French reflexive verbs – also French pronominal, reciprocal verbs or “Se” verbs – often confuse students. Here is my explanation including a short and fun video using the Sims with French transcript and English translation to help you grasp this concept better.
1 – What is a French Pronominal Verb ?
Pronominal verbs offer a twist on a “base verb”. So the first thing to do is to memorize the meaning of the “base verb”.
Let’s look at an example:
- “raser” (base verb) – to shave another person (someone else, not yourself)
Autrefois, le barbier rasait la barbe de mon grand-père.
In the past, the barber shaved my grand-father’s beard.
- “se raser” (corresponding pronominal verb) – to shave yourself
Mon oncle se rase tous les matins.
My uncle shaves every morning.
The pronoun “se” is used before the verb to show that my uncle doesn’t shave someone else, or have someone shave him: he shaves himself.
The full conjugation of the verb in the present tense is:
- Je me rase,
- Tu te rases,
- Il, elle, on se rase,
- Nous nous rasons,
- Vous vous rasez,
- Ils, elles se rasent.
2 – Reflexive French Verbs Versus Reciprocal French Verbs
Let’s look at some terms. They look scary but they’re not actually very difficult because they are quite logical:
What is a Base Verb?
“Raser” is the base verb and “se raser” is the pronominal form of it.
What is a French Pronominal Verb?
“Pronominal” is an adjective, it means “having a pronoun”. As we have just seen, pronominal verbs have a special pronoun before the verb: “me, te, se, nous, vous, se” (in addition to the subject pronoun “je, tu, il, elle, on, nous, vous, ils, elles”).
Some verbs can only be conjugated in a pronominal form (eg “s’enfuir” to flee) but most verbs have a base verb.
What is a French Reflexive Verb?
“Reflexive” is an adjective, it means “reflecting”. It shows that the action is carried out on the person who is doing the action.
“Reflexive verb” is an alternative name for “pronominal verbs” like “se raser”.
What is a French Reciprocal Verb?
“Reciprocal” is an adjective, it means “done by both sides to each other” or “felt by both sides about each other”.
A “Reciprocal verb” is a sort of pronominal verb when the verb uses a reflexive pronoun to show the action is reciprocal, such as with the verb “s’aimer”.
Ils s’aiment depuis dix ans
They have been in love (“they have loved each other”) for 10 years.
So there is a nuance here…
Let’s take the verb “se réveiller” which means to wake up.
If you say “nous nous réveillons à huit heures”, there could be two translations:
- Each one of us wakes up at 8AM (reflexive action – we each do it to oneself)
- We wake each other up at 8AM (reciprocal action – we do it to each other)
How can you tell? Usually from the context of the sentence / story.
Click here to access a list of French reciprocal verbs and exercises on French Today.
Click here to access a list of French reflexive verbs and exercises on French Today.
Click here to access a list of idiomatic or difficult to understand French reflexive verbs and exercises on French Today.
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3 – Nous Nous, Vous Vous ???
These “nous nous”, “vous vous” are very weird for a French student, but they sound perfectly fine for a French native.
Note however, that the first pronoun is a subject pronoun. It replaces a subject. The second pronoun is the reflexive pronoun.
So, if in your sentence you use nouns for the subject, you don’t necessarily have to use the first pronoun.
- Philippe et moi, nous nous rasons.
Here, the first “nous” is redundant. It’s supposed to replace “Philippe et moi”, but since you say “Philippe et moi” in this sentence, you don’t need a subject pronoun. We do use it this way for emphasis, and also just because we are so accustomed to the “nous nous”, “vous vous”, that it’s kind of easier for us to say it this way! So I would say it’s quite common to use both a noun subject AND a subject pronoun AND a reflexive pronoun for the “nous” and “vous” forms of French reflexive verbs.
However, you could also say:
- Philippe et moi nous rasons.
That would be more upscale French actually. You’re more likely to find this in writing.
In spoken French, since we like to use “on” instead of nous, you’ll also hear:
- Philippe et moi, on se rase.
All these sentences mean the same thing: Philippe and I, we shave.
It could also mean Philippe and I shave each other… but it’s a bit less likely.
4 – Main Points to be Aware of About French Pronominal Verbs
A. You have to understand the meaning of the “base verb”
The meaning of most pronominal verbs has some connection with the meaning of the base verb, so when you’ve learnt the base verb, automatically you’ll have some idea what the corresponding pronominal verb means.
Unfortunately, there is a fairly small number of “idiomatic pronominal verbs” (about 40 common ones), for which the meaning of the pronominal verbs doesn’t have a clear connection with the meaning of the base verb. This is one reason why French pronominal verbs are sometimes confusing for English speakers.
For example, “emporter” means “to take something away; to take something with you” but the corresponding pronominal verb “s’emporter” means “to lose one’s temper, to become angry”.
- Il s’emporte souvent – he often loses his temper (But even then, there might be some vague connection with the English expression “to get carried away”?)
B. Pronominal verbs are much more common in French than they are in English
Another reason why these French verbs can be confusing for English speakers is because their counterpart in English may not be reflexive or reciprocal.
For example, none of the examples above (se raser, s’aimer, s’emporter) is reflexive or reciprocal in English.
In English, we simply say: “my uncle shaves every morning”, “they have been in love for ten years”, “he often loses his temper”.
My tip – when memorizing a pronominal verb, try to use it in a sentence, and memorize that sentence. It will be easier to remember that this particular verb is used in a reflexive way in French.
C. Conjugation with “être” in compound tenses
In compound tenses (e.g. the passé composé):
- all pronominal verbs use the auxiliary verb être
- you will need to make the past participle of the pronominal verb agree with the subject of the verb in gender and in number, unless it’s followed by a direct object.
1 – Camille s’est coiffée (Camille combed herself)
2 – Camille s’est coiffé les cheveux (Camille combed her hair)
5 – Learn French “Se” Verbs With a Video Featuring the Video Game The Sims
Many toiletry related verbs in French are reflexive. So here is my short video – featuring the Sims – to learn reflexive verbs in context as well as bathroom vocabulary.
French Transcript and English Translation of the Video
Notre Sim dort.
Our Sim is sleeping.
Maintenant, elle se réveille, elle se lève, et elle va dans la salle de bains.
Now she wakes up, she gets up and she goes into the bathroom.
Elle va aux toilettes, elle fait pipi et puis elle s’essuie et elle tire la chasse.
She uses the bathroom, she pees, then she wipes herself and flushes.
Elle se lave les mains avec du savon liquide, et puis elle va prendre une douche.
She washes her hands with liquid soap, then she takes a shower.
Elle se déshabille et puis elle rentre dans sa douche et elle se lave avec du gel pour la douche : elle se frotte bien.
She gets undressed and then enters her shower and washes with shower gel: she scrubs herself energetically.
Et puis elle se lave les cheveux avec du shampoing.
And then, she washes her hair with shampoo.
Peut être qu’elle se rase, on sait pas !
Maybe she shaves, we don’t know!
Elle se rince les cheveux et pendant tout le temps de sa douche, elle chante !
She rinses her hair and during all the time of her shower, she sings!
Avec les Sims, c’est magique. Elle ne s’essuie pas, elle ne s’habille même pas ! Un tour et elle est prête !
With the Sims, it’s magical. She doesn’t dry herself, she doesn’t even get dressed! A spin and she is ready!
Elle se lave les dents avec une brosse à dent et du dentifrice.
She brushes her teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Elle se regarde dans le miroir. Normalement, elle devrait se coiffer les cheveux, se sécher les cheveux et puis se mettre de la crème, et se maquiller: se faire les yeux, et se mettre du brillant à lèvre.
She looks at herself in a mirror. In the normal life, she should comb her hair, dry her hair and moisturize her skin, and apply make-up: do her eyes and put some gloss.
Mais encore une fois, un Sim n’a pas besoin de faire tout ça.
But once more, a Sim doesn’t need to do all that.
Maintenant, elle va dans sa chambre, et elle va se changer : peut être qu’elle va se mettre en tenue de sport, ou bien tout simplement en jean et en T-shirt, ou encore elle peut se mettre une robe.
Now, she goes to her room and changes: maybe she’ll put a sports outfit on, or just a jean and T-shirt, or else she can wear a dress.
If you enjoyed this video, please press like, and share it with your students and teachers – I think this makes a fun video to use in the classroom, don’t you ? Let me know what you think – I read all the comments and your feedback is very important to me.
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6 – Final Notes About French Reflexive Verbs
B. Avoiding the passive voice
We have seen that pronominal verbs are used much more in French than they are in English.
However, there is an unexpected bonus: quite a few of them can be used to avoid “the passive voice” in French. An example of the “passive voice”: white wine is drunk by Richard. (Compare this with the “active voice”: Richard drinks white wine).
French people do not like the passive voice and have a number of ways of avoiding it. If you can avoid the passive voice with a pronominal verb in the way that the French do themselves, your teachers (and examiners!) should be mightily impressed.
For example, you could use it like this:
le vin blanc se boit froid – white wine is best drunk cold.
B. In conclusion
The key to mastering French reflexive verbs is to practice, but practice with audio!
The reflexive pronouns glide a lot in spoken modern French with the subject pronoun and the verb, so you need to learn their modern glided pronunciation. French reflexive verbs are explained in French Today’s audiobook A Moi Paris Level 1.