French reflexive verbs learning guide

1. What is a reflexive verb in French?

A reflexive verb is a verb that needs to be used with a reflexive pronoun. The subject makes the action on himself. In some cases, the action is linked to a body part.

Let’s take an example to see what really is a pronominal verb.

 

  • Je lave ma voiture => I wash my car (I make the action on my car). In this case we don’t need to use a reflexive verb.

  • Je me lave les cheveux => I wash my hair. I do the action on myself. That explains why we are using a reflexive verb here.

2. How do you easily recognize French reflexive verbs?

To easily recognize them, you must pay attention to the pronouns that come before the verbs as they are generally preceded by reflexive pronouns. Here is how they look.

  • Je => me

  • Tu => te

  • Il => se

  • Elle => se

  • On => se

  • Nous =>nous

  • Vous => vous

  • Ils => se

  • Elles => se

You must have noticed that the reflexive pronoun changes depending on the subject.

3. How do you conjugate pronominal verbs in French?

Their conjugation depends on the type of verb, whether it is a regular verb (ER/IR) or irregular.

 

In a simple tense like present tense or future tense, the general sentence structure is Subject + reflexive pronoun + conjugated form of the verb.

Let’s take the example of the verb se réveiller (to wake up).

  • Je me réveille

  • Tu te réveilles

  • Il/elle/on se réveille

  • Nous nous réveillons

  • Vous vous réveillez

  • Ils se réveillent

 

Important note : when the verb starts with a vowel the pronouns me, te and se become m’, t’ and s’.

Example 

  • Comment tu t’appelles ?

  • Je m’appelle Arnaud.

 

In a compound tense like passé composé,  the pronoun is always placed before the auxiliary verb.  

Pronominal verbs are always used with the auxiliary être in past tenses like passé composé, plus que parfait, … Therefore, their past participle must be in agreement with the subject.

 

Example 

  • Il s’est levé à 10 heures. => He got up at 10.

  • Elle s’est levée à 10 heures. => She  got up at 10.

 

In the near future tense, the reflexive pronoun is placed after the verb aller. Remember to to make the change of pronoun as the subject changes.

Example 

  • Je vais me coucher. => I am going to bed

  • Tu vas te coucher => You are going to bed.

  • Nous allons nous coucher. => We are going to bed.

4. Did you know there were different Types of pronominal verbs?

  • The passive pronominal verbs

In this case, the subject undergoes an action but does not make the action.

 Example

Ce gâteau se mange aisément. This cake is easily eaten. The cake is eaten but doesn’t eat itself.

  • The reflexive pronominal verbs

The subject undergoes the action he/she is doing.

Example

Je me lave avant d’aller au lit. => I shower myself before going to bed. I am the one who showers and is showered.

  • The reciprocal reflexive verbs

Both subjects interact and make an action on each other.

Example

Ces enfants se parlent peu. => These children speak a little to each other.

  • Irreflexive pronominal verbs

The person who makes the action does not undergo it. In general, these verbs are followed with prepositions.

Example :

Math se débarrasse de ses vieilles chaussures. => Math gets rid of his old shoes. Math  is the one performing the action but on something else (his old shoes).

5. Are pronominal verbs always reflexive?

Some verbs are always reflexive; for example s'envoler (to fly), s’évanouir (to faint), s’en aller (to go away).

Others can be both pronominal and not. The meaning won’t be the same in that case.

Example 

  • parler/se parler

  • lever/se lever,

  • coiffer quelqu’un/ se coiffer

  • passer/se passer,

  • trouver/se trouver.

 

e.g

  • Ils parlent à leur mère. => They are speaking to their mother.

  • Ils se parlent depuis quinze heures. => They are talking to each other since 3 pm.

6. A list of reflexive verbs commonly used in French 

 

You might be interested to know more about this topic. Here is a list of 13 reflexive verbs used in everyday communication in French, especially in our daily routine.

 

  • Se réveiller => to wake up

  • Se raser = to shave oneself

  • S’épiler => to wax oneself

  • Se lever => To get up

  • Se doucher => to shower

  • S’habiller = to get dressed

  • Se brosser = to brush (les cheveux/les dents)

  • Se coiffer = to do one's hair

  • Se peigner = to comb one's hair

  • S’informer = to go to the news

  • Se reposer = to rest

  • Se baigner = to bath or to swim

  • Se coucher = to go to bed.

 

Practice the reflexive verbs with exercises

Practice with online exercises to make sure you are able to use perfectly this type of  verb.  Here is a selection of great exercises you could do.

Exercice 1 (Lingolia)

Exercice 2 (Ortholud)

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