Teach Yourself! A Straightforward Walkthrough of Reflexive Verbs in French
I still remember my first day of French class.
Before we could even enter the classroom, Madame had us say bonjour (hello) as we shook her hand.
We had barely gone to our seats before our first exercise began. We had to turn to the student behind us and ask, Comment t’appelles-tu? (What’s your name?) and answer the person in front of us: Je m’appelle _____ (My name is _____).
I still remember the pitiable attempts at French accents, the embarrassed looks, the utter perplexité (confusion).
What I didn’t know right away is that I had already used my first French reflexive verb.
Reflexive verbs are so common and vital to French speakers, you apparently can’t even get five minutes into your first French class without encountering them! And yet, they remain a total mystery to many French learners long after that day has passed.
We’re here to clear up that mystery and get you comfortable with using these verbs. No more freezing up when you need to use one in the past tense; no more scratching your head when you hear them in the wild.
Ready to take yourself on this French grammar journey?
Teach Yourself! A Straightforward Walkthrough of Reflexive Verbs in French
First, we’ll cover what reflexive verbs are and different types you’ll encounter in French communication.
Then we’ll show you how to use them in context, followed by some resources you can use to keep practicing them!
And now, let’s break down how reflexive verbs work in French.
So What Are Reflexive Verbs?
Reflexive verbs are common in everyday French. They’re used for everything from describing your daily routine (je m’habille — I dress myself), to expressing how you feel, (je me fâche — I am becoming angry), to introducing yourself as I learned on my first day of French class. Thus, mastering them is an essential part of taking your French to the next level.
A reflexive verb is used with a reflexive pronoun, which will always correspond to the subject of the sentence.
Je (I) corresponds to the reflexive pronoun me (myself).
Tu (You) corresponds to the reflexive pronoun te (yourself).
Il (He or it), Elle (She or it) and On (One or we) correspond to the reflexive pronoun se (him/her/itself, oneself, ourselves).
Nous (We) corresponds to the reflexive pronoun nous (ourselves).
Vous (Plural or formal you) corresponds to the reflexive pronoun vous (yourselves).
Ils/Elles (They) correspond to the reflexive pronoun se (themselves).
A reflexive verb is used for an action that “reflects back” on the subject. So if you’re the subject of a sentence with a reflexive verb, you’re doing something to yourself.
Sometimes this will make perfect sense to English speakers, with an action very clearing being done by “myself,” “yourself,” “herself,” etc. Other times, the action will “reflect back” in a more metaphorical sense. And finally, some verbs must be reflexive grammatically even though it doesn’t really contribute to the meaning.
Let’s take a closer look at these types of reflexive verbs, with examples.
Type 1: Actions You Literally Do to Yourself
Some reflexive verbs are logical and describe an action that you, in a sense, do to yourself. This type often consists of actions involving the body and the daily routine:
Je me réveille. (I wake up. — Literally: I wake myself.)
Il se lève. (He gets up. — Literally: he raises himself.)
Nous nous habillons. (We get dressed. — Literally: we dress ourselves.)
Tu te brosses les cheveux/les dents. (You brush your hair/teeth. — Literally: you brush yourself the hair/the teeth.)
Vous vous lavez la tête. (You wash your hair. — Literally: you wash yourselves the head.)
Elles se sèchent les cheveux. (They dry their hair. — Literally: they dry themselves their hair.)
Note that even if there’s a direct object, such as les dents (the teeth) or la tête (the head), we still need to have the reflexive pronoun.
Although the English equivalent of these phrases may not include a reflexive pronoun, it’s required in French because it’s an action you’re doing to yourself. In fact, many of these verbs can be used without a reflexive pronoun, depending on what you want to say.
For instance, although “Vous vous lavez la tête” means “you wash your hair,” “Vous lavez la voiture” means “you wash the car.” Both of these sentences contain a direct object, but the first one nevertheless requires a reflexive pronoun because you’re washing part of yourself.
Type 2: Abstract Actions Involving Yourself
This type of reflexive verb mainly consists of phrases used to describe emotions. Thus, although the action doesn’t “reflect back” in the material sense, as with something you do to your body, the action does “reflect back” in a mental or emotional sense.
Je me fâche. (I am becoming angry.)
Elles se dépêchent. (They are hurrying up.)
Nous nous amusons. (We are having fun.)
Calmez-vous! (Calm down!) Note that in the imperative (when giving a command), we use the tu or vous form of the verb and hyphenate it with the appropriate reflexive pronoun.
Ne t’inquiète pas! (Don’t worry!) Although this is also in the imperative, since it’s negative, we structure the phrase like the sentence Tu ne t’inquiète pas and simply omit the subject.
Il s’ennuie. (He is bored.)
Although using such verbs without a reflexive pronoun is less common, these verbs may be used in the active sense as well.
For example, while Il s’ennuie means “He is bored,” Est-ce que son discours t’ennuie? means “Does his speech bore you?” The first sentence is simply an expression of emotion, while the second has to do with the action of boring someone. There, the pronoun te functions as a direct object, not as a reflexive pronoun.
Type 3: Verbs That Just Require It
As noted earlier, there are some verbs that must be reflexive, even though it doesn’t necessarily contribute to the meaning. The only way to remember them is to practice.
Il se moque de sa sœur. (He mocks/makes fun of his sister.)
Je me souviens de mon séjour en France. (I remember my trip to France.)
Ils se plaignent des impôts. (They complain about the taxes.)
Vous vous servez de l’ordinateur dans vos recherches. (You use the computer in your research.)
Est-ce que tu t’aperçois de ma nouvelle voiture? (Do you notice my new car?)
Nous nous attendons à voir le nouveau film cet après-midi. (We expect to see the new movie this afternoon.)
As you probably noticed, these examples tend to be more complex than earlier ones because, since the reflexive pronoun doesn’t contribute to meaning, we have to include more information to express a complete thought. Some of these verbs, too, have different meanings when used without a reflexive pronoun.
For example, while s’attendre means “to expect,” attendre means simply “to wait.” Similarly, se servir means “to use,” but servir means “to serve.”
How to Use Reflexive Verbs in Context
Now that we have a grasp on what reflexive verbs are and when they’re needed, let’s get comfortable using them in different situations.
Using Reflexive Verb Infinitives
The default (such as how you’ll see it listed in a dictionary or textbook) reflexive pronoun for a reflexive verb in the infinitive is se.
However, if the infinitive is placed in a sentence, the pronoun must agree with the subject, in the same way it would be if it were conjugated.
S’habiller → Je vais m’habiller. (I am going to get dressed.)
Se coucher → On veut se coucher tôt ce soir. (We want to go to bed early tonight.)
Se promener → Tu vas te promener après le dîner. (You are going to go for a walk after dinner.)
Note that the reflexive pronoun stays with the infinitive because that’s where its meaning is tied. It doesn’t go in front of the conjugated verb, such as aller or vouloir.
Using Reflexive Verbs in the Passé Composé (Compound Past)
Reflexive verbs take être, not avoir, in the passé composé (the compound past; the most often used past tense in French).
Elles se sont endormies. (They went to sleep.)
Nous ne nous sommes pas assis. (We did not sit down.)
Je me suis lavé les mains. (I washed my hands.)
When it’s not reflexive, the verb will take avoir in the passé composé, just like most verbs.
On a coupé le pain. (We cut the bread.)
Tu n’as pas lavé la vaisselle. (You did not wash the dishes.)
L’examen vous a inquiété? (Did the exam worry you?)
Don’t Forget Agreement!
Did you notice something different about the above examples with être? When a reflexive verb is in the passé composé, the participe passé (past participle) must agree with the subject in number and gender.
For instance, in the sentence elles se sont endormies, we must add an e and s to endormi because elles is feminine and plural. Similarly, in the sentence nous ne nous sommes pas assis, we add an s to assi because nous is plural (and could be masculine or feminine depending on context).
However, in the third example, je me suis lavé les mains, we don’t have to add anything to lavé (even if je is feminine) because there’s a direct object: les mains. Thus, the direct object receives the action. If there’s no direct object, then the subject receives the action and the participe passé acts like an adjective, which is why there must be agreement.
If the verb isn’t reflexive, it’ll take avoir and no agreement is needed.
Elle s’est limé les ongles. (She filed her nails.)
Ils se sont peignés. (They combed their hair.)
Vous vous êtes reposés bien? (Did you rest well?)
Nous nous sommes brossé les dents. (We brushed our teeth.)
Je me suis promenée au parc. (I went for a walk in the park.)
Est-ce que ma mère m’a appellé? (Did my mother call me?)
Word Order with Reflexive Verbs
When building complex sentences in French, it may become very confusing trying to put all the pieces together in just the right spot. Like building a puzzle, if the pieces (words) aren’t in the correct places, we won’t get a congruent whole (a proper sentence).
Here are three things to keep in mind when crafting more complicated sentences with reflexive verbs:
- As you can see in the examples, the reflexive pronoun comes before both the verbe auxiliaire (auxiliary verb) and the participe passé (past participle). For instance, Je me suis baignée (I bathed).
- Similarly, reflexive pronouns come before en and y. For example, je m’y suis baignée (I bathed there).
- Finally, when using reflexive verbs, negation and the passé composé, order is as follows: Ne + Pronom Réfléchi (Reflexive Pronoun) + Verbe Auxiliare+ Pas + Participe Passé.
For example: Elle ne s’est pas intéressée au nouveau film. (She was not interested in the new movie.)
How to Practice Using French Reflexive Verbs
I know. A lot to remember! Honestly, the best (and only) way to master reflexive verbs is to practice, practice, practice. Here are some specific places you can go to find good practice exercises:
- This simple quiz provides a good review of using reflexive verbs in the present tense (also a good review of verb conjugations and pesky spelling-change verbs).
- This activity gives you practice with reflexive verbs in the passé composé.
- Here, you’ll find a list of 101 reflexive verbs and their definitions. It’s very helpful to get an idea of how essential reflexive verbs are to mastering French. This list will help build your vocabulary. Plus, try building sentences with these verbs to strengthen your communication skills.
- Ready for a challenge? Going from simple to more complex, I created this quiz myself to help you review this article. It contains examples of everything I have talked about here.
Finally, simply exposing yourself to authentic French sources—news articles, literary excerpts, reading exercises, listening practice, music, etc.—will help grammar such as reflexive verbs come more easily.
Think about it. In English, you can often “sense” if the grammar of a sentence is “off.” For instance, “I had wrote” simply doesn’t sound right, does it? That’s not because in kindergarten, your teachers made you memorize complex grammar tables. On the contrary, you know by experience.
Having listened to and read the language for years, you have a subconscious understanding of English grammar, even though you may not be able to explain the rules in words, you know them (for the most part, at least). The same is true when learning a new language. Although French reflexive verbs may seem bizarre at first, with practice, they’ll become more and more natural.
What was a struggle on my first day of French class now comes like a Parisian breeze. Je m’appelle Rachel.
Time and practice can do wonders.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. To learn more, visit her LinkedIn page.