who love each other, you would say ils s’aiment.
Have a look at this list of verbs (you’ll notice how many of them are verbs of communication):
S’écrire = to write to one another
Se parler = to speak to one another
Se regarder = to look at each other (you could also use it for one person if he or she is looking at themselves in the mirror)
Se disputer = to argue with each other
Se soutenir = to support one another
Se respecter = to respect one another
S’appeler = to call each other.
Here is an example of a man talking about his relationship with his wife:
Ma femme et moi, on s’aime vraiment ; on s’écrit avec nos smartphones au moins 10 fois par jour. Dès qu’on est ensemble le soir, nous nous parlons sans cesse. On ne se dispute presque jamais et surtout on se soutient constamment. C’est mon âme sœur.
My wife and I, we truly love each other; we write to each other on our smart phones at least 10 times per day. As soon as we’re together in the evening, we speak nonstop to each other. We rarely argue with each other and most importantly we constantly support one another. She’s my soul mate.
3. Verbs that are reflexive “just because they are” or some grammar books will call them ‘Idiomatic verbs’:
As the title of this paragraph suggests, some verbs in French are reflexive “just because they are”. In these cases, it’s difficult to attribute any specific meaning to the pronoun, or say that the verb has a particular meaning without the pronoun.
Here is a list of these useful verbs that need a reflexive pronoun:
S’appeler = to name (je m’appelle Caroline)
S’évanouir = to pass out/to faint
s’en aller = to leave, take off
S’ennuyer = to be bored
Se souvenir de = to remember
S’inspirer de = to get inspired
S’habituer = to get used to
Se dépêcher = to hurry
S’entendre = to get along
Se marier = to get married
Se passer = to happen
Se reposer = to rest
Se sentir = to feel
Se tromper = to make a mistake
S’endormir = to fall asleep
Se fâcher = to get angry
Se trouver = to be (situated)
Se taire = to be silent
Se promener = to take a walk.
S’amuser = to have fun.
II. Conjugating the reflexive verbs
How to use reflexive verbs in the imperative, the past tense (passé composé), the future (futur proche) and in the negative forms:
The French people use the imperative form very frequently, as they like to give orders. Since it’s a command, we use the imperative form only with the subjects tu, nous and vous. There is a particularity in using a reflexive verb in the imperative form: the reflexive pronouns is part of the construction but it is placed after the verb and it is joined with a hyphen. You will remember that the subject pronoun is dropped in commands.
When the reflexive pronoun comes after the verb, it is transformed into a tonic pronoun:
te becomes toi ;
vous and nous stay the same.
Lave-toi les dents ! = Brush your teeth!
Préparez-vous ! = Get ready! (talking to one person or a group of people)
Levons-nous ! = Let’s get up!
Asseyez-vous ! = Sit down!
Couche-toi tout de suite ! = Go to bed right away!
Note: Remember that in the imperative, with non-reflexive verbs as well as with reflexive verbs, the s in the tu form of er verbs is dropped: Tu te couches, Couche-toi !
If you have ever attended a French class, you have more than likely heard your teacher use this imperative mode to tell you what to do.
Passé composé form:
You will recall that the passé composé requires an auxiliary verb, either être or avoir, in front of the past participle and sometimes it’s not easy to decide while one to use. The good news with reflexive verbs is that you don’t have to wonder which one to pick. You always use être.
The pattern is quite straight forward:
Subject + pronoun + auxiliary verb + past participle.
It’s important to note that, in most cases, the past participle of pronominal verbs agrees in gender and number with the subject of the reflexive pronoun, that is, an e is added to the past participle to agree with a feminine subject and an s is added for a masculine plural subject and an es is added for a feminine plural subject.
Example (a woman speaking):
Hier, je me suis réveillée à 5h du matin. Mon mari et moi-même, nous nous sommes levés à 6h 30. Je me suis douchée et habillée, puis nous nous sommes promenés au centre ville pendant 1h. = Yesterday, I woke up at 5am. My husband and I, we got up at 6:30am. I took a shower and got dressed, then we went for a stroll downtown for 1 hour.
The negative form with the passé composé : the ne + pas will be placed around the auxiliary verb être with the ne coming in front of the reflexive pronoun.
Valentine, tu ne t’es pas réveillée avant 10h ? = Valentine, you didn’t wake up before 10am?
Raoul et Christophe ne se sont pas lavés avant d’aller se coucher. = Raoul and Christophe didn’t wash up before going to bed.
As you can imagine, there are exceptions on the agreement of the past participle. One of them is when a direct object following the verb is a part of the body:
Nous nous sommes lavé les cheveux = We washed our hair.
Elle s’est lavé les dents. = She brushed her teeth.
Ma femme s’est cassé la jambe l’hiver dernier. = My wife broke her leg last winter.
However, if you don’t add the part of the body, then you’ll need to add the agreement:
Ce matin, nous nous sommes lavés. = This morning, we washed up.
Furthermore, in cases where the reflexive pronoun is an indirect object rather than a direct object, as in the verb se parler (parler à), there is no agreement.
Aline et moi, nous nous sommes parlé. = Aline and I, we talked to each other.
Futur proche with aller
As you might already know, there are 2 future tenses in French: the futur proche with the verb aller (to go) and the futur simple. The future simple is very straight forward as you just need to conjugate the main verb in the future and the reflexive pronoun is placed before the verb. As for the futur proche, the reflexive pronoun is placed in between the verb aller and the infinitive of the main verb.
Here is the sentence pattern for the futur proche :
Subject + aller (conjugated in the present tense) + pronoun + verb in the infinitive form.
Je vais aller me coucher. = I’m going to bed soon.
Tu vas te changer. = You’re going to go change.
Nous allons nous préparer. = We’re going to get ready.
Just another quick note regarding the 2 future tenses: the futur proche is mostly used in contexts when the action is most likely going to take place; the decision has been made to take that action. The futur simple doesn’t always mean that the action is going to take place, it could be a wish.
The negative form: the ne and pas are placed around the verb aller:
Je ne vais pas aller me brosser les cheveux encore une fois ! = I’m not going to brush my hair one more time!