How to use and conjugate the French verb nettoyer

Are you one of those people whose house is clean but cluttered, rather than neat and tidy? If so, the French verb nettoyer is for you!  

Nettoyer means “to clean” but also has a few more subtle meanings.

Let’s learn about this clean-cut verb whose meaning is surprisingly precise.

Nettoyer conjugation

Nettoyer is an irregular verb that’s conjugated with avoir in compound tenses.

Note that its infinitive stem changes in the future simple and present conditional tenses; the “y” still becomes an “i”.

Here’s how to conjugate nettoyer in its most common tenses.

PresentPassé ComposéImparfait
je nettoiej’ai nettoyéje nettoyais
tu nettoiestu as nettoyétu nettoyais
il/elle/on nettoieil/elle/on a nettoyéil/elle/on nettoyait
nous nettoyonsnous avons nettoyénous nettoyions
vous nettoyezvous avez nettoyévous nettoyiez
ils/elles nettoientils/elles ont nettoyéils/elles nettoyaient
Futur simpleConditionalSubjunctive
je nettoieraije nettoieraisque je nettoie
tu nettoierastu nettoieraisque tu nettoies
il/elle/on nettoierail/elle/on nettoieraitqu’ il/elle/on nettoie
nous nettoieronsnous nettoierionsque nous nettoyions
vous nettoierezvous nettoieriezque vous nettoyiez
ils/elles nettoierontils/elles se nettoieraientqu’ils/elles nettoient
Nettoie (tu)
Nettoyons (nous)
Nettoyez (vous)

Less common nettoyer conjugations

Here’s how to conjugate nettoyer in tenses you’ll see and use less often.

Plus-que-parfaitPassé simplePassé antérieur
que j’avais nettoyéje nettoyaij’eus nettoyé
tu avais nettoyétu nettoyastu eus nettoyé
il/elle/on avait nettoyéil/elle/on nettoyail/elle/on eut nettoyé
nous avions nettoyénous nettoyâmesnous eûmes nettoyé
vous aviez nettoyévous nettoyâtesvous eûtes nettoyé
ils/elles avaient nettoyéils/elles nettoyèrentils/elles eurent nettoyé
Futur antérieur Futur proche
j’aurai nettoyéje vais nettoyer
tu auras nettoyétu vas nettoyer
il/elle/on aura nettoyéil/elle/on va nettoyer
nous aurons nettoyénous allons nettoyer
vous aurez nettoyévous allez nettoyer
ils/elles auront nettoyéils/elles vont nettoyer
Conditionnnel du passé
je aurais nettoyé
tu aurais nettoyé
il/elle/on aurait nettoyé
nous aurions nettoyé
vous auriez nettoyé
ils/elles auraient nettoyé
Passé du subjonctifImparfait du subjonctifPlus-que-parfait du subjonctif
que j’aie nettoyéque je nettoyassej’eusse nettoyé
que tu aies nettoyéque tu nettoyassesque tu eusses nettoyé
que il/elle/on ait nettoyéqu’il/elle/on nettoyâtqu’il/elle/on eût nettoyé
que nous ayons nettoyéque nous nettoyassionsque nous eussions nettoyé
que vous ayez nettoyéque vous nettoyassiezque vous eussiez nettoyé
que ils/elles aient nettoyéqu’ils/elles nettoyassentqu’ils/elles eussent nettoyé

What does nettoyer mean?

A person in professional cleaning gear, including orange rubber boots, cleans a stone staircase with a mop or broom, of which we only see the metal handle.

Although it has a few, fairly rare additional definitions, in a vast majority of cases, nettoyer means “to clean”.

It’s used with just about anything you can clean, from your house, to your pet’s ears. Ex: Après avoir nettoyé sa baignoire, elle a nettoyé les oreilles de son chat. (After cleaning the bathtub, she cleaned her cat’s ears.)

Seems simple, right? Well, there’s a hitch: In English, we often use the verb “clean” to imply not just washing away dirt, but also putting things away and making a place neat. Not so with nettoyer! It’s only used for the idea of washing away/removing dirt, not putting things away.

So, for instance, J’ai nettoyé ma chambre would literally mean “I cleaned my room, removing dirt and dust”.

If you want to say “I cleaned my room” in the sense of “I tidied up my room”, you would use the verb ranger: J’ai rangé ma chambre.

If you wanted to state that you’d both removed dirt and dust AND put things away, you could say J’ai fait le ménage (dans ma chambre).

These examples introduce us to nettoyer’s cousins:

  • Ranger: to put away, to organize
  • Faire le ménage: to clean and tidy up. By extension, une femme de ménage is how you say “cleaning lady/cleaning woman” in French.

Additionally, remember that “to clean” isn’t exactly the same as “to wash”. So, if you want to talk about someone washing their body or a body part with water and soap, you would generally use the verb se laver. Ex: Je nettoierai la salle des bains, puis je me laverai les cheveux. (I’ll clean the bathroom, then I’ll wash my hair).

You may still see nettoyer used with body parts occasionally – for instance, in our example about cleaning a cat’s ears. But this will imply a deep cleaning, usually not involving soap or water.

In addition to its literal meaning, nettoyer can also be used metaphorically. For instance: La police a nettoyé ce quartier. (The police have really cleaned up (gotten rid of crime in) this neighborhood.)  You’ll also see the phrase nettoyer les cookies (to clean cookies from your internet browser).

Variants of nettoyer

A spray bottle of yellow cleaning liquid stands on a wooden cutting board on kitchen counter. In front of it are three lemons, implying that the bottle contains lemon juice or a lemon-based or lemon-scented cleaner.

Like most verbs in French, nettoyer has a few common variants. The one you’ll most likely come across is (le) nettoyage – cleaning. This is often used with other words, including:

  • Le nettoyage à sec – dry cleaning
  • Un agent de nettoyage – a cleaning product

Another nettoyer variant you’ll probably encounter is the adjective/adverb net(te). Net/nette has a few other meanings, but when it’s used as a variant of nettoyer, it typically means “clean” or “clear cut”, and/or “distinct”.  

Clair et net (Clear as day, clear and accurate) is a very common expression you’ll encounter that includes this word.  

Two common nettoyer expressions

Here are two nettoyer expressions that will hopefully emphasize this verb’s key meaning even further.

Nettoyer les écuries d’Augias 

Meaning: To clean the stables of Augeas.

This expression refers to one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules in Greco-Roman myth: cleaning out the absolutely filthy, enormous stables of King Augeas. To do this, Hercules used his legendary strength to reroute two rivers. The expression today is used to mean “going to extreme lengths to clean up a dirty (either corrupt or literally dirty) place or situation.

Pour la mairie de Paris, faire partir les vendeurs de crack du quartier de la Chapelle sera nettoyer les écuries d’Augias. 

For the Paris mayor’s staff, making the crack dealers leave the La Chapelle neighborhood will be like cleaning Augeas’ stables.

Nettoyer son plat 

Meaning: To finish a meal so completely that not a trace of food remains on the plate.

This is the equivalent of the English expression “to clean your plate”.   

Tout ce qu’il cuisine est si bon que nous nettoyons toujours nos plats quand nous dînons chez lui !

Everything he cooks is so good that we always clean our plates when we have dinner at his place!

I hope this article has left you feeling like the meaning of nettoyer is clair et net. Have you come across this verb before? Feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.