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.

Present Passé Composé Imparfait
je nettoie j’ai nettoyé je nettoyais
tu nettoies tu as nettoyé tu nettoyais
il/elle/on nettoie il/elle/on a nettoyé il/elle/on nettoyait
nous nettoyons nous avons nettoyé nous nettoyions
vous nettoyez vous avez nettoyé vous nettoyiez
ils/elles nettoient ils/elles ont nettoyé ils/elles nettoyaient
Futur simple Conditional Subjunctive
je nettoierai je nettoierais que je nettoie
tu nettoieras tu nettoierais que tu nettoies
il/elle/on nettoiera il/elle/on nettoierait qu’ il/elle/on nettoie
nous nettoierons nous nettoierions que nous nettoyions
vous nettoierez vous nettoieriez que vous nettoyiez
ils/elles nettoieront ils/elles se nettoieraient qu’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-parfait Passé simple Passé antérieur
que j’avais nettoyé je nettoyai j’eus nettoyé
tu avais nettoyé tu nettoyas tu eus nettoyé
il/elle/on avait nettoyé il/elle/on nettoya il/elle/on eut nettoyé
nous avions nettoyé nous nettoyâmes nous eûmes nettoyé
vous aviez nettoyé vous nettoyâtes vous eûtes nettoyé
ils/elles avaient nettoyé ils/elles nettoyèrent ils/elles eurent nettoyé
Futur antérieur Futur proche
j’aurai nettoyé je vais nettoyer
tu auras nettoyé tu vas nettoyer
il/elle/on aura nettoyé il/elle/on va nettoyer
nous aurons nettoyé nous allons nettoyer
vous aurez nettoyé vous allez nettoyer
ils/elles auront nettoyé ils/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 subjonctif Imparfait du subjonctif Plus-que-parfait du subjonctif
que j’aie nettoyé que je nettoyasse j’eusse nettoyé
que tu aies nettoyé que tu nettoyasses que tu eusses nettoyé
que il/elle/on ait nettoyé qu’il/elle/on nettoyât qu’il/elle/on eût nettoyé
que nous ayons nettoyé que nous nettoyassions que nous eussions nettoyé
que vous ayez nettoyé que vous nettoyassiez que vous eussiez nettoyé
que ils/elles aient nettoyé qu’ils/elles nettoyassent qu’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!

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.

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