French pronominal verbs

Les verbes pronominaux

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French pronominal verbs at Language Easy! This is a difficult lesson for English speakers because pronominal verbs don’t actually exist in English as they do in French, and we have to use constructions like “to myself” or “to each other” to express their idea, when it’s needed.  Let’s study this in details.

Allez, on y va !

French pronominal verbs

What are French pronominal verbs?

Que sont les verbes pronominaux?

French pronominal verbs (les verbes pronominaux) are the verbs that are conjugated with an additional reflexive pronoun in addition to their subject. That pronoun is also called the joint pronoun (pronom conjoint), and its referent is the subject itself (thus it’s expressed twice in the sentence).

Let’s examine the following examples:

  • Je me demande si il est possible de se rendre à New-York en moins d’une demi-journée.
    I wonder if it’s possible to go to New-York in less than half a day
  • Jean, Alex et moi nous aimons beaucoup.
    Jean, Alex and I love each other very much.

Some French verbs are always used with a joint pronoun and they are essentially pronominal (essentiellement pronominaux): se souvenir (to remember). s’évader (to escape)… Some other verbs are never pronominal, and finally others can be pronominal or not depending on the meaning and the context. Those ones are the accidentally pronominal verbs (accidentellement pronominaux): coucher (to lay down) or se coucher (to lie down)…

At the infinitive, pronominal verbs are written with the neutral reflexive pronoun se.

When the verb is conjugated, the pronoun must change according to the grammatical person.

Direct pronoun Reflexive pronoun
Je me, m’
Tu te, t’
Il, elle, on se, s’
Nous nous
Vous vous
Ils, elles se, s’

If you want, read again our first examples in the light of this table. Note that as always, the pronouns me, te and se are elided to m’, t’ and s’ before a vowel or a silent h:

  • Tu t’éloignes de moi de plus en plus.
    You are moving further and further away from me.

Four types of French pronominal verbs

Quatre types de verbes pronominaux

There are four types of pronominal verbs that we will study now. Actually, one verb can be used as one or more of these types depending on the context, We will take as an example the verb apercevoir (to realize, to be seen, to catch sight of) which has the interesting property, in addition to being accidentally pronominal, to exist within these four types.

Non pronominal form:

  • Jean aperçoit la lune entre les nuages.
    Jean catches sight of the moon between the clouds.

Reflexive pronominal verbs

Verbes pronominaux irréfléchis

Reflexive pronominal verbs (pronominaux réfléchis) express an action done by a subject that also undergoes the action itself.

  • Quand Marlène s’est aperçue dans le miroir, elle a pris peur.
    When Marlène got a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she got scared.
  • Hélène était très fatiguée, du coup elle s’est couchée assez tôt.
    Hélène was very tired, so she went to bed quite early.

Reflexive verbs are often accompanied by the personal pronoun moi-même (toi-même, etc…) to emphasize even more on the reflectivity of the action. Notice that when it’s the case, the subject has three references in the sentence!

  • Je m’étonne moi-même!
    I myself impress myself!
  • Il s’est donné la mort à lui-même.
    He himself killed himself.

Here are some of the most common reflexive pronominal verbs:

  • s’enrhumer (to catch a cold), s’asseoir (to sit down), se rapprocher (to get closer). s’arrêter (to stop), se coiffer (to fix one’s hair) , s‘énerver (to get angry)…

Reciprocal pronominal verbs

Verbes pronominaux réciproques

Reciprocal pronominal verbs (pronominaux réciproques) express an action both done and undergone by multiple subjects at the same time. There can be one grammatical subject expressing a multiplicity of entities, or two or more different subjects in the sentence.

  • Marlène et Luc se sont aperçus par la fenêtre de la voiture.
    Marlène and Luc saw each other through the car window.
  • Les enfants jouent à se lancer la balle dans le jardin.
    The children are playing to throw the ball at each other in the garden.

Reciprocal verbs are often accompanied by the expression l’un l’autre (each other) or les uns les autres (one another) to emphasize on the reciprocal aspect. Again, the subject is then referenced three times in the sentence!

  • Ils se sont frappés l’un l’autre jusqu’au KO.
    They hit each other until the KO. (and, by the way, there were only two of them)
  • Aimez-vous les uns les autres!
    Love one another! (speaking to more than two people)

Note that this is not the expression l’un et l’autre, that means “both” and not “each other”.

Here are some of the most common reciprocal pronominal verbs:

  • se chamailler (to squabble), se voir (to see each other), se battre (to fight), se détester (to hate one another), s’entraider (to help each other)…

Passive pronominal verbs

Verbes pronominaux passifs

Passive pronominal verbs (pronominaux passifs) express an action undergone by a subject which is not doing the action.

  • La Tour Eiffel s’aperçoit de très loin dans Paris.
    The Eiffel Tower can be seen from very far away in Paris.
  • La baguette se vend à presque un euro.
    French baguette is sold almost 1 euro.

Some of the most common French passive pronominal verbs:

  • se trouver (to be situated), se comprendre (to be understandable), s’apprendre (to be learned), se soulever (to be lifted)…

Subjective pronominal verbs

Verbes pronominaux subjectifs

Subjective pronominal verbs (pronominaux subjectifs) express an action not undergone by its subject.

These are essentially idiomatic verbs, the use of the pronoun is obligatory but it’s hard to get why it’s there at all.

  • Je me suis aperçu que l’oiseau revenait tous les soirs.
    I noticed that the bird came back everyday.
  • Ne te moque pas de tes amis!
    Don’t make fun of your friends!

Here are some common French subjective pronominals:

  • se souvenir (to remember), s’enfuir (to run away), s’envoler (to fly away), s’evanouir (to faint, to vanish), s’exclamer (to exclaim), se méfier (to be careful about something)…

Agreement of French pronominal verbs

Accord des verbes pronominaux

The agreement of a verb is the act of choosing the adequate gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) in its conjugated forms. We already studied verb agreement and agreement of the past participle (I encourage you to read these lessons again now), however the agreement of the past participle requires some more attention here due to the fact that the same personal pronoun can have different grammatical functions in different sentences.

Let’s first state a rule first:

All pronominal verbs are conjugated at the compound tenses with the auxiliary être.

If you remember well, the past participle conjugated with the auxiliary être must always agree in number and gender with the subject of the verb, while when it is conjugated with avoir, it is invariable, unless it is transitive and its COD is placed before him. In the case of a pronominal verb, the subject can be the same as the COD, so we’re going to mix the two rules:

We only make the agreement of the past participle with the COD when it is placed before the verb. This COD can be the subject / reflexive pronoun itself, or a different entity.She mocked the dresses I bought for myself.

In the case of the reflexive and passive pronominal verbs, the subject is always the COD and it is always placed before the verb, so we always do the agreement:

  • Elles se sont enrhumées à cause du froid.
    They (f) catched a cold because of the freshness of the air.
  • Elle s’est enervée sans raison apparente.
    She got annoyed seemingly without a reason.
  • Les fleurs se sont vendues comme des petit pains!
    The flowers sold very well! (lit. like little breads)

In the extremely rare cases though where the subject/COD would be after the verb, we wouldn’t do the agreement:

  • Maître Yoda dirait: “Enervé, elle s’est!”
    Master Yoda would say: Angry, she got!

For the reciprocal pronominal verbs, the subject is always the complement too, but pay a close attention whether it is a COD or COI (the latter implies a preposition).

  • Hélène et Julien se sont vus. (COD: chacun vu l’autre)
    Hélène and Julien saw each other.
  • Ils se sont souri. (COI: chacun a souri à l’autre)
    They smiled to each other.

Finally, for the subjective pronominal verbs, if there  is a COD, then it must different from the subject and there is agreement as stated by the rule:

  • Je t’ai acheté des fleurs. (COD after)
    I bought flowers for you.
  • Voici les fleurs que je t’ai achetées! (COD before)
    Here are the flowers I bought you!
  • Elle s’est moqué des robes que je me suis offertes.
    She mocked the dresses I bought for myself.

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lesson about French pronominal verbs. So, what is your impression? It was a big lesson today, wasn’t it? Next we’ll study the verbs être and avoir and their non specific usages,

Allez, à bientôt !

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