Understanding Pronominal Verbs in French

Pronominal verbs seem to be the nemesis of students of French, since there are so many details that are involved. They are referred to as pronominal verbs because they involve the use of pronouns, or pronoms. In addition to personal pronouns, verb conjugations, auxiliary verbs, and participle agreement are all involved in the formation of these verbs.

French Pronominal Verbs: Reflexive (Reciprocal) & Idiomatic

Pronominal verbs encompass verbs you may know as reflexive (which are usually the first type French students learn) or reciprocal, as well as idiomatic. We will go over these categories and why certain verbs belong to each one. Their structure involves a personal pronoun – me, te, se, nous, vous, or the plural se – along with a verb; in the imperative mode the second person singular personal pronoun becomes toi, as with “Tais-toi !” With the exception of infinitives and present participles, these verbs will correspond to whatever agent is completing the action, e.g., “Nous nous regardons”, “Vous vous moquez de moi ?” and “Se rendant compte de la difficulté de la situation, ils ont décidé de s’en parler davantage”. The personal pronouns used also refer to the subject of the verb, but it is important to remember that they serve a separate function.

1- Reflexive Pronominal Verbs

This brings us to the first category of pronominal verb – reflexive verbs. These denote actions that the agent performs on itself. The agent and the recipient of the action are the same, as in the phrase, “Je me maquille”. In English we would say “I put on makeup”, and it is implied that the makeup is being applied to the subject “I”. English doesn’t have reflexive verbs, but other Romance languages do. “Yo me maquillo” is probably a common phrase in the dressing room of the Cuban synchronized swim team. In fact, you could hear many conjugations of this verb in this type of situation, which I will provide here in French:

je me maquille nous maquillons
tu te maquilles vous maquillez
elle, il, on se maquille elles, ils se maquillent

Reflexive verbs include a lot of actions involved in your daily routine, including se réveiller, se lever, s’habiller, se peigner, se laver, se raser, se baigner, se coucher, and s’endormir. Don’t forget to elide the personal pronouns with verbs beginning with vowel sounds. Someone could ask you “À quelle heure t’endors-tu ?” and you could answer “Je m’endors à 11 h”.

Reciprocal verbs are actions performed between two or more people, so the subjects tend to be plural, although the very general singular pronoun on is also used for reciprocal actions. Examples of reciprocal verbs are se parler, s’aimer, se téléphoner, se regarder, se voir, se séparer, and se donner. Telling love stories is a good way to use a lot of reciprocal verbs. You could probably include all of the above in a story featuring Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt. You may also recognize these verbs as verbs you have already used in constructions that are not pronominal, e.g., “J’aime le gâteau”, “Je téléphone à mon ami”, “On regarde le film”.

2- Idiomatic Pronominal Verbs

Idiomatic pronominal verbs use a pronominal construction but do not necessarily designate a reflexive or reciprocal action. These include verbs such as se promener, s’entendre, s’attendre, se débrouiller, s’ennuyer, se demander, se mettre, se dépêcher, s’en aller, se douter, s’y prendre, s’obstiner, se pâmer, se suicider, s’efforcer, se méfier, se souvenir, se trouver, and se marier. Although this last verb is often used to designate a reciprocal action between two people, it is also often used to refer to one person, e.g., “Elle se marie avec une bonne personne”.

Characteristics of idiomatic pronominal verbs include having meanings that change from their use in non-pronominal forms and being used exclusively in pronominal structures. Examples of the first type include: “Elles se mettent à rire” (They begin to laugh) which we can compare with “Elles mettent les fleurs dans des vases” (They place the flowers in vases); “Nous en allons” (We go away) which we can compare with “Nous allons au cinéma” (We go to the cinema);  “On s’en doute qu’il sera difficile de les en convaincre” (We suspect that it will be difficult to convince them of it) which we can compare with “On doute qu’ils prennent rapidement une décision” (We doubt they will decide quickly); “Tu t’y prends bien” (You manage well) which we can compare with “Tu prends un verre” (You’re having a glass [of wine]). Examples of the second type include: “On se souvient de tous les détails” (We remember all of the details), “Il se méfie de leurs paroles” (He’s wary of their words), “Vous vous efforcez de bien apprendre toutes les conjugaisons” (You put a lot of effort into learning all of the conjugations), “Le chat s’enfuit” (The cat flees.)

"All Types of Pronominal Verbs Follow the Construction of Using a Personal Pronoun with a Conjugated Verb"

We see that all types of pronominal verbs follow the construction of using a personal pronoun with a conjugated verb. It starts getting hairy when we get to composite tenses involving past participles. These need to agree with either the subject or object of the verb. In the sentence “Je me suis maquillée” we have such agreement and can see that the agent and recipient of action, which in this case is the same, is feminine and singular. In the sentence “Nous nous sommes levés” we see that the agent and recipient of action is masculine and plural. Notice that the auxiliary verb for pronominal verbs is être.

In the above sentences, agreement occurs with the object of the phrase, meaning that “maquillée” agrees with “me” and “levés” agrees with “nous” ... and which “nous” would this be?

Compare the above phrase “Nous nous sommes levés” with the phrase “Elle s’est lavé les mains”. Here we have a reflexive verb being used with a body part, as is common in French, e.g. “Ils se sont lavé le visage”, “Nous nous sommes brossé les dents”, “Les babas-cool ne se sont pas rasé les jambes”. In these cases, the body part is the direct object of the verb, making the personal pronoun indirect, which results in no agreement with the past participle.

Note that replacing body parts with pronouns results in agreement because, as compléments d’objet direct, they agree with the past participle of the main verb, e.g., “Nous les sommes brossées” and “Les babas-cool ne se les sont pas rasées”, in which “brossées” agrees with “les” and “rasées” also agrees with “les”.

In the case of pronominal verbs, we are able to analyze phrases in the same way. Compare “Ils se sont vus” with “Ils se sont téléphoné”. In the first phrase there is agreement between the past participle “vus” and the personal pronoun / direct object “se” whereas in the second there is no agreement between the past participle “téléphoné” and the personal pronoun / indirect object “se”. In these phrases, it is necessary to be familiar enough with the verbs used to know whether they take direct or indirect objects and the way to know this is if they are normally followed by prepositions.

Let’s look at these reciprocal verbs taken out of their reciprocal constructions:

“Ils ont vu les autres” – no preposition follows the verb “voir”, therefore objects following it are direct. We can replace the object “les autres” with a pronoun, giving us “Ils les ont vus”. “Vus” agrees with “les” the same way it agrees with “se” in the pronominal construction.

“Ils ont téléphoné à leurs amis” – the preposition à follows the verb “téléphoner”, therefore objects following it are indirect. We can replace “à leurs amis” with a pronoun, giving us “Ils leur ont téléphoné”. “Leur” does not agree with “téléphoné” in the same way that “se” does not agree with “téléphoné”.

Sometimes we have verbs that take both direct and indirect objects, e.g. donner, offrir, dire. In these cases, it is common for things to be direct and people to be indirect. Thus we have phrases such as “Ils se sont donné leurs coordinées”, “Elles se sont offert des cadeaux”, and “Vous vous êtes dit la vérité”. In these cases, the role of indirect object taken on by the personal pronoun is very visible.

Having ingested all of this information, and knowing how to parse out direct and indirect objects and their agreement or lack of agreement with past participles, we proceed on to idiomatic pronominal verbs. Examples of phrases using idiomatic pronominal verbs include: “Elle s’est mariée hier” and “Elles se sont demandées si la poste était arrivée”.  

How do these sentences happen when we know that se marier is followed by the preposition avec and that demander takes the preposition à when the object is a person?

We cannot always analyze idiomatic pronominal verbs in the same way as reflexive and reciprocal verbs, so we use subject agreement for these verbs. The sentences “Elle s’est souvenue de ce film” and “Elles se sont obstinées à défendre leur cause” pose this sort of difficulty. We might come across idiomatic verbs that seem as if they could be analyzed in the same way as reflexive or reciprocal verbs, but we still use the same subject agreement we use for other idiomatic pronominal verbs. Thus we have “Nous nous sommes demandés si la réponse était correcte”, “Ils se sont bien entendus”, and “Elles se sont très ennuyées”.

Conclusion

This may seem like a lot to keep track of, but pronominal verbs can be quite fun, as they can be manipulated in quite a few different ways. We can use them in the passive sense, for instance, without actually using the passive voice, e.g., “Le français se parle dans de nombreux pays”, “Cette grande sculpture s’est vue de loin”. They can also be quite economical, more so than using phrases such as “each other” and “one another”, which everyone mixes up all the time. Compare “On s’est parlé”, “Ils se sont aimés toute leur vie”, and “Enivrez-vous” with “We spoke to one another”, “They loved each other their whole lives”, and “Get drunk”. Admittedly, this last is just as economical as the French version, but less poetic. You can read Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Enivrez-vous”, published in his 1869 collection Le Spleen de Paris : petits poèmes en prose to find out all of the ways in which you can make this happen.


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