How To Use Idiomatic French Pronominal Verbs

French verbs are notoriously the biggest barrier to speaking French fluently.  Pronominal verbs are a class of verbs that are conjugated with a pronoun like me, te, se, nous or vous in front of the verb.

The most common form of the pronominal verb is the reflexive verb that I’m sure all readers here are familiar with. Typical verbs are: se laver, se coucher, s’endormir, se lever and se réveiller.

There are other kinds of pronominal verbs, however, including a class of verbs that is often called simply “idiomatic” pronominal verbs because the pronoun seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. These verbs have a pronominal form but should not be seen as actually made up of two distinct words.

For example the verb s’en aller means to go away but cannot be analyzed in terms of s’en and aller. The two words make up a single unit.  A similar form  s’en venir (to arrive) is very common in Québec but rare in France. To remember is se souvenir. Again here, there are two words but they cannot be seen as separate in terms of meaning.

Some of these verbs exist only in the pronominal form. For example, s’évanouir (to faint) doesn’t have a separate verb évanouir. Others, however, can have non-pronominal relatives, but their respective meanings are very different:

For example féliciter is to congratulate, as in:
Le directeur a félicité l’employé pour la qualité de son travail. (The director congratulated the employee on the quality of her work.)

However, se féliciter usually means “to express satisfaction” as in:

Le syndicat s’est félicité de la décision du gouvernement. (The trade union expressed its satisfaction with the decision of the government.)

Rendre compte is to give an account, but se rendre compte is “to realize” or “become aware of,” as in:

Je me suis rendu compte que tout le monde était déjà parti. (I realized that everyone had left.)

As you can well appreciate, it is not always easy to use these idiomatic pronominal verbs because there may be situations where they may be used in a non-idiomatic fashion. This leaves considerable room for all kinds of  subtle distinctions and word play.  Here some examples of common idiomatic pronominal verbs (remember that the past auxiliary is always être.):

se contenter de: Ils se contentent d’un petit salaire. (They’re happy with a small salary.)
se souvenir de: Je me souviens très bien de vous.(I remember you well.)
s’évanouir: Le patient s’est évanoui dans la salle. (The patient fainted in the room.)
se rendre: Je me rends à Paris la semaine prochaine. (I’m going to Paris next week.)
s’apercevoir que : Je me suis aperçu que j’avais oublié mes clés à la maison. (I realized that I had forgotten my keys at home.)
s’en aller: Viens, on s’en va. (Come, let’s go.)
s’en venir: Attendez-moi, je m’en viens. (Wait for me, I’m coming.)
s’ennuyer: Avec lui on ne s’ennuira jamais. (You’ll never get bored with him.)
se passer de: Elle ne pourra jamais se passer de son chien. (She’ll never be able to do without her dog.)
se moquer de: Tout le monde s’est moqué de moi.(Everybody made fun of me.)
se douter de: C’était une surprise; elle ne se doutait de rien. (It was a complete surprise; she didn’t suspect a thing.)
s’amuser: On s’est amusés comme des fous. (We enjoyed ourselves totally.)
se tromper: Je crois que vous vous êtes trompé de numéro de téléphone. (I think you have the wrong number.)
s’attendre à: On s’attend au pire. (We’re expecting the worst.)
se comporter: Il doit apprendre à se comporter comme il faut. (He has to learn how to behave properly.)

Although there may be room for some disagreement, we see that the pronominal verb form here is not reflexive and has no special significance. You have to accept the fact that this is how these kinds of verbs are used.  As I have said many times, if you want to speak French both fluently and accurately, you just have to pay special attention to these details.

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Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Language Wall Chart Calendar that is based on his own learning experience. Reach him at

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