Understanding French Pronominal Verbs

Part of the French Grammar For Dummies Cheat Sheet

In French grammar, verbs called pronominal verbs use an extra pronoun. The extra pronouns are reflexive, meaning they typically reflect the subject of the verb, like (to) oneself does to a verb in English. The verbs fall into three categories:

  • Reflexive verbs: Express an action done by the subject to itself, such as Je me regarde (I look at myself).

  • Reciprocal verbs: Indicate that two subjects are doing something to one another, as in Ils se parlent (They talk to each other).

  • Idiomatic pronominal verbs: The extra pronoun indicates neither to oneself nor to one another, like tu te souviens (you remember).

You can identify a pronominal verb by its infinitive; it always has the pronoun se right before the infinitive, like in se préparer (to get oneself ready). These verbs are otherwise conjugated as if they didn't have a reflexive pronoun. The only difference is that you also conjugate the added pronoun.

Here's how to match the reflexive pronouns to the subjects.

Subject Reflexive Pronoun English Translation
je me (m' before a vowel or a mute -h) myself
tu te (t' before a vowel or a mute -h) yourself
il/elle/on se (s' before a vowel or a mute -h) himself/herself/oneself
nous nous ourselves
vous vous yourselves
ils/elles se (s' before a vowel or a mute -h) themselves

To form the present tense of a pronominal verb, conjugate the verb in the present tense to match your subject; then change the reflexive pronoun to match the subject and place it immediately before the verb. Here's a present tense conjugation of se laver (to wash oneself) as an example:

  • je me lave (I wash)

  • tu te laves (you [singular informal] wash)

  • il/elle/on se lave (he/she/one washes)

  • nous nous lavons (we wash)

  • vous vous lavez (you [plural and singular formal] wash)

  • ils/elles se lavent (they [masculine and feminine] wash)

If a sentence has two verbs (one conjugated, the other in the infinitive), as in I want to wash myself or I'm going to wash myself, place the correct form of the reflexive pronoun before the infinitive like so: Je vais me laver.

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