French Reflexive Verbs: The Complete Guide
On my first day of French class, we had to introduce ourselves with: Je m’appelle _____ (My name is _____).
What I didn’t know right away is that I had already used my first French reflexive verb.
As I got better at French, eventually becoming fluent in it, I noticed how reflexive verbs are very common—in fact, knowing how to conjugate them correctly is crucial to even basic communication.
This guide will get you comfortable with French reflexive verbs so you can recognize them quickly and conjugate them in different tenses.
- What Are French Reflexive Verbs?
- How to Conjugate French Reflexive Verbs
- Word Order with Reflexive Verbs
- How to Practice Using French Reflexive Verbs
What Are French 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.
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.
For example, take the verb se laver. This verb means “to wash oneself.”
By contrast, with the verb laver (to wash), the subject could be washing something else.
Il se lave.
He washes himself.
Il lave la voiture.
He washes the car.
Reflexive verbs are used with reflexive pronouns that always correspond to the subject of the sentence:
|il (he or it), elle (she or it), on (one or we)
|se (him/her/itself, oneself, ourselves)
|vous (plural or formal you)
Sometimes reflexive verbs make perfect sense to English speakers, with an action very clearly 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 the different types of reflexive verbs.
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.)
Even if there’s a direct object, such as les dents (the teeth) or la tête (the head), you 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. The action “reflects 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.
He is bored.
This also applies to the imperative (when giving a command):
Ne t’inquiète pas !
In the imperative, use the tu or vous form of the verb and hyphenate it with the appropriate reflexive pronoun. But if it’s a negative command, structure the phrase like the sentence Tu ne t’inquiète pas and simply omit the subject.
Using these verbs without a reflexive pronoun is less common, but it’s still possible, with a different meaning.
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 la situation dans laquelle on est ?
Do you notice the situation we are in?
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. Since the reflexive pronoun doesn’t contribute to meaning, you have to include more information to express a complete thought.
Some of these verbs, too, have different meanings when used without a reflexive pronoun:
- S’attendre means “to expect,” but attendre means simply “to wait.”
- Se servir means “to use,” but servir means “to serve.”
How to Conjugate French Reflexive Verbs
With reflexive verb conjugation, you have to do two important things:
- Change the spelling of the verb to agree with the subject/tense
- Change the reflexive pronoun to agree with the subject
The good news is that most verbs follow their non-reflexive spelling change patterns. In other words, if you already know how to conjugate a non-reflexive verb, you don’t need to learn any new spellings for the reflexive version.
For reflexive pronouns, there’s only one small thing to keep in mind: remember that me, te and se shorten to m’, t’ and s’ before a word that starts with a vowel.
And that’s it! Count yourself up to date on French reflexive verbs in the present tense.
Check out these three regular reflexive verbs conjugated fully, noticing how different reflexive pronouns line up with different subjects.
Se laver (to wash oneself)
Je me lave avant le dîner.
I wash myself for dinner.
Tu te laves après la classe.
You wash yourself after class.
Il/elle/on se lave le matin.
He/she/one washes himself/herself/oneself in the mornings.
Nous nous lavons chaque jour.
We wash ourselves every day.
Vous vous lavez dans la salle de bains.
You all wash yourselves in the bathroom.
Ils/elles se lavent avec de l’eau et du savon.
They wash themselves with water and soap.
Se réunir (to meet one another)
On se réunit dans la salle de classe.
We meet in the classroom.
Nous nous réunissons pour l’anniversaire de notre grand-mère.
We meet up for our grandmother’s birthday.
Vous vous réunissez lundi pour parler des contrats.
You’re going to all meet up on Monday to talk about the contracts.
Ils/elles se réunissent vendredi au bar.
They’re meeting up on Friday at the bar.
S’attendre à (to expect)
Je m’attends à un appel de votre part.
I’m expecting a phone call from you.
Tu t’attends à un essai de ton étudiant.
You expect an essay from your student.
Il/elle/on s’attend à rester à la maison toute la fin de semaine.
He/she/one expects to stay home for the whole weekend.
Nous nous attendons à étudier pour trois heures ce soir.
We expect to study for three hours tonight.
Vous vous attendez à recevoir votre patron à 15h.
You all expect to greet your boss at 3:00 p.m.
Ils/elles s’attendent à embarquer dans l’avion à 6h.
They expect to take the plane at 6:00 a.m.
Other Simple Tenses
Once you know how to conjugate reflexive verbs in the present tense, you’re ready to conjugate them in other simple tenses, too.
Simple tenses (unlike compound tenses, which we’ll cover below) don’t require an auxiliary verb before the main verb. You may already be familiar with some simple tenses such as the imparfait (the imperfect past) or the futur simple (simple future).
Just like above, the only difference between a reflexive verb and a non-reflexive verb in these tenses is the addition of the reflexive pronoun that agrees with the subject. All other verb spelling changes stay the same.
For example, check out the reflexive verb se détendre (to relax) in the futur simple:
Se détendre (to relax)
Je me détendrai après l’école.
I will relax after school.
Tu te détendras quand tu auras fini tes devoirs.
You will relax once you have finished your homework.
Il/elle/on se détendra dimanche.
He/she/one will relax on Sunday.
Nous nous détendrons à la fête.
We will relax at the party.
Vous vous détendrez demain.
You all will relax tomorrow.
Ils/elles se détendront quand ils auront complété le projet.
They will relax once they have finished the project.
Conjugating reflexive verbs in the infinitive is a bit simpler because you only have to change the pronoun.
The default pronoun listed in dictionaries or textbooks for reflexive infinitives is se.
However, if the infinitive is placed in a sentence, the pronoun must agree with the subject, in the same way it would 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.
As you might already know, compound tenses in French are tenses that use an auxiliary verb. For example, in the passé composé (the most often used past tense in French), you need to use the verb être, not avoir, before the past participle of your main verb.
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.
Because all reflexive verbs conjugate in compound tenses with the auxiliary être (to be), their past participles must agree in gender and number with the subject. The general rules are:
- Add -s to the participle for masculine, plural subjects
- Add -e to the participle for feminine, singular subjects
- Add -es to the participle for feminine, plural subjects
Further, verbs follow the regular formation rules for past participles (-er becomes -é, -ir becomes -i and -re becomes -u) and verbs that have irregular past participles in the non-reflexive form also retain them in the reflexive verb form.
Here are some more examples of reflexive verbs in the passé composé (past tense):
Se réveiller (to wake up)
Je me suis réveillé(e) à 4h.
I woke up at 4:00 a.m.
Tu t’es réveillé(e) quand tu as entendu le bruit.
You woke up when you heard the noise.
Il/elle/on s’est réveillé(e) pour la classe de français.
He/she/one woke up for French class.
Nous nous sommes réveillé(e)s après avoir eu une soirée fantastique.
We woke up after having had a fantastic evening.
Vous vous êtes réveillé(e)s à 16h de vos sommes.
You all woke up at 4:00 p.m. from your naps.
Ils/elles se sont réveillé(e)s quand l’alarme a sonné.
They woke up when the alarm sounded.
These conjugation rules can be transferred to other compound tenses such as the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect), the futur antérieur (future perfect) and the conditionnel passé (past conditional).
For instance, check out se réveiller in the plus-que-parfait (pluperfect).
Se réveiller (to wake up)
Je m’étais réveillé(e) à 4h.
I had woken up at 4:00 a.m.
Tu t’étais réveillé(e) quand tu as entendu le bruit.
You had woken up when you heard the noise.
Il/elle/on s’était réveillé(e) pour la classe de français.
He/she/one had woken up for French class.
Nous nous étions réveillé(e)s après avoir eu une soirée fantastique.
We had woken up after having had a fantastic evening.
Vous vous étiez réveillé(e)s à 16h de vos sommes.
You all had woken up at 4:00 p.m. from your naps.
Ils/elles se étaient réveillé(e)s quand l’alarme a sonné.
They had woken up when the alarm sounded.
The futur proche (the near future) looks similar to the compound tenses above, because it uses the verb aller (to go) before the main verb. However, it doesn’t follow the same patterns as above.
When putting a reflexive verb in the futur proche, simply conjugate the verb aller in the present tense, then change the reflexive pronoun to agree with the subject.
Notice that the verb aller comes before the reflexive pronoun in this tense and the main verb stays in the infinitive.
Je vais me baigner.
I’m going to bathe.
Tu vas te cacher.
You are going to hide.
Il/elle/on va se changer.
He/she/one is going to change outfits.
Nous allons nous doucher.
We are going to shower.
Vous allez vous maquiller.
You all are going to put on makeup.
Ils/elles vont se raser.
They are going to shave.
Irregularities in Conjugation
As with everything in French, there are quite a few irregularities when it comes to conjugating reflexive verbs. Luckily for us, you may already be familiar with many of these irregularities from each verb’s non-reflexive form.
For example, the first e in the non-reflexive verb lever transforms to è for the present tense conjugations of je, tu, il, elle, ils and elles.
Je lève mon verre.
I raise my glass.
The verb se lever has the same irregularity.
Je me lève.
I get up.
Here are some more verbs that follow the same irregular conjugation patterns and past participles as their non-reflexive forms:
- se plaindre (to complain)
- se joindre (to join)
- s’endormir (to fall asleep)
- se mettre (to start)
- se souvenir (to remember)
However, there are two common irregular reflexive verbs whose non-reflexive verbs aren’t so well known, so you may not already be familiar with their conjugations: s’asseoir (to sit down) and se taire (to keep quiet).
Keep in mind that s’asseoir is especially unique as it can be conjugated in two ways. One isn’t more common than the other, and both are considered correct.
Check out s’asseoir and se taire in the present tense:
S’asseoir (to sit)
Je m’assieds/Je m’assois sur la chaise.
I sit on the chair.
Tu t’assieds/Tu t’assois à côté de moi.
You sit beside me.
Elle s’assied/Elle s’assoit sur le canapé.
She sits on the couch.
Nous nous asseyons/Nous nous assoyons près de la porte.
We sit close to the door.
Vous vous asseyez/Vous vous assoyez devant la scène.
You all sit in front of the stage.
Ils/elles s’asseyent, ils/elles s’assoient ensemble.
They sit together.
Se taire (to be quiet)
Je me tais quand le professeur est en train de parler.
I am quiet when the teacher talks.
Tu te tais pendant le film.
You are quiet during the film.
Il/elle/on se tait maintenant.
He/she/one is quiet now.
Nous nous taisons tout de suite.
We are immediately quiet.
Vous vous taisez à 21h.
You all are quiet at 9:00 p.m.
Ils/elles se taisent pendant la conférence.
They are quiet during the lecture.
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, you 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).
Je me suis baignée
- Similarly, reflexive pronouns come before en and y.
Je m’y suis baignée.
I bathed there.
- Finally, when using reflexive verbs, negation and the passé composé, the order is as follows: Ne + Pronom Réfléchi (Reflexive Pronoun) + Verbe Auxiliare + Pas + Participe Passé.
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).
- FluentU’s French learning program allows you to watch authentic media in French and spot reflexive verbs easily, with interactive subtitles and explanations for every word. There are also personalized quizzes and flashcards for mastering French reflexive verbs and other grammar points.
- 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. Time and practice can do wonders.
So get yourself ready! It’s time to master those French reflexive verb conjugations!