French Reflexive Verbs (past tense)

Overview

The French Pronominal verbs (sometimes known as reflexive verbs) are conjugated with a reflexive pronoun (me, te, se, nous and vous).
In le passé composé tense, pronominal verbs are always conjugated with the auxiliary verb être, which you have already learned. The reflexive pronoun is placed before the auxiliary verb.
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To review what a pronominal verb is (including the three types of pronominal verbs, the meaning of a reflexive pronoun, and how to conjugate them in positive and negative sentences – refer to Module 12). In this module, we will learn how to conjugate pronominal verbs in the past tense (le passé composé). To review Le Passé Composé avec Être, see Module 4.

The general rule for conjugating any of the three pronominal verb types in the past tense is as follows:

Affirmative: Subject + reflexive pronoun + Être conjugated for subject in the present tense + past participle + agreement

Negative: Subject + ne + reflexive pronoun + Être conjugated for subject in the present tense + pas + past participle + agreement

The reflexive verb becomes a part of the conjugated verb (être) which is why the ne and pas sandwich them together.

Notice how agreement has been added to the formula. Because être is used as the auxiliary verb in the passé composé, we stay consistent with the rule of making the past participle agree with the subject of sentence in gender and number.

Examples:

  • Hier, elle s’est habillée à 7h du matin. → Yesterday, she got dressed at 7 o’clock in the morning.
  • Il y a deux jours, nous ne nous sommes pas reposés toute la journée → Two days ago, we didn’t rest all day.

When NOT to agree the past participle with être:

There are several instances when agreement is not added to the past participle when a pronominal verb is used in the passé composé. Agreement is not added when the reflexive pronoun acts as the indirect object of the sentence. Below are the most common ways you can determine if a reflexive pronoun is a direct object (add agreement) or indirect object (no agreement).

  • When a reflexive verb is not followed by a noun, the reflexive pronoun is often a direct object. For these verbs, the past participle must agree with the reflexive pronoun. 

Vous vous êtes amusés.

You all had fun.

  • When a preposition and a noun follow a reflexive verb, the reflexive pronoun is the direct object. The past participle must agree with that reflexive pronoun.

Les étudiants se sont inquiétés de l’examen.

The students were worried about the test.

  • When only a noun immediately follows the verb, the noun is most likely the direct object. That means the reflexive pronoun is indirect and the past participle does not change its ending with agreement. 

Elles se sont lavé le visage.

They washed their faces.

You will learn more about direct and indirect objects/pronouns in an upcoming module. For now, a good general rule of thumb is to agree the past participle with the subject of the sentence unless the sentence structure falls within one of these three cases. However, mistaking a reflexive pronoun for direct or indirect and incorrectly agreeing the past participle are very small grammatical mistakes. This would rarely inhibit adequate communication with a native French speaker.

Pronominal verbs in the other tenses:

Pronominal verbs can also be used in other tenses we’ve learned so far, like le futur simple. Generally speaking, the formula provided in Module 12 is the standard formula used. Just conjugate the verb in the tense you wish the sentence to be in (in this case, the simple future tense). Always keep the reflexive pronoun before the pronominal verb.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
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Spoken Interaction:
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Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.