Pronominal verbs as intransitive - 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 as intransitive

1 In many cases, the distinction between the pronominal form of a verb and the non-pronominal form is grammatical, rather than lexical, as illustrated below. The pronominal form, for example, s’arrêter is intransitive (has no direct object), whereas the non-pronominal form arrêter is transitive and does have a direct object.

Transitive verb (non-pronominal)

Intransitive verb (pronominal)

Il a amélioré son français.

(He has improved his French.)

Son français s’est amélioré.

(His French has improved.)

J’ai arrêté la voiture.

(I stopped the car.)

La voiture s’est arrêtée.

(The car stopped.)

J’ai brisé le vase.

(I broke the vase.)

Le vase s’est brisé en miettes.

(The vase broke into pieces.)

Il concentre ses efforts là-dessus.

(He is concentrating his efforts on that.)

Il se concentre sur le problème.

(He is concentrating on the problem.)

Il a étonné son fils.

(He surprised his son.)

Son fils s’est étonné.

(His son was surprised.)

Elle a habillé son enfant en berger.

(She dressed her child as a shepherd.)

Elle s’est habillée pour la soirée.

(She got dressed up for the party.)

J’ai séparé les enfants.

(I have separated the children.)

Les enfants se sont séparés.

(The children separated.)

J’ai tourné la page.

(I turned the page.)

Je me suis tournée vers lui.

(I turned to him.)

Note that it is impossible to say, for example, *J’ai tourné vers lui for ‘I turned to him’. You must use the pronominal verb Je me suis tournée vers lui. Contrast this with: J’ai tourné les yeux vers lui (I turned my eyes / I looked towards him).

2 There are many verbs that follow this pattern. One particular group of -ir verbs is highlighted here, because they will help to make your French more idiomatic. It is, for example, preferable to use s’enrichir (to become richer) rather than the literal rendering, devenir plus riche.

Transitive verb (non-pronominal)

Intransitive verb (pronominal)

Cette maladie affaiblit mes forces.

(This illness is sapping my strength.)

L’euro s’affaiblit face à la livre.

(The euro is getting weaker against the pound.)

Ces conquêtes ont agrandi l’Empire.

(These conquests extended the Empire.)

Cette ville s’est beaucoup agrandie récemment.

(This town has got a lot bigger recently.)

Les frais de scolarité les appauvrissent.

(Tuition fees are impoverishing them.)

Au fil des années ils s’appauvrissent.

(As the years go by, they are getting poorer.)

Son mariage l’a enrichi.

(His marriage made him richer.)

Votre vocabulaire s’est bien enrichi.

(Your vocabulary has become much richer.)

Il devrait éclaircir ce point.

(He ought to clarify this point.)

Le ciel va bientôt s’éclaircir.

(The sky will soon clear / get lighter.)

Ces arbres obscurcissaient la maison.

(Those trees were making the house dark.)

Peu à peu le ciel s’obscurcissait.

(Gradually the sky was getting darker.)

Elle élargit son vocabulaire.

(She is widening her vocabulary.)

Les différences entre eux s’élargissent.

(The differences between them are widening.)

Il raccourcit son texte de quelques lignes.

(He is shortening his text by a few lines.)

Les jours se raccourcissent en automne.

(The days get shorter in autumn.)

In all these cases, the pronominal verb is intransitive and the non-pronominal is transitive.

3 There are usually some exceptions to any general rule and it is worth noting reculer and terminer, whose ordinary form may be used both transitively and intransitively and is interchangeable with the pronominal form in intransitive constructions.

Transitive / intransitive verb (non-pronominal)

Intransitive verb (pronominal)

J’ai reculé la pendule d’une heure.


(I put the clock back an hour.)

No equivalent

J’ai reculé de quelques mètres.


(I moved back a few metres.)

Je me suis reculé de quelques mètres.

(I moved back a few metres.)

J’ai terminé ma dissertation.


(I have finished my essay.)

No equivalent

La séance termine à minuit.


(The show ends at midnight.)

La séance se termine à minuit.

(The show ends at midnight.)