Enrich Your Language With French Reflexive Verbs
While French and English share many linguistic similarities, there are just enough differences to throw non-native French speakers for a loop.
Reflexive verbs – also called pronominal verbs, or les verbes pronominaux – are one such example that learners find tricky at first because this concept doesn’t exist in English. But don’t worry – reflexive verbs are actually quite simple because you don’t actually have to learn a new pattern of conjugation; if you can conjugate –er, -ir, and –re verbs (and of course, those pesky irregulars), then you’re already halfway there!
What’s a reflexive verb and how is it different from other French verbs?
A reflexive verb is one in which the subject who is performing the action of the verb is the same person who receives the action of the verb. This is indicated by the presence of a reflexive pronoun in between the subject and the conjugated verb.
Je me réveille I wake (myself) up
The above is an example of a phrase that uses a reflexive verb (se réveiller – to wake oneself up) to express who is doing the action (I am) and who it is that is receiving the action of being woken up (I am, again). The me in the example sentence is the reflexive pronoun that indicates that the subject is doing the action to itself.
Je réveille les enfants I wake up the children
This sentence is an example of a NON-reflexive verb. I am still the person who is doing the action, but I’m not waking myself – I’m waking the children. Notice the absence of the reflexive pronoun me in this sentence.
How do I know if a verb is reflexive or not?
Reflexive verbs are typically associated with the daily routine, though they can appear in a variety of other situations as well. You can tell if a verb is reflexive by looking for the reflexive pronoun se in front of the infinitive, or the non-conjugated verb. Here are some examples!
|se réveiller||to wake up|
|se lever||to get up|
|s’habiller||to get dressed|
|se doucher||to take a shower|
|se brosser (les dents, les cheveux)||to brush (one’s hair, one’s teeth)|
|se maquiller||to put on makeup|
|se raser (les jambes)||to shave (one’s legs)|
|se coucher||to lie down|
|se mettre en pyjama||to put on one’s pajamas|
How do I conjugate French reflexive verbs?
When conjugating a reflexive verb, you really only need to remember to change the reflexive pronoun from se in the infinitive, as the verbs themselves conjugate as they normally would in any other circumstance; a reflexive verb that ends in –er conjugates just like any other –er verb, and so on.
Infinitive: se coiffer (to do one’s hair)
Je me coiffe I do my hair/I’m doing my hair
Tu te coiffes You do your hair/You’re doing your hair
Il se coiffe He does his hair/He’s doing his hair
Elle se coiffe She does her hair/She’s doing her hair
Nous nous coiffons We do our hair/We’re doing our hair
Vous vous coiffez You [plural] do your hair/You [plural] are doing your hair
Ils/Elles se coiffent They do their hair/They are doing their hair
Remember that without those reflexive pronouns, it means that you’re actually doing someone or something else’s hair. If you leave them out of the conjugation, a French speaker might wonder if you work as a hairstylist or dog groomer!
Reflexives in the passé composé
In the passé composé, reflexive verbs use être as their auxiliary verb; you put it in between the reflexive pronoun and the past participle.
Je me suis déshabillé(e) – I got undressed
You’ll notice the extra “e” in parentheses at the end of the past participle déshabillé – because you use être as the auxiliary verb, you must make the past participle agree in gender and number as you normally would with other être verbs in the passé composé. In the sentence below, “we” are clearly all girls because of the extra “e” in the past participle, and because there is more than one girl, there is also an additional “s.”
Nous nous sommes maquillées – We put on makeup
However, there is an exception to this rule which is the one tricky part of learning reflexive verbs: you do not make the past participle agree in gender and number if the verb is followed by a direct object.
Elle s’est lavé le visage – She washed her face
Because “le visage” is the direct object in this sentence – in other words, an answer to the question, “What did she wash?” (her face), you do NOT make agreement in the past tense and therefore there is no extra “e” on the end of the past participle.
Watch the video above and notice what reflexive verbs you hear as the women describe their morning routines. Are there any that you could add to the video? If you made a video narrating your morning routine, what would it sound like? Try to write a script!
Idiomatic pronominal verbs
In French, there are certain verbs that look reflexive but are idiomatic and don’t necessarily express a reflexive action; they’re just always conjugated the same way a reflexive verb would be. Hey – no one ever said that French was a boring language! Here are some common idiomatic pronominal verbs:
|s’amuser à||to have fun|
|se dépêcher||to hurry|
|s’ennuyer||to be bored|
|se marier||to get married|
|se trouver||to be located|
|se souvenir de||to remember|
|se passer||to happen|
|se sentir||to feel|
The last category of pronominal verbs are reciprocal verbs, which express an action that passes between two or more people, as in se parler or se voir. In English, we would usually add the words “each other” to the end of the verb.
Some verbs that aren’t normally pronominal can be made so, as you can see below with s’aimer and se détester:
|s’aimer||to like each other|
|se detester||to hate each other|
|s’entendre bien||to get along well with each other|
|se disputer||to argue with each other|
|s’embrasser||to embrace each other|
|se retrouver||to meet up with each other|
|s’écrire||to write each other|
|se regarder||to look at each other|
Think about the story of Roméo and Juliette – how might you use reciprocal verbs to describe the action of the story?
Roméo regarde Juliette. Juliette regarde Roméo. à Ils se regardent.
La famille Capulet n’aime pas la famille Montague. à Les familles Capulet et Montague ne s’entendent pas bien / ne s’aiment pas.
What else could you add to the summary? Grand Corps Malade, a poetry slammer, wrote a modern take on Shakespeare’s tale with his slam, Roméo kiffe Juliette. Listen to it and see how many reciprocal verbs you can identify!
As you can see, mastering reflexive verbs really only requires the addition of one small word, the reflexive pronoun, to an otherwise normal verb conjugation. It’s just another step on your journey to becoming a proficient French speaker!
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Megan is currently working on her graduate degree in French and Francophone Studies, prior to which she taught high school French for five years. In addition to French, she self-studies Spanish and is looking forward to starting German classes soon.