Reflexive Pronouns in French

Instructor: Romain Chareyron

Romain teaches university French and has a PhD in French culture and cinema.

In this lesson, we will discuss reflexive pronouns in French, their position in a sentence as well as how to use them in a negation. We will also provide you with a list of some of the most common verbs that use reflexive pronouns.

Jean, a French university student, is having trouble living a balanced life and studying for his exams. He is telling his friend Pierre about it and Pierre, in order to help him, asks Jean how he plans his daily life. Jean tells him:

Je me couche après minuit, je me lève à 10h et je me lave. Je prends mon petit-déjeuner à 11h. ('I go to bed past midnight, I wake up at 10am and I shower. I have breakfast at 11am.')

Je me couche
Je me couche

Je me leve
Je me leve

Je me lave
Je me lave

Reflexive Pronouns Used at the Present Tense

In these sentences, je me couche, je me lève and je me lave are reflexive verbs. These three verbs all have the word me between the subject pronoun je and the conjugated verb. The word me is a reflexive pronoun. It is used to indicate that the subject of the sentence performs an action on him-/herself. As shown in these sentences, reflexive pronouns are often used when someone is talking about their daily routine.

To have a better understanding of how reflexive pronouns work, compare the sentences Je me lave ('I shower') and Je lave ma voiture ('I wash my car'). As we said, in the first sentence, the reflexive pronoun indicates that the subject performs the action on himself. In the second example, without a reflexive pronoun, the action is directed towards something else ('my car'), not the subject.

Please note that though the verb laver can be used at the reflexive and non-reflexive level, this is not the case for all French verbs. Some verbs can never be put in the reflexive form, including verbs you would use to describe your daily routine. One striking example is the verb manger ('to eat'): If you were to say Je me mange, you would be saying that you are eating yourself!

A Closer Look at Reflexive Verbs

As mentioned previously, when used with a verb conjugated for the present tense, reflexive pronouns will always have the same position in a sentence: Between the subject pronoun and the verb.

Now, let's go back to the conversation between Jean and Pierre. Since Jean knows Pierre is good at managing his time and studying for his exams, he is asking him about his daily routine by saying:

Est-ce que tu te couches tard? ('Do you go to bed late?') or

À quelle heure est-ce que tu te lèves? ('What time do you wake up?')

If we only focus on the verbs in these two sentences, we notice that, here again, we have the verbs coucher and lever conjugated at the reflexive level, as we notice a word between the subject pronoun tu and the verb. However, the word te has replaced the word me we found in the first examples. Te, just like me, is a reflexive pronoun. As mentioned before, the reflexive pronoun always follows the subject pronoun, so that they form a cluster and can thus never be separated. Consequently, each subject pronoun will have its corresponding reflexive pronoun, as shown in the table below:

Je Me
Tu Te
Il/Elle/On Se
Nous Nous
Vous Vous
Ils/Elles Se

Note that, at the infinitive level, to indicate that a verb should be in the reflexive form, you simply need to add se in front of the non-conjugated verb. For example, in the sentences we used above, the infinitive of je me couche is se coucher.

Also note that, for the subject pronouns nous and vous, the corresponding reflexive pronouns are nous and vous, so you have to repeat these words twice in a sentence. The first occurrence corresponds to the subject pronoun, while the second one corresponds to the reflexive pronoun. For example, conjugating the verb se coucher at the nous form would give us nous nous couchons.

Reflexive Pronouns Used With a Negation

If Pierre were to reply to Jean, he could say things like:

Non, je ne me couche pas tard. ('No, I don't go to bed late.') or

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