Lexicalised pronominal verbs - Pronominal verbs - Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)

Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)

Chapter 6. Pronominal verbs


Pronominal verbs such as s’en aller and se mettre, which you encountered in Chapter 5, are used quite frequently in French, often with no reflexive or reciprocal meaning. In this chapter, you will learn more about the subtleties of meaning in the French of native speakers and learn to use pronominal verbs to make your own French more authentic and idiomatic.

Lexicalised pronominal verbs

Lexicalised pronominal verbs are pronominal in form, i.e. they are always accompanied by an unstressed pronoun object, me, te, se, nous, vous, se, which must agree with the subject, e.g. je m’en suis allée (I went away). However, in marked contrast to true reflexive verbs like elle s’est lavée (she washed herself) or elles se sont vues (they saw one another), this pronoun has no reflexive or reciprocal meaning.

1 Some of the most common lexicalised pronominal verbs are listed below.

s’abstenir de (+ noun / inf.)

to refrain from


to lean on one’s elbows

s’accoutumer à (+ noun / inf.)

to get used to


to crouch

s’adresser à quelqu’un

to address, speak to someone


to get weaker


to collapse


to kneel


to lie down


to have a good time

s’apercevoir de quelque chose

to notice something


to be called

s’approcher de quelqu’un

to approach, go up to someone


to lean


to stop


to sit down


to doze off

s’avancer vers

to move towards

se battre

to fight

se blottir contre quelqu’un

to cuddle up to someone

se briser

to break

se casser

to break

se charger de (+ noun / inf.)

to take on, assume responsibility for

se comporter

to behave

se contenter de (+ noun / inf.)

to make do with

se coucher

to go to bed; to lie down

se débrouiller

to manage

se décider à (+ inf.)

to make up one’s mind to

se demander

to wonder

se dépêcher de (+ inf.)

to hurry

se dérouler

to take place; to go, proceed

se déshabiller

to undress

se diriger vers un endroit

to go towards a place

se douter de quelque chose

to suspect something

s’écarter / s’écarter d’un chemin

to part, diverge; to stray from a path

s’échapper d’un endroit

to escape from a place


to get lighter, become clearer


to pass by (of time)


to exclaim, cry out


to collapse


to collapse

s’effondrer en larmes

to dissolve into tears

s’éloigner d’un endroit

to move away from a place

s’emparer de quelqu’un / quelque chose

to get hold of, seize someone / something

s’en aller

to go away


to fall asleep


to flee


to be bored

s’enquérir de quelque chose

to enquire about something


to catch a cold

s’étonner de quelque chose

to be surprised at something

s’évader d’un endroit

to escape from a place


to faint

se fâcher

to get angry

se fatiguer

to get tired

se fermer

to close

se fier à quelqu’un / quelque chose

to trust someone / something

se figurer

to imagine


to get dressed; dress up

s’habituer à (+ noun / inf.)

to get used to


to imagine

s’intéresser à quelque chose

to be interested in something

se lever

to get up

se méfier de quelqu’un / quelque chose

to mistrust someone / something

se mêler; se mêler à (+ noun); se mêler de (+ noun)

to mix, mingle; to join in; to meddle in

se mettre à (+ inf.)

to begin to

se moquer de quelqu’un

to make fun of, laugh at someone

se noyer

to drown


to get darker

s’occuper de (+ noun / inf.)

to look after; to see to

se passer

to happen

se passer de quelqu’un / quelque chose

to do without someone, to go without something

se permettre quelque chose; se permettre de faire quelque chose

to afford something; to afford to do something, to take the liberty of doing something

se plaindre de quelque chose

to complain about something

se porter

to feel, be

se presser de (+ inf.)

to hurry

se promener

to go for a walk

se rappeler

to remember

se raviser

to change one’s mind

se réfugier

to take refuge

se rendre; se rendre à un endroit

to surrender; to go to a place

se repentir de (+ noun / past inf.)

to repent of, regret

se retourner

to turn around

se réveiller

to wake up

se sauver

to escape, run away

se sentir

to feel

se servir de (+ noun)

to use

se soucier de (+ noun / inf.)

to care about

se souvenir de (+ noun / past inf.)

to remember

se taire

to keep quiet

se tenir droit

to stand straight

se tromper

to be mistaken, wrong

se trouver

to be (found)

tant s’en faut; peu s’en faut

far from it; very nearly

2 Some of these lexicalised pronominal verbs only ever occur in the pronominal form, e.g. s’écrier (to exclaim). Others occur in both the non-pronominal and the pronominal form, each with a different meaning, e.g. décider de (to decide) and se décider à (to make up one’s mind). In this case, the pronominal form has a stronger force. The same distinction of force operates between refuser de and se refuser à and between résoudre de (to resolve, decide) and se résoudre à (to make up one’s mind).

You need to take particular care in cases such as those illustrated below, because the meaning of the pronominal form is different from that of the non-pronominal form, e.g. se rendre à (to go to), as opposed to rendre (to give back).

The particular meanings of s’en aller, se donner, se faire, se mettre, se prendre and se tenir have already been illustrated in Chapter 5, so they are not repeated here.


Pronominal form

apercevoir (to see, catch sight of)

s’apercevoir de (to notice, realise)

J’ai aperçu une lumière au loin.

(I saw a light in the distance.)

Je me suis aperçu de son trouble.

(I noticed her embarrassment.)

approcher de (to get near, approach unintentionally)

s’approcher de (to go up to, approach deliberately)

Elle approchait de la soixantaine.

(She was getting close to sixty.)

Il s’est approché d’elle pour lui parler.

(He went up to speak to her.)

attaquer (to attack; to tackle)

s’attaquer à (to attack; to tackle)

Je vais attaquer cette corvée ce soir.

(I will tackle this chore tonight.)

Je m’attaquerai à cette corvée ce soir.

(I will set about this chore tonight.)

The pronominal form has a stronger force.

comporter (to include)

se comporter (to behave)

Ce livre comporte une bibliographie.

(This book includes a bibliography.)

Cet enfant se comporte bien.

(This child behaves well.)

coucher (to sleep)

se coucher (to go to bed; to lie down)

Ils couchent à l’hôtel.

(They are sleeping at a hotel.)

Ils se couchent tôt.

(They go to bed early.)

J’ai couché chez ma tante hier.

(I slept at my aunt’s yesterday.)

Je me suis couchée à 9 heures.

(I went to bed at 9 o’clock.)

Ils couchent ensemble.

(They are sleeping together.)

Elle doit se coucher sur le dos.

(She has to lie on her back.)

débrouiller (to disentangle; to solve)

se débrouiller (to manage)

Il a fini par débrouiller le problème.

(He finally solved the problem.)

Elle s’est débrouillée toute seule.

(She managed all on her own.)

décider de + inf. (to decide)

se décider à + inf. (to make up one’s mind)

J’ai décidé de prendre un jour de congé.

(I’ve decided to take a day’s leave.)

Je me suis décidé à parler.

(I have made up my mind to speak.)

décider + noun (to decide on)

se décider pour + noun (to decide on / choose)

Le gouvernement a décidé une politique.

(The government has decided on a policy.)

Je me suis décidé pour la Ford.

(I have decided on / chosen the Ford.)

demander (to ask; to ask for)

se demander (to wonder)

J’ai demandé ce qu’il voulait.

(I asked what he wanted.)

Je me suis demandé ce qu’il voulait.

(I wondered what he wanted.)

dérouler (to unroll, unwind)

se dérouler (to take place; to go, proceed)

On a déroulé le tapis rouge.

(They rolled out the red carpet.)

La réunion s’est déroulée sans problème.

(The meeting went off without a hitch.)

douter de (to doubt)

se douter de (to suspect)

Je doutais de leur sincérité.

(I had doubts about their sincerity.)

Je ne me doutais de rien.

(I didn’t suspect anything.)

échapper à (to escape, avoid)

s’échapper de (to escape from, get out of)

Il a échappé à la mort.

(He escaped death.)

Il s’est échappé de prison.

(He escaped from / got out of prison.)

falloir: il faut (it is necessary; it takes)

tant s’en faut (far from it)

peu s’en faut (very nearly)

Il en faut pour qu’elle s’énerve.

(It takes a lot for her to get annoyed.)

Tant s’en faut!

(Far from it!)

Il faut un peu de patience.

(It takes a bit of patience.)

Il s’en est fallu de peu qu’il y arrive.

(He very nearly made it.)

fermer (to close) for a habitual action

se fermer (to close) for a specific action

Ce magasin ferme en août.

(This shop closes in August.)

Le magasin s’est fermé il y a une heure.

(The shop closed an hour ago.)

figurer (to appear)

se figurer (to imagine)

Ce détail ne figure pas dans le rapport.

(That detail does not appear in the report.)

Je me figure la tête qu’il a tirée!

(I can imagine the face he pulled!)

passer, v.t. (to pass; to spend time; to cross)

se passer (to happen, to go)

Je lui ai passé le vin.

(I passed him the wine.)

Tout s’est bien passé.

(Everything went well.)

J’ai passé huit jours à Madrid.

(I spent a week in Madrid.)

Ils ont déjà passé la frontière.

(They have already crossed the border.)

passer, v.i. (to go by)

se passer de (to go without)

Il est passé nous voir ce matin.

(He called by to see us this morning.)

Je me suis passé de sucre pour une fois.

(I went without sugar for once.)

permettre (to allow / permit something)

se permettre (to afford something)

On se reverra dès que les circonstances le permettront.

(We will meet again as soon as circumstances allow.)

Je ne peux pas me permettre ce luxe.

(I can’t afford this luxury.)

permettre à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose (to allow someone to do something)

se permettre de faire quelque chose (to venture to do something)

Je leur ai permis de rester

(I have allowed them to stay.)

Je me suis permis de leur dire la vérité.

(I ventured to tell them the truth.)

Je me permets de vous écrire au sujet de …

(I am writing to you about …)

plaindre (to pity)

se plaindre (to complain)

C’est elle que je plains.

(She’s the one I pity.)

Je vais me plaindre d’elle.

(I’m going to complain about her.)

porter (to carry)

se porter (to feel, be)

Sa voix porte bien.

(Her voice carries well.)

Sa mère se porte bien.

(Her mother is / is feeling well.)

refuser de (to refuse)

se refuser à (to refuse)

Il refuse d’accepter cette solution.

(He refuses to accept this solution.)

Il se refuse à accepter cette solution.

(He refuses to accept this solution.) The pronominal form has a stronger force.

rendre (to give back; to hand in)

se rendre (to surrender; to go to)

Je leur ai rendu la clef.

(I gave the key back to them.)

Cette armée ne se rendra jamais.

(This army will never surrender.)

J’ai rendu mes devoirs au professeur.

(I handed in my homework to the teacher.)

Je me rends à Londres en avion.

(I go to London by plane.)

rendre + adj. (to make)

se rendre + adj. (to make oneself)

Ces moules m’ont rendu malade.

(Those mussels made me ill.)

Il s’est rendu malade en se gavant.

(He made himself ill by stuffing himself.)

BE AWARE! You must never use faire in place of rendre in such contexts.

rendre compte de (to give an account of)

se rendre compte de (to realise)

Je dois rendre compte de nos délibérations.

(I have to give an account of our deliberations.)

Je me suis rendu compte de mon erreur.

(I realised my mistake.)

résoudre de (to resolve, decide)

se résoudre à (to make up one’s mind)

Il a résolu d’attendre.

(He decided to wait.)

Il s’est résolu à attendre.

(He made up his mind to wait.)

The pronominal form has a stronger force.

sauver (to save)

se sauver (to escape, run away)

Il a sauvé la vie à cet enfant.

(He saved this child’s life.)

Il s’est sauvé à toute vitesse.

(He rushed away.)

sentir (to feel; to smell)

se sentir + adj. / adv. (to feel)

Je sens leur impatience.

(I can feel their impatience.)

Je me sens fatiguée.

(I feel tired.)

Je sens une odeur de brûlé.

(I can smell burning.)

Il se sent mieux ce matin.

(He feels better this morning.)

Ça sent bon!

(That smells good!)

The meaning of the nonpronominal form, sentir + adj., is ‘to smell’.

If you want to say ‘to feel’ + adj. / adv., use the pronominal verb se sentir.

Elle s’est mis du parfum et elle sent bon.

(She has put on some perfume and she smells nice.)

Elle a mal à la tête et ne se sent pas bien.

(She has a headache and doesn’t feel well.)

servir de (to serve as)

se servir de (to use)

Cette phrase servira d’exemple.

(This sentence will serve as an example.)

Je me sers d’un stylo à encre pour écrire.

(I use a fountain pen to write.)

tromper (to deceive; be unfaithful to)

se tromper dans / sur / de (to be mistaken)

Ils ont trompé l’ennemi.

(They deceived the enemy.)

Il s’est trompé dans son choix.

(He was mistaken in his choice.)

Elle trompe son mari.

(She is cheating on her husband.)

Je me suis trompé sur lui.

(I made a mistake about him.)

Elle s’est trompée de numéro.

(She got the wrong number.)

3 The pronominal verb se faire has already appeared in Chapter 5. Mention should also be made of se laisser. When followed by an infinitive, both se faire and se laisser are known as ‘causative expressions’, because they express the notion that the subject to some extent causes something to happen to them. This may not always be an entirely deliberate intention, as in the following examples.

Il s’est fait écraser.

(He got himself run over.)

Il s’est laissé avoir.

(He let himself be duped.)

There are some useful idiomatic expressions with se laisser to add to your vocabulary.

Elle se laisse aller au désespoir.

(She is giving in to despair.)

Il s’est laissé aller depuis la mort de sa femme.

(He has let himself go since his wife’s death.)

On abuse de toi parce que tu te laisses faire.

(People take advantage of you because you are too easy-going.)

Tu ne devrais pas te laisser faire.

(You shouldn’t let yourself be pushed around.)

Il s’est laissé convaincre par le vendeur d’acheter le dernier modèle de voiture.

(He let himself be persuaded by the salesman to buy the latest model of car.)

Il s’est laissé pousser les cheveux.

(He let his hair grow.)

In the last example, the direct object is a part of the body. A definite article is used here in French in contrast to the use of a possessive adjective in English. The same applies with se faire and indeed with all reflexive verbs, as the following examples will show.

Je me suis fait couper les cheveux.

(I had / got my hair cut.)

Il s’est fait raser la tête.

(He had his head shaved.)

Je me suis lavé les cheveux.

(I washed my hair.)