French Grammar: Reflexive Verbs in Passé Composé (Past Tense)

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French Grammar: Reflexive Verbs in Passé Composé (Past Tense)
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French Grammar: Reflexive Verbs in Passé Composé (Past Tense)
la grammaire française: les verbes réfléchis au Passé Composé

Reflexive verbs are used when the subject and object of a verb (action) are the same. The action “reflects back” onto the subject!

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Reflexive verbs are used when the subject and object of a verb (action) are the same. The action “reflects back” onto the subject!

In French, there are”normal” verbs and reflexive verbs. A reflexive verb is identified by the reflexive pronoun SE that precedes it in its infinitive form (SE laver, SE préparer, etc.).  When conjugated, the endings of reflexive verbs follow the same pattern as standard ER, IR, and RE verbs.

The SE part of reflexive verbs means “to oneself”. We use reflexive verbs in English, too (for example: “He behaved himself.”).  But there are many more reflexive verbs in French.

The Passé Composé (Past Tense) is formed with a helper (also called “auxiliary”) verb followed by the past participle of the main verb. The helper verb is always either AVOIR or ÊTRE, depending on which main verb you’re using.  With reflexive verbs, the helper verb is always going to be ÊTRE.

laver : to wash

J’ai lavé le chien.
I washed the dog.

In the above example, WASH is the verb (action).  Note that the subject (I) and the object/recipient (DOG) of this verb are different. Therefore, we don’t use a reflexive verb here.  And LAVER is a regular -ER verb that takes the helper verb AVOIR in the Passé Composé.

se laver : to wash oneself

Je me suis lavé.
I washed myself.

In this second example, WASH is still the verb (action).  But here, the subject (I) of the action and the object/recipient of the action are one in the same.  Note that the SE becomes ME in order to indicate that the subject (I), and the action (WASH), is being done to myself (ME).

Here are some things to keep in mind when using reflexive verbs in the Passé Composé:

(1) The reflexive pronoun always comes before the helper verb. (Note that ME, TE, and SE become M’, T’, and S’ in front of any conjugated form of ÊTRE that begins with a vowel.)

Je me suis levé.
I got (myself) up.

Tu tes préparé.
You (informal) got (yourself) ready.

Il s’est rasé.
He shaved (himself).

(2) In a negative sentence, ne always comes before the reflexive pronoun, and pas always comes right after the helper verb.

Je ne me suis pas levé.
I did not get (myself) up.

Tu ne t’es pas préparé.
You (informal) did not get (yourself) ready.

Il ne s’est pas rasé.
He did not shave (himself).

(3) When asking a question in the Passé Composé using either Est-ce que or simple intonation, we use the same word order as in (1) or (2) above.

Je ne me suis pas levé?
Didn’t I get (myself) up?

Est-ce que tu t’es préparé?
Did you (informal) get (yourself) ready?

Est-ce qu’il ne s’est pas rasé?
Didn’t he shave (himself)?

(4) When asking a question in the Passé Composé using inversion, the helper verb comes before the subject pronoun; the reflexive pronoun still comes before the helper verb. In a negative question using inversion, ne is still placed before the reflexive pronoun and pas comes right before the past participle.

T’es-tu préparé?
Did you (informal) get (yourself) ready?

Ne s’est-il pas rasé?
Didn’t he shave (himself)?

(5) The reflexive pronoun can be either a direct or an indirect object of the verb with which it is used.

In the Passé Composé, when the reflexive pronoun is a direct object of the verb, the past participle must agree in number and gender with that reflexive pronoun. (By extension, the past participle also agrees with the subject, which is of course the same person or thing to which the reflexive pronoun refers.)

Elle s’est baignée.
She got (herself) bathed.  (She took a bath.)

Nous nous sommes habillés.
We got (ourselves) dressed.

Elles se sont déshabillées.
They (feminine) got (themselves) undressed.

When the reflexive pronoun is an indirect object, the past participle doesn’t change.  In this instance, it’s helpful to think of the reflexive pronoun as meaning “FOR oneself” or “OF oneself”.

Elle s’est brossé les cheveux.
She brushed her hair (the hair OF herself).

Ils se sont acheté un chien.
They bought themselves a dog.  (They bought a dog FOR themselves.)

Here are some other tips for figuring out whether the reflexive pronoun is direct or indirect:

(a) With most reflexive verbs that aren’t followed by a noun, the reflexive pronoun is the direct object. For these verbs, the past participle must agree with the reflexive pronoun.

Suzanne s’est endormie.
Suzanne fell asleep.

Vous vous êtes amusés.
You all had fun.

Elles se sont blessées.
They hurt themselves. (They got hurt.)

(b) When a reflexive verb is followed by a preposition + a noun, the reflexive pronoun is the direct object, so the past participle must agree with that reflexive pronoun.

Édith s’est échappée du bâtiment.
Édith escaped from the building.

Les étudiants se sont inquiétés de l’examen.
The students worried about the exam.

(c) When a noun directly follows a reflexive verb with no preposition in between, the reflexive pronoun is indirect; in this case, the past participle does not change its ending.

Elle s’est acheté une nouvelle jupe.
She bought herself a new skirt. (She bought a new skirt FOR herself.)

Elles se sont lavé le visage.
They washed their faces.

(d) In a sentence with a reflexive verb and a direct object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun is always the indirect object, so the past participle does not agree with the reflexive pronoun.  BUT, the past participle must agree with the direct object pronoun, in keeping with the rules for direct object pronoun agreement.

Il s’est acheté le journal.
He bought himself the newspaper. (“Newspaper” is masculine.)

Il se l’est acheté.
He bought it (the newspaper).

BUT:

Il s’est acheté la revue.
He bought himself the magazine. (“Magazine” is feminine.)

Il se l’est achetée.
He bought it (the magazine).

(e) The reflexive pronoun for the following verbs is always an indirect object, so the past participle remains unchanged (unless there is also a direct object pronoun in the sentence, as seen in (d) above):

s’acheter : to buy (for) oneself
se demander : to wonder
se dire : to say (to oneself)
se faire mal : to hurt oneself
s’imaginer : to imagine, to think
se parler : to talk (to oneself)
se plaire (à faire…) : to enjoy (doing…)
se procurer : to obtain (for oneself)
se promettre : to promise (oneself)
se rendre compte de: to realize
se reprocher : to criticize, to blame (oneself)
se rire (de qqun) : to mock (someone)

(f) The reflexive pronoun for the following reciprocal reflexive verbs is also always an indirect object, so the past participle remains unchanged (unless there is also a direct object pronoun in the sentence, as seen in (d) above):

se dire : to say (to each other)
se donner : to give (to each other)
s’écrire : to write (to each other)
se parler : to talk (to each other)
se promettre : to promise (each other)
se raconter: to tell (each other)
se rendre visit : to visit (each other)
se reprocher : to criticize, to blame (each other)
se ressembler : to resemble (each other)
se sourire : to smile (at each other)
se téléphoner : to call (each other)

Adapt:

À quelle heure est-ce que vous vous êtes réveillés?
At what time did you all wake (yourselves) up?

Nous nous sommes réveillés à sept heures du matin.
We woke (ourselves) up at seven in the morning.

Ils se sont douchés ce matin?
Did they shower (themselves) this morning?

Non, ils se sont douchés hier soir.
No, they showered (themselves) last night.

Combien de temps est-ce qu’elle a pris pour se maquiller?
How much time did she take to put makeup on (herself)?

Elle s’est maquillée très vite.
She put on her makeup very quickly.

Il ne s’est jamais rasé jamais avant aujourd’hui.
He never shaved (himself) before today.

Se sont-elles reposées après la classe?
Did they (feminine) rest after the class?

Elles se sont lavé les cheveux?
Did they (feminine) wash their hair?

Oui, elles se les sont lavés.
Yes, they (feminine) washed it.

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