Me and se are the key components in the examples above.
But what is a reflexive verb?
It’s a verb that usually requires you to repeat the action on yourself.
This probably sounds a bit confusing. However, I know for a fact that you have already used one well known reflexive verb :
- Je m’appelle Christine – I call myself Christine.
Let’s look at more examples:
- Je me réveille – I wake up.
- Je me maquille – I put on makeup.
We can use different translations to make it more comprehensible.
- Je me réveille – I wake (myself) up.
- Je me maquille – I put on makeup (on myself).
It is not always correct to do these alternative translations with regard to English grammar. However, at this point, we need to get a basic understanding of this very important concept in the French language.
Repeating an action on yourself does not always make sense for a native English speaker.
But as I said, reflexive verbs are often used in the French language. It is very important to master this grammatical aspect.
You can not just say ”Je réveille”. We need to add ”me” between the subject and the verb.
Please have this in mind when you read this article. It will help you even if you do not find it logical.
Rules and examples
Let’s go through some basic rules.
First, we need to know which pronouns we can and should combine.
Do not worry if you find this confusing.
We will put the subjects and pronouns in context.
We can also change the verbs to make them more tangible.
Let’s start with some basic examples.
- Je me rase – I shave (myself)
- Tu te promènes – You walk (yourself)
- Il se déshabille – He undresses (himself)
- Elle se déhabille – She undresses (herself)
- On se déshabille – To undress (oneself)
- Nous nous relaxons – We relaxe (ourselves)
- Vous vous habillez – You dress (yourself).
- Ils/elles se douchent – They shower (themselves)
Do you want to do more exercises? I’ve written a PDF on reflexive verbs with only exercises.
When you cannot use the reflexive pronouns
The action needs to return to the person. You should not use the reflexive part if you are doing something on someone else.
- Je réveille mon fils – I wake up my son.
- Il réveille sa fille – He wakes up his daughter.
- Ils réveillent leur père – They wake up their dad.
- Il rase son père – He shaves his dad.
- Vous lavez votre voiture – You wash your car.
Sometimes we tend to think about ourselves when we decide if we should add the reflexive pronoun.
However, you should rather think of the person you are describing. If this person is doing something one him- or herself, you need to add the reflexive pronoun.
- Elle se réveille – She wakes up.
- Il se rase – He shaves.
- Ils se lavent – They wash.
It can be concluded that the persons are doing the actions on themselves in the sentences above. We will therefore add the reflexive pronouns.
Sometimes we do things to each other. This is also the case when we express feelings for each other.
We can use reflexive pronouns to express reciprocal actions.
- Ils s’aiment – They love each other.
- On se voit deux fois par semaine – We see each other two times per week.
- Ils se sont battus – They fought each other.
- Ils s’aident – They help each other.
We can use many different combinations in relation to the reflexive verbs. We need to use the infinitive form if we start the sentence with another verb.
What is the infinitive form?
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- se doucher= To shower.
- se réveiller= To wake up.
Now we can put them in a context with “aller – to go”.
- Je vais me doucher – I am going to shower.
- Elle va se maquiller – She is going to put on makeup.
- Ils vont s’habiller – They are going to get dressed.
- Il va se raser – He is going to shave.
- Vous allez vous déshabiller – You are going to get undressed.
We can also use ”Vouloir – to want”.
- Elle veut se maquiller – She wants to put on makeup.
- Il veut se déshabiller – He wants to undress.
- Elles vont se coucher – They are going to bed.
The negative form
We need to put ”ne..pas” around the pronoun and the verb. As always, it is easier to see how it works with examples:
- Je me rase – I shave.
- Je ne me rase pas – I do not shave.
- Tu te rase – You shave.
- Tu ne te rases pas – You do not shave.
- Il se rase – He’s shaving.
- Il ne se rase pas – He does not shave.
- Elle se rase – She shaves.
- Elle ne se rase pas – She does not shave.
- On se rase – We shave.
- On ne se rase pas – We do not shave.
- Nous nous rasons – We shave.
- Nous ne nous rasons pas – We do not shave (formal)*.
*Nous is more formal than On. You can use both these pronouns to refer to a group of persons (We).
- Vous vous rasez – You shave
- Vous ne vous rasez pas – You do not shave.
- Il se rasent – They shave
- Ils ne se rasent pas – They do not shave. (males)
- Elle se rasent – They shave
- Elles ne se rasent pas – They do not shave (females)
Le passé composé
We need to use ”être” when we put reflexive verbs in “le passé composé”.
This means that the verb needs to be coordinated with the subject in terms of gender and number.
So why can we not use “avoir”? It is a good question, and I don’t think there is an answer.
It is, however, an easy rule to remember – Only “être” and the verb needs to be coordinated with the subject.
(Are you already familiar with the basics regarding “être” and “le passé composé”? If not, please read my article on this topic. You can find it here).
Let’s put this in context to make it more tangible.
A man has woken up;
- Je me suis réveille à 6 heures du matin – I woke up at 6 am.
A woman has woken up:
- Je me suis reveillée à 6 heures du matin – I woke up at 6 am.
A group with at least one man has woken up (the group can also include female members):
- Ils se sont réveillés à 6 heures du matin – They woke up at 6 am.
A group with only women has woken up:
- Elles se sont réveillées à 6 heures du matin – They woke up at 6 am.
You may have noticed that the phrases become very long. It can be quite discouraging for a beginner. I would, however, say that it looks harder than it is.
You need to practice with several verbs and with all the conjugations. Eventually, you will get the hang of it .
These phrases can be even longer if we use the negative form. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
- Je ne me suis pas rasé(e) ce matin – I did not shave this morning.
- Je ne me suis pas maquillé(e) ce matin – I did not put on makeup this morning.
- Vous ne vous êtes pas rasés ce matin – You guys did not shave this morning.
- Nous ne sommes retourné(e)s pas de notre voyage – We did not come back from our trip (group of females).
Longer sentences in le passe composé
Let’s use reflexive verbs to describe the morning routine for a woman:
- Je me suis réveillée tôt, je me suis brossée les dents et je me suis douchée. Puis, je me suis rasée et je me suis énervée parce que je ne m’étais pas couchée plus tôt la veille.
- I woke up early, I brushed my teeth and I showered. Then I shaved and I got angry beacause I had not gone to bed earlier the day before.
We can conclude that we need to add several extra e.
Let’s continue with a similar sentence for a man:
- Je me suis réveillé tôt et je me suis brossé les dents. Puis, j’ai regardé l’heure et j’ai realisé que je devais partir tout de suite*. Je me suis habillé et je me suis dépêché de partir.
- I woke up early and I brushed my teeth. Then I looked at the clock and I realized that I had to leave right away. I got dressed and I rushed off.
*This part of the entence does not contain any reflexive verbs.
Which conclusions can be drawn from the sentences?
Reflexive verbs are very important in the French languange. I have mentioned this several times in this article, but now we have had the time to look at many conrete examples.
The main goal of this article is to give you a basic understanding of this important concept. I have also written about important grammatical tenses, for instance, “le passé composé” and reciprocal actions.
I think I have covered all the important aspects. You need to practice the reflexive verbs because they do not always make sense in English.
I have practiced them to the point where I do not have to put them together in my head before I speak. I have done this because this grammatical area does not really make sense for me when I translate from my mother tongue.
Practicing is worth your time because, as I have said many times in this article, reflexive verbs are very important in the French language.