French Reflexive Verbs

By the end of this page you should:

  • understand what a French reflexive verb is
  • know the differences between reflexive verbs and non-reflexive verbs in French
  • understand the difference between a non-reflexive and a reflexive verb

We will such in particular look at the difference between laver and se laver as well as appeler and s’appeler.

What is a reflexive verb?

First of all it is important to know what a reflexive verb is. A nice summary is as follows:

A reflexive verb is a verb where the person doing the action is also the recipient of the action. An example of a sentence using a reflexive verb in English could be ‘I wash myself’. The reason for it being reflexive is the person doing the washing is also the person doing the action.

How to know if my verb is reflexive?

Your dictionary will tell you. Let’s work through an example together using an online dictionary.

1. Please visit this page from the Collins Online English – French dictionary for the word ‘wash’.

2. You will see there are two main possibilities in the verbs section, namely ‘laver’ and ‘se laver’.

Essentially the versions with ‘se’ in front (e.g. se laver) are reflexive whereas the versions which do not have ‘se’ in front (e.g. laver) are not reflexive.

Let’s now do the same activity for the word ‘eat’ as follows:

1. Now visit this page from the Collins English – French dictionary for the word ‘eat’.

2. You will see that for the French verb for ‘eat’ is ‘manger’. This is not reflexive, as there is no ‘se’ in front of ‘manger’.

To summarise:

  • Your dictionary tells you whether a new verb is reflexive or not by putting (or not putting) ‘se’ in front of the verb.
  • On a side note, textbooks, etc. will do the same thing when they give you lists of verbs to learn.

Laver (to wash) v Se laver (to wash oneself)

Now that you hopefully have an idea of what a reflexive verb is and when a verb is reflexive, let’s now look at what to do with reflexive verbs. The best way to do this is by looking at a non-reflexive verb and compare it to a reflexive verb.

Firstly, let’s look at a non-reflexive verb, ‘laver’ which literally means to ‘to wash’. It is a normal ‘er’ ending verb and has normal ‘er’ verb endings:

  • Je lave = I wash
  • Tu laves = You wash (informal & singular)
  • Il/Elle lave = He/She washes
  • Nous lavons = We wash
  • Vous lavez = You wash (formal &/or plural)
  • Ils/Elles lavent = They wash

The above verb is fine by itself for when a person wants to say that they wash something else, for example:

  • Je lave la voiture = I wash the car.

The alternative ‘se laver‘ literally translates as ‘to wash oneself‘ (i.e. to have a wash) and in the present tense is as follows:

  • Je me lave = I wash (myself)
  • Tu te laves = You wash (yourself) (informal & singular)
  • Il/Elle se lave = He/She washes (himself/herself)
  • Nous nous lavons = We wash (ourselves)
  • Vous vous lavez = You wash (yourself/yourselves) (formal &/or plural)
  • Ils/Elles se lavent = They wash (themselves)

You would use ‘se laver’ when you want to say that someone is having a wash, etc.

If you compare ‘laver’ with ‘se laver’, you will see that the verb endings are the same for both. The reason for this is ‘laver’ is the verb part of ‘se laver’.

So what is the difference in usage between laver and se laver?

Essentially the difference is:

  • Laver is non-reflexive and is used to say that someone washes something
  • Se laver is reflexive and is used to say that someone is having a wash

All that has happened is that for the reflexive version we need to add an extra word (‘me’ (myself), ‘te’ (yourself), etc.) to show that the person is doing the action to themselves.

Appeler (to call) v S’appeler (to call oneself)

Another example of a reflexive verb is ‘s’appeler’. The ‘appeler’ part means ‘to call’:

  • J’appelle = I call
  • Tu appelles = You call (informal & singular)
  • Il/Elle appelle = He calls/She calls/(It calls)
  • Nous appelons = We call
  • Vous appelez = You call (formal and/or plural)
  • Ils/Elles appellent = They call

The reflexive form ‘s’appeler’ however means ‘to call oneself’ and is used to ask/tell what someone’s name is and is shown as follows:

  • Je m’appelle = I call myself
  • Tu t’appelles = You call yourself (informal & singular)
  • Il/Elle s’appelle = He calls himself/She calls herself/(It calls itself)
  • Nous nous appelons = We call ourselves
  • Vous vous appelez = You call yourself/yourselves (formal and/or plural)
  • Ils/Elles s’appellent = They call themselves

Again you will see the only difference between the non-reflexive verb (appeler = to call) and the reflexive verb (s’appeler = to call oneself) is you simply need to add an extra word before the verb to show who the action is being done to (i.e. me/m’, te/t’, se/s’, etc). The same applies for all reflexive verbs.

Do all French verbs have a reflexive version?

No, the vast majority of French verbs are not reflexive and have no reflexive version. Reflexive verbs in fact only represent a small (but significant) number of the total number of verbs used in the language.

Remember that:

  • All reflexive verbs have a non-reflexive version, but most non-reflexive verbs do not have a reflexive version.
  • For example, se lever (to get (oneself) up) has the non-reflexive version of lever (to lift/to raise), but manger (to eat) does not have a reflexive version.

Handy Tips for understanding how to use reflexive verbs

Sometimes, it may not always seem logical or clear why a reflexive verb is reflexive. There is however (almost) always a logical reason why.

To be able to use the language and reflexive verbs effectively, whenever you want to learn a new reflexive verb, always also learn the meaning of the non-reflexive verbs.

In this way you know what you are literally saying when you speak and understand when to use the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version.

So far you know:

  • ‘Laver’ means ‘to wash (something)’ and ‘Se laver’ means ‘to wash oneself’ (i.e. to have a wash)
  • ‘Appeler’ means ‘to call’ and ‘S’appeler’ means ‘to call oneself’

One key tip is whenever you came across a new reflexive verb, learn the reflexive version and the non-reflexive verb at the same time.

Learning the meaning of the reflexive version and the non-reflexive version allows you to know which to use when with confidence.

If you need more help, feel free to get in contact

Feel free to get in contact with any questions you have about French reflexive verbs or if you wish to book French tuition with me. Online French Tuition starts at £12 for 30 minutes. (More details on my French Language Tuition services can also be seen by clicking here).

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