French reflexive verbs: All you need to know

French reflexive verbs: All you need to know

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 18, 2022

It’s fair to say that French conjugation is one of the most complex aspects of the language, even if you’re a more advanced learner. There are more tenses in French than in English, with different groups of verbs playing by their own rules and many verbs that are just plain irregular. But in comparison, and maybe against expectations, reflexive verbs are not so difficult. Although they need reflexive pronouns in order to function, they’re quite regular in their forms and in their structures. They’re also very useful to learn, as they tend to be very common verbs to talk about daily life and routine.

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What are reflexive verbs in French?

Reflexive verbs depict actions in which the subject and the object of the action are the same person. Put simply, you’re doing something to yourself, and not to someone or something else. This is marked by the reflexive pronouns, which come before the verb itself. 

It’s also worth noting reflexive verbs often have a non-reflexive counterpart, without the reflexive pronouns. You can use one or the other, depending on who or what the object of the action is:

Reflexive verbsNon-reflexive verbs
Je me lave (I wash myself)Je lave la vaisselle (I wash the dishes)
Je me prépare (I get ready)Je prépare la réunion (I prepare the meeting)
Je me réveille (I wake up)Je réveille les enfants (I wake up the children)

What are the rules of conjugation of French reflexive verbs?

Quite a large number of reflexive verbs are -er verbs. They follow the same rules of conjugation. The only difference is the reflexive pronouns, which change according to the subject pronoun. Here is an example with the verbs laver (to wash) and se laver (to get washed) in the present tense:

Non-reflexive verbReflexive verbs
Je lave (I wash)Je me lave (I wash myself)
Tu laves (you wash)Tu te laves (you wash yourself)
Il/elle/on lave (he/she/one washes)Il/elle/on se lave (he/she/one washes himself/herself/oneself)
Nous lavons (we wash)Nous nous lavons (we wash ourselves)
Vous lavez (you wash)Vous vous lavez (you wash yourself/yourselves)
Ils/elles lavent (they wash)Ils/elles se lavent (they wash themselves)

The rule is the same for other simple tenses, like the future tense and the imperfect tense:

Imperfect TenseFuture Tense
Je me lavais (I used to wash myself)Je me laverai (I will wash myself)
Tu te lavais (you used to wash yourself)Tu te laveras (you will wash yourself)
Il/elle/on se lavait (he/she/one used to wash himself/herself/oneself)Il/elle/on se lavera (he/she/one will wash himself/herself/oneself)
Nous nous lavions (we used to wash ourselves)Nous nous laverons (we will wash ourselves)
Vous vous laviez (you used to wash yourself/yourselves)Vous vous laverez (you will wash yourself)
Ils/elles se lavaient (they used to wash themselves)Ils/elles se laveront (they will wash themselves)

For compound tenses like le passé composé, reflexive verbs use the verb être (to be) as the auxiliary verb. This means that the past participle of the verb agrees in gender and in number with the subject pronoun. The reflexive pronoun is placed before the auxiliary verb:

Reflexive verbs
Je me suis lavé.e (I washed myself)
Tu t’es lavé.e (you washed yourself)
Il s’est lavé (he will wash himself)
Elle s’est lavée (she will wash herself)
On s’est lavé (one will wash oneself)
Nous nous sommes lavé.e.s (we washed ourselves)
Vous vous êtes lavé.e.s (you washed yourself)
Ils/elles se sont lavé.e.s (they washed themselves)

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What about the interrogative and negative forms?

By and large, the rules are the same for reflexive verbs as for non-reflexive verbs. Once again, the only main difference is the addition of the reflexive pronouns.

The interrogative form of reflexive verbs in French

Just like for affirmative sentences, the reflexive pronouns remain directly before the verb, no matter what the tense. The rest of the question structure is the same as for non-reflexive verbs:

Present Tense
Est-ce que tu te laves ?Do you wash yourself?
Te laves-tu ?Do you wash yourself?
Quand est-ce que tu te laves ?When do you wash yourself?
Quand te laves-tu ?When do you wash yourself?
Passé composé
Est-ce que tu t’es lavé.e ?Did you wash yourself?
T’es-tu lavé.e ?Did you wash yourself?
Quand est-ce que tu t’es lavé.e ?When did you wash yourself?
Quand t’es-tu lavé.e ?When did you wash yourself?

The negative form of reflexive verbs in French

The negative form of reflexive verbs includes the usual words ne and pas. They’re still placed on each side of the verb, but don’t separate it from the reflexive pronouns:

Present Tense
Affirmative FormNegative Form
Je me lave (I wash myself)Je ne me lave pas (I don’t wash myself)

The same goes for le passé composé and other compound tenses: the word ne is placed before the reflexive pronoun, without separating it from the auxiliary verb:

Passé composé
Affirmative FormNegative Form
Je me suis lavé.e (I washed myself)Je ne me suis pas lavé.e (I didn’t wash myself)

A few examples of the most common reflexive verbs in French

Though they also exist in English, reflexive verbs are much more common in French. A large number relates to the daily routine and hygiene, from the moment you get up and say good morning until you wish goodnight before going to bed:

se coucherto go to bed
se démaquiller to take off make-up
se déshabillerto get undressed
se doucherto shower
s’habillerto get dressed
se laverto wash oneself
se leverto get up
se maquillerto put on make-up
se parfumerto put on perfume
se préparerto get ready
se raserto shave
se réveillerto wake up

Whether they’re about daily routine or not, quite a few reflexive verbs mention the body part that is concerned:

se brosser les cheveux/dentsto brush one’s hair/teeth
se casser le bras/la jambeto break one’s arm/leg
se couper le doigt/les cheveuxto cut one’s finger/hair
se faire mal au dos/à la main/aux orteilsTo hurt one’s back/hand/toes
se laver le visage/les mainsto wash one’s face/hands
se raser la barbe/la moustacheto shave one’s beard/moustache

Your turn to reflect on reflexive verbs in French

Be it in statements or questions, in the affirmative or negative form, French reflexive verbs are easy to learn and to use, once you get your head around their reflexive pronouns. As most of them belong to the group of -er verbs, their conjugation is quite regular. They’re also very useful verbs to know, in particular, if you wish to talk about your daily routine.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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