The essential guide to French reflexive verbs

A reflexive verb is a verb that’s preceded by a reflexive pronoun. These verbs show that someone or something is doing something to/by themself.

For instance, Je me réveille means “I wake up.” As you can see, in English we don’t usually use reflexive verbs, although you could say “I wake myself up” for clarification or emphasis.

For French learners, especially those of us whose native language doesn’t have them, reflexive verbs can seem intimidating. But when you learn more about them, you’ll realize they do have rules, and with some practice, they’ll become easy to use.

Let’s get to know French reflexive verbs!

Why are there reflexive verbs in French?

A person holds a small circular mirror over a body of gray-blue water, so that we see the water and this circle in the air that reflects a small part of it.

To be honest with you, for all the years I’ve learned and then spoken French, for all my interest in languages and how they work, for all I’ve studied French culture, I have never found a clear, confirmed explanation as to why reflexive verbs are necessary.

I suppose you could chalk it up to the French love of precision. But really, I think it just comes down to the fact that somewhere along the line, some languages decided to have reflexive verbs and others didn’t, and French is one of the languages that chose to have reflexive verbs.

Fortunately, reflexive verbs are fairly easy to use, especially the ones you use frequently – and there are many of those.

French reflexive verb basics: reflexive pronouns

A reflexive verb is always accompanied by a reflexive pronoun. This pronoun shows (or, well, reiterates) who is receiving the action.

Here are the French reflexive pronouns:

As you can see, third person subjects all use the reflexive pronoun se, regardless of whether they’re plural or singular.

And yes, nous and vous’ reflexive pronoun are the same as their regular pronoun, which is why you’ve likely come across sentences like this: Nous nous sommes bien amusés. (We had fun.)

Lastly, remember that when the pronouns that end in “e” are beside a word that begins with a vowel, they drop the “e” and take an apostrophe. For instance, Je m’appelle. 

French reflexive verb basics: reflexive verb agreement

An adorable cat is asleep leaning against a pillow and surrounded by a warm white duvet.
Elle s’est couchée.

Despite their little friend the reflexive pronoun, reflexive verbs are basically like other French verbs. They’re conjugated depending on their verb type.

In compound tenses, all French reflexive verbs must agree with their subject. This makes sense, since all reflexive verbs use être as their auxiliary, and verbs conjugated with être must have agreement in compound tenses.

Let’s use se coucher (to go to bed), a French reflexive verb you’ll often come across, to illustrate this point.

In the present-tense, I only have to include the reflexive pronoun and conjugate a reflexive verb according to its ending/whether it’s irregular. In this case, se coucher is a regular -er verb.

So:

se coucher – present tense
je me couche
tu te couches
il/elle/on se couche
nous nous couchons
vous vous couchez
ils/elles se couchent

But in compound tenses (that is, verb tenses that use avoir or être) there are two more things to keep in mind when it comes to reflexive verbs:

  1. The participle of a reflexive verb must agree with the subject in gender and number.

All reflexive verbs are conjugated with être in their compound tenses. This means that the participle will have to agree with the subject.

In other words:

The participle just has the standard past-tense ending if the subject is male/masculine (ex: Il s’est couché.).

The participle must have an additional “e” at the end if the subject is female/feminine (ex: Elle s’est couchée.).

The participle must have an “s” at the end if the subject is male/masculine/both masculine and feminine, and plural (ex: Ils se sont couchés.).

The participle must have an additional “e” and an “s” at the end if the subject is female/feminine and plural (ex: Elles se sont couchées.).

So, in the present tense, I can say Je me couche. But since I’m a woman, if I want to say “I went to bed”, I not only have to change the verb tense, but also be sure that the participle indicates my gender: Je me suis couchée.

If I want to say that my sister and I go to sleep, I’d say Nous nous couchons, but if I want to say my sister and I went to sleep, it would be Nous nous sommes couchées.

To take things to a more complicated level, note that in a phrase with a reflexive verb, agreement is always based on the subject. So for example, if you say Il s’est cogné la tête, the participle cogné does not take on an additional “e” to agree with tête. Because the verb is reflexive, it will always agree with the subject – in this case, Il.

2. The reflexive pronoun precedes être and the participle.

This makes sense when you think about the basic structure of a reflexive verb: there’s the reflexive pronoun, followed by the action.

So Je me couche (I go to bed) becomes Je me suis couchée (or Je me suis couché if I were a male): Pronoun + reflexive pronoun + auxiliary verb + participle.

Now that you know these two rules of reflexive verbs with compound tenses, take a look at se coucher conjugated in a compound tense – in this case, the passé composé — to see what I mean:

se coucher – passé composé
je me suis couché(e)
tu t’es couché(e)
il/elle/on s’est couché(e)
nous nous sommes couché(e)s
vous vous êtes couché(e)(s)
ils/elles se sont couché(e)s

Notice the possibilities of agreement and also the placement of the reflexive pronoun.

Remember that not all tenses are compound tenses, of course. When you don’t have to use the additional être to conjugate, the verb stem will just take on the ending its verb type typically would. For instance, here’s se coucher conjugated in the future simple tense:

se coucher – futur simple
je me coucherai
tu te coucheras
il/elle/on se couchera
nous nous coucherons
vous vous coucherez
ils/elles se coucheront

You can have a look at all of the conjugations of se coucher to get an idea of these rules on a larger scale.

How to make reflexive verbs negative

To make a French reflexive verb negative in non-compound tenses, you put the reflexive pronoun and the verb between ne and pas. For instance:

Il ne se couche pas tard. (He doesn’t go to bed late.)

Nous ne nous réveillons pas tôt le weekend. (We don’t wake up early on the weekend.)

With compound tenses, you place the reflexive pronoun and the auxiliary être between ne and pas, like so:

Il ne s’est pas couché tard hier soir. (He didn’t go to bed late last night.)

Nous ne nous sommes pas réveillés tôt ce weekend. (We didn’t get up early this weekend.)

The concept is simple. It’s just a matter of making sure all of these little words are in the right order.

Can you make the sentence Il se rase negative?

It would be: Il ne se rase pas.

Now, could you make a compound tense sentence with se raser negative? For instance, let’s use the passé composé. 

The negative version of Il s’est rasé would be…

Il ne s’est pas rasé.

If you didn’t guess these correctly, don’t worry. Just like just about everything else with reflexive verbs, making them negative takes getting used to. But it will happen!

Reflexive verbs in the imperative tense

View from the back of a woman with light brown hair tied up with what looks like a flower clip. She is facing a rack full of colorfully patterned clothing, looking through the rack as though choosing something to wear.
Habille-toi !

One reflexive verb tense that may surprise you is the imperative tense.

Here, we no longer use a reflexive pronoun, but opt for a stressed pronoun instead.

So, if you want to tell someone to go to bed, you’d say:

Couche-toi or Couchez-vous

And if you want everyone, yourself included, to go to bed, you’d say

Couchons-nous

With this in mind, can you guess how you’d order someone/a group and yourself to get dressed (s’habiller)?

It would be:

Habille-toi

or

Habillez-vous

or

Habillons-nous

How to make reflexive imperative verbs negative

Weirdly enough, when making reflexive verbs negative in the imperative tense, you return to the basics of reflexive verbs, using a reflexive pronoun instead of a stressed one.

Except there’s no subject pronoun, since the person giving commands is addressing the speaker directly.

Since it’s not a compound tense, the imperative form has ne and pas surrounding both the reflexive pronoun and the verb.

So, the verbs we just looked at would look this way as negative commands:

Ne te couche pas/Ne vous couchez pas/Ne nous couchons pas

Ne t’habille pas/Ne vous habillez pas/Ne nous habillons pas

Remember that, whether affirmative or negative, in the imperative tense, there is no need to agree the gender/number of the subject, so these always stay the same.

List of common French reflexive verbs

View from the back of three people walking at sunset, on what looks like a beach.

Here is a list of some common French reflexive verbs.

You’ll notice that while many of these work with just the reflexive pronoun and the verb, a few need to be – or can be, in the case of a verb like se laver – modified by some additional details. For instance, Je me lave means “I wash myself” but if you want to be specific, you still need to keep this reflexive and then add the part of the body you’re talking about: Je me lave les mains (I wash my hands/I’m washing my hands)

(By the way, feel free to check out our article on body parts in French to learn more about how to talk about parts of the body (usually it involves using a reflexive verb)).

And now, the list:

  • s’appeler – to call oneself/to call (including phone) each other. Examples: Je m’appelle Alysa. (My name is Alysa.)/On s’appellera ce soir.(We’ll call each other tonight.)
  • s’asseoir – to sit. Example: Ils se sont assis sur la canapé. (They sat down on the sofa.)
  • se blesser – to get hurt. Ex: Les catcheurs se blessent souvent. (Wrestlers often get hurt.)
  • se cacher – to hide. Ex: L’écureuil s’est caché derrière l’arbre. (The squirrel hid behind the tree.)
  • se considérer (comme) – to consider oneself. Ex: Elle se considère comme une bonne cuisinière. (She thinks she’s/considers herself a good cook.)
  • se débrouiller – to handle/manage things. Ex: Je me débrouille. (I’m working it out/I’ll manage.)
  • se diriger – to make one’s way (towards) Ex: Le fantôme s’est dirigé vers la fenêtre. (The ghost made its way towards the window.)
  • s’échapper – to escape. Ex: Heureusement que tu t’es échappé ! (Luckily you escaped!)
  • s’ennuyer – to get bored. Ex: Nous nous ennuyions en classe aujourd’hui. (We were bored in class today.)
  • s’inquiéter – to worry. Ex: Ne t’inquiète pas ! (Don’t worry!)
  • se maquiller – to put on makeup. Ex: Elle prend un temps fou à se maquiller. (She takes a ridiculous amount of time to put on makeup.)
  • se moucher (to blow one’s nose). Ex:Je dois me moucher souvent en ce moment car j’ai attrapé un rhume. (I have to blow my nose a lot at the moment because I caught a cold.)
  • se balader – to go for a walk/to go for a stroll. Ex: Il aime se balader partout dans son quartier. (He likes to walk all over his neighborhood.)
  • se déshabiller – to undress. Ex: Il s’est déshabillé, puis il a pris un bain. (He got undressed and then took a bath.)
  • se raser – to shave (oneself). Ex: Comme il participe au Movember, il ne se rase plus. (Since he’s participating in Movember, he’s not shaving anymore.)/Elle se rase les jambes tous les deux jours.(She shaves her legs every other day.)
  • se baigner – to bathe (to take a bath or to swim in a languorous way). Ex: Elle adore se baigner dans la mer. (She loves to swim in the ocean.)
  • se calmer – to calm down. Ex: Calme-toi. (Calm down.)
  • se cogner – to bump oneself/into something. Ex: Je me suis cognée contre la table. (I bumped into the table)/ Il s’est cogné la tête. (He bumped his head.)
  • se coiffer – to do one’s hair. This leads to one of my favorite, very common wordy French phrases: Je me suis fait(e) coiffer. (I got my hair done.)
  • se coucher – to go to bed. Ex: Leurs enfants se couchent tôt en semaine. (Their children go to bed early during the week.)
  • se couper – to cut (oneself). Ex: Aïe, je me suis coupé sur ce bout de plastique ! (Ow! I cut myself on this piece of plastic!)/Il s’est coupé le doigt. (He got a cut on his finger.)
  • se déguiser – to disguise oneself/to dress up (wear fancy dress). Ex: On ne fête pas l’Halloween en France, mais parfois des enfants se déguisent quand même. (Halloween isn’t celebrated in France but sometimes children dress up even so.)
  • s’habiller – to get dressed. Ex: Je m’habille et je t’amène à la gare. (I’ll get dressed and then take you to the train station.)
  • s’amuser – to have fun. Ex: Nous nous amusons bien chez nos cousins. (We have fun at our cousins’ house.)
  • se doucher – to take a shower. Ex: Il ne s’est pas encore douché ce matin. (He hasn’t taken his shower yet this morning.)
  • s’effondrer – to collapse. This can be used with a person (usually in the sense of an emotional reaction, not purely physical) or an object. Ex: La vieille maison s’est effondrée. (The old house fell down/collapsed.)
  • s’énerver – to get angry. Ex: Papa s’énerve quand tu oublies de sortir la poubelle. (Dad gets mad when you forget to take out the trash.)
  • s’évanouir – to faint. Ex: Quand elle a entendu la nouvelle, elle s’est évanouie. (When she heard the news, she fainted.)
  • se marier – to get married. Ex: Nous nous sommes mariés. (We got married.)
  • s’habituer à – to get used to. Ex: Ne t’inquiète pas, tu t’habitueras au froid. (Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the cold. )
  • se laver – to wash (oneself). This is often used with a specific part of the body. Ex: Nous nous lavons tous les jours. (We wash ourselves every day.) /Avant de manger nous allons nous laver les mains. (Before we eat we’re going to go wash our hands.)
  • se lever – to wake up. Ex: Nous nous lèverons tôt demain. (We’ll get up early tomorrow.)
  • s’occuper (de) – to take care (of). Ex: Attention, la soupe va bruler! – Je m’en occupe ! (“Watch out, the soup’s going to burn!” “I’ll take care of it!”)
  • se promener – to take a walk. Ex: Nous nous sommes promenés dans le village. (We took a walk in the village.)
  • se reposer – to rest/to take a rest. Ex: J’ai besoin de me reposer. (I need to rest/relax/take a nap for a little.)
  • se réveiller – to wake up. Ex: Dis donc ! Tu te lèves tôt ! (Wow, you wake up early!)
  • se souvenir (de) – to remember. Ex: Elle se souviendra toujours de ces magnifiques vacances. (She’ll always remember this marvellous vacation.)
  • se taire – to be quiet/in some contexts, to shut up (sort of the equivalent of the English expression Quiet, you!). Ex: Taisez-vous ! (Be quiet/Shut up!)
  • se tromper – to make a mistake. Ex: Oh pardon, je me suis trompé de numéro. (Oh, sorry, I dialed the wrong number.)
  • se transformer (en) – to transform (into). Ex: La sorcière s’est transformée en chat. (The witch transformed into a cat.)

Want more? Here’s a longer list of French reflexive verbs.

And this website seems to have a complete list of French reflexive verbs. Note that, as we’ll see further on in our own article, many of these verbs have both a reflexive and non-reflexive form, with slightly different meanings.

French verbs that can become reflexive

Closeup of a Bundt cake dribbled with white sweet icing.
Il s’est acheté un gâteau pour le dessert. 

In general, there are reflexive verbs and non-reflexive verbs in French. But the more you get to know the French language, the more you’ll find that the line is blurrier than you’d think.

Many French verbs can be transformed into reflexive verbs.

This is usually done to indicate or emphasize that the subject is doing the action to themself, especially if the action isn’t automatically thought of that way.

A good example of this is the verb demander (to ask). We usually see this as a non-reflexive verb. For instance: Où est le chat ? j’ai demandé. (Where is the cat?, I asked.)

But if you want to show that the subject is talking to themself/wondering something, you could transform demander into se demander:  Où est le chat ? je me suis demandé. (Where is the cat, I asked myself/wondered).

The best way to know if you can or should transform a non-reflexive verb into a reflexive verb is to ask yourself if you’d use “myself/yourself/himself/herself/oneself/ourselves/theirselves” in the sentence you want to say – or, again, if you want to indicate or emphasize that the subject is doing the action to itself.

Another reason a French verb might become reflexive is if it pertains to something being done to someone’s body. For example, in general the verb couper (to cut) is not reflexive: Il coupe une feuille de papier en deux. (He cuts a piece of paper in two).

But if you’re talking about cutting something on your or someone else’s body, couper becomes se couper. For instance: Il s’est coupé les cheveux. (He cut his hair.) Or even simply Il s’est coupé (He got a cut.)

Here are some more examples of verbs in their regular form and then used as reflexive verbs:

baver (to drool)

Quelle horreur, son chien a bavé sur moi !

(Gross! His dog drooled on me!)

vs

Quand je me suis endormie, je me suis bavée dessus. La honte ! 

(When I fell asleep, I drooled on myself. How embarrassing!)

acheter (to buy)

Il a acheté un gâteau pour le dessert. 

(He bought a cake for dessert.)

vs

Il s’est acheté un gâteau pour le dessert. 

(He bought himself a cake for dessert.)

The more you listen to and read French, the more you’ll see non-reflexive verbs occasionally transformed into reflexive ones, and you’ll find as time goes on that you feel at ease transforming them yourself.

Not all French reflexive verbs are always reflexive

Some French verbs are used in a reflexive form so often that we consider them reflexive verbs. But just as it’s possible to make a non-reflexive verb reflexive in French, it’s also possible to use many (but not all!) French reflexive verbs without their reflexive pronoun, too. In these cases, the verb often changes meaning, at least slightly.

For instance, s’appeler (to call oneself (used when giving one’s name)/to call each other (on the phone, etc.)) can be simply appeler (to call). Example: Ton frère va appeler ce soir. (Your brother is going to call tonight.)

Here’s another example: Se laver can be laver when it’s not the subject itself (or a part of their body) that’s being washed. Example: Il se lave les cheveux (He’s washing his hair) vs Il lave sa voiture une fois par semaine (He washes his car once a week).

Similarly, s’habiller (to get dressed) can become habiller when the subject is dressing someone else. Example: Elle habille sa fille toujours en rose. (She always dresses her daughter in pink.)

How can you tell if a French reflexive verb can also be non-reflexive? Some of it is just sussing it out and also, of course, getting used to seeing, hearing, and speaking French.

But one good general rule is that if the action must be done to someone else, not to the subject, the verb can become non-reflexive. Still, use this idea with caution.

How can I practice French reflexive verbs?

There are several ways to get more comfortable with using French reflexive verbs. One is to memorize a list like ours, which features the most common French reflexive verbs you’ll come across.

This will give you a good foundation.

You can also do an online search for “French reflexive verbs exercises”.

But as you may have guessed based on some things I’ve mentioned along the way, it’s also important to read, listen to, and ideally, talk to someone, in French regularly. This will make you more and more familiar with French and its grammatical rules and gymnastics.

If you need some ideas, you can start by having a look at our list of free resources for reading, listening to, and watching French.

This guide to finding a French conversation partner (usually free on most of the sites we mention) is also worth looking into.

And though we don’t like to toot our own horn, the French Together app is a great way to get used to hearing and practicing spoken French, including those common reflexive verbs.


French reflexive verbs can be challenging at first, especially for those of us who don’t have them in our native language. But with time, they will get easier to use.

Do you have a trick for using or remembering French reflexive verbs? Feel free to share it 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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