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Les verbes pronominaux, tell me more… Part II

When using reflexive verbs, what about 'agreement'?

As we learn French, let's remember our simple goal: to communicate!

That said, however, we get a lot of enquiries about some French language 'technicalities'. One of those technicalities is 'agreement'. Let's take a closer look…

Pour les verbes essentiellement pronominaux

We said in our last post that these verbs are always used with a reflexive pronoun, for example:

  • Elle se moque de Philippe. (verbe se moquer (de))
    = She makes fun of Philippe.
  • Je me préoccupe de ma mère. (verbe se préoccuper (de))
    = I am worried about my mother./I am preoccupied with my mother.

When using les verbes essentiellement pronominaux in the passé composé, their past participle agrees with the subject of the sentence. Let's take two additional examples:

  • Les oiseaux (sujet) se sont envolés brusquement. (verbe s'envoler)
    = The birds flew away quickly.
  • Les enfants (sujet) se sont longtemps souvenus de leurs vacances chez l'oncle Jules. (verbe se souvenir (de))
    = The children remembered their holidays at their uncle Jules' for a long time.
  • En entendant cette nouvelle, sa femme s'est évanouie. (verbe s'évanouir)
    On hearing this news, his wife fainted.

So, to summarise: pour les verbes essentiellement pronominaux –> the past participle agrees with the subject.

Pour les verbes occasionnellement pronominaux

We said in our previous post that these verbs are occasionally used with a reflexive pronoun. Consider the following examples closely:

  1. Elle s'est couchée de bonne heure. (verbe se coucher)
    = She went to bed early.
  2. Marie et Hélène se sont promenées en forêt. (verbe se promener)
    = Marie and Hélène went for a walk in the forest.

When these 'occasionally reflexive' verbs are used in compound tenses (passé composé, plus-que-parfait), the past participle agrees with the direct object when it is placed before the verb. In sentence (1) above, the direct object pronoun se comes before the auxiliary verb (est) and refers to Elle, so there is a feminine singular agreement of the past participle couchée.

In sentence (2), the direct object pronoun se again comes before the auxiliary verb (sont) and refers to Marie et Hélène: consequently, there is a feminine plural agreement of the past participle promenées. Phew!…

Now consider those two verbs used transitively, where the direct object comes after the verb:

  1. Elle a couché les enfants à 7 heures du soir. (verbe coucher)
    = She put the children to bed at 7 p.m.
  2. Elle a promené son chien. (verbe promener)
    = She walked her dog.

This time, there is no agreement as the direct object (called the complément d'objet direct (COD)) comes after the verb. The objects of the verb are les enfants and son chien, respectively, in sentences (1) and (2) and in both cases they come after the verb.


Some additional examples…

Consider the following sentences. Can you see why in some situations we do have agreement of the past participle while in other cases we do not?

  1. Elle s'est acheté une nouvelle robe.
    = She bought herself a new dress. (COD = la robe)
  2. "Quand je me suis vue à la télé, je n'y croyais pas!" a dit Isabelle.
    = "When I saw myself on TV, I couldn't believe it!" said Isabelle (COD = me)
  3. Hélène et Marianne se sont parfaitement comprises.
    = Hélène and Marianne understood each other perfectly. (COD = se)
  4. Les deux joueurs se sont adressé des compliments.
    = The two players complimented each other. (COD = des compliments)
  5. Ils se sont donné rendez-vous.
    = They arranged to meet. (COD = rendez-vous)

In sentences 1, 4 and 5, the direct object (COD) comes after the verb and so there is no agreement of the past participle.

On the other hand, in examples 2 and 3, the direct object (COD) comes before the verb: the past participle does agree.


Let's finish by saying that the rules above sometimes pose difficulties even for native French speakers. But don't let these few rules prevent you from expressing yourself and communicating your thoughts confidently en français. On the other hand, if you are a person who likes to get into the details, then the information above is for you. À très bientôt!

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