A pronominal verb is a verb that “relates to a pronoun.” There are three types of pronominal verbs: reflexive, reciprocal, and idiomatic. In this module, we will learn the fundamentals/basics of pronominal verbs in French. Pronominal verbs are identifiable in their infinitive (unconjugated) state; before their infinitive comes se or s’ if the verb begins with a vowel. This indicates that a reflexive pronoun must accompany the verb when it is conjugated and agree with the subject of the sentence. The list below shows the reflexive pronoun that is paired with each subject when a pronominal verb is being conjugated.
*There is no typo in the chart. The reflexive pronouns for the first and second person plural forms happen to be the same as the subject pronouns.
The general rule for conjugating any of the three pronominal verb types is as follows:
Subject + reflexive pronoun + pronominal verb conjugated for subject
Les Verbes Réfléchis (Reflexive Verbs)
Reflexive verbs are the most common pronominal verbs. These verbs indicated that the subject of the sentence is doing an action to itself. These verbs can also stand alone without the reflexive pronoun to indicate the subject is doing the action to someone else. Take a look at these examples.
- Je me lave. → I wash myself.
Je lave la voiture. → I wash the car.
- Nous nous réveillons. → We wake ourselves up.
Nous réveillons notre fille. → We wake up our daughter.
The first sentence in these two examples follows the formula above. They include the reflective pronouns se and nous to indicate the action of the verb is being done by the subjects Je and Nous respectively.
Below is a list of common French reflexive verbs. You can review several of these verbs in the Quizlet set of this module.
se baigner = to bathe, swim
se brosser (les cheveux, les dents) = to brush (one's hair, one's teeth)
se casser (la jambe, le bras) = to break (one's leg, one's arm)
se coiffer = to fix one's hair
se coucher = to go to bed
se dépêcher = to hurry
se déshabiller = to get undressed
se doucher = to take a shower
s'énerver = to get annoyed
s'enrhumer = to catch a cold
se fâcher = to get angry
s'habiller = to get dressed
s'imaginer = to imagine
s'intéresser à = to be interested in
se laver (les mains, la figure) = to wash (one's hands, one's face)
se lever = to get up
se maquiller = to put on makeup
se marier (avec) = to get married (to)
se peigner = to comb one's hair
se promener = to take a walk
se raser = to shave
se regarder = to look at oneself
se reposer = to rest
se réveiller = to wake up
se souvenir de = to remember
Les Verbes Reciproques (Reciprocal Verbs)
Just like reflexive verbs show that an action is being done by the subject to the subject, reciprocal verbs show that an action is being carried out between two subjects. Though there is a different set of pronominal verbs from the list you reviewed above, reciprocal verbs use the same general pronominal verb formula. Review these examples. Note how the meaning of the sentence changes with an identical formula.
- Vous vous parlez à la réunion. → You talk to each other at the meeting.
- Ils se regardent. → They look at each other.
Sometimes telling the difference between reflexive and reciprocal verbs can be done by thinking logically through the translations. Other times, the translations aren’t as obvious and they depend on the situational context of the sentence. For example, the sentences above are reciprocal verb examples. However, without context, one could argue they mean “You are talking to yourself/yourselves” and “They are looking at themselves.” Understanding context in French is extremely useful for this aspect of grammar.
Below is a list of common French reciprocal verbs.
s'adorer = to adore (one another)
s'aimer = to love each other
s'apercevoir = to see each other
se comprendre = to understand each other
se détester = to hate each other
se dire = to tell each other
s'embrasser = to kiss each other
se parler = to talk to each other
se promettre = to promise each other
se quitter = to leave each other
se regarder = to look at each other
se rencontrer = to meet each other
se sourire = to smile at each other
se téléphoner = to call each other
se voir = to see each other
Les Verbes Idiomatiques (Idiomatic Verbs)
Idiomatic verbs are verbs that have a completely different meaning with a reflexive pronoun than when they stand alone without one. French has a lot of them. Essentially, the reflexive pronoun is critical to the overall meaning of the sentence. Just like reflexive and reciprocal verbs, however, they follow the same general pronominal verb formula. In this module, we are not going to focus much on idiomatic verbs, as they are generally challenging for new learners to understand and remember.
- Tu te demandes si tu as gagné le jeu.→ You are wondering if you won the game.
- Elle s’ entend avec les autres. → She gets along with the others.
We know that demander means “to ask for” and entendre means “to hear.” The reflexive verbs te and se that accompany these verbs change the meaning and context of each sentence.
Below is a list of common French idiomatic pronominal verbs. The definitions in parenthesis are the definitions of the verbs without the reflexive pronoun.
s'en aller = to go away (to go)
s'amuser = to have a good time (to amuse)
s'appeler = to be named (to call)
s'attendre (à) = to expect (to wait for)
se demander = to wonder (to ask)
se dépêcher = to hurry (to send quickly)
s'endormir = to fall asleep (to put to sleep)
s'ennuyer = to be bored (to bother)
s'entendre = to get along (to hear)
s'habituer à = to get used to (to get in the habit of)
s'inquiéter = to worry (to alarm)
s'installer = to settle in (to a home) (to install)
se mettre à = to begin to (to place, put)
se rendre compte de = to realize (to account for)
se réunir = to meet, get together (to gather, collect)
se servir = to use, make use of (to serve)
se tromper = to be mistaken (to deceive)
Negating Pronominal Verbs
To negate a sentence with a pronominal verb, you follow this general pattern:
Subject + ne + reflexive pronoun + pronominal verb conjugated for subject + pas
The reflexive verb becomes a part of the verb which is why the ne and pas sandwich them together. The ne and pas could also be substituted by any of the other negative expression combinations that we learned in Module 9.
Elle ne se maquille jamais le matin. → She never puts makeup on [herself] in the mornings.