Pronominals (Reflexives)

No External Agent

In truth, use of the reflexive pronouns isn't limited to the reflexive meaning described on the previous page (an entity doing something to itself). Often use of the reflexive pronouns is better interpreted as denoting the absence of an external agent in the action of the verb. Let's take as an example an emotional verb, a verb of the mind - facher.

Adrien se fâche quand...
Adrien becomes angry when...

does not mean that Adrien makes himself angry when the power goes out. Rather, this sentence merely is communicating that he becomes angry. There is no external agent, at least not one that is mentioned, that causes him to become angry. You could mention an external agent if you wanted to...

Le comportement de Luc fâche Adrien.
The behavoir of Luc angers Adrien.

From now on I'm going to call the verbs that use reflexive pronouns pronominals. Reflexives are a subset of the pronominals.

Mind Verbs

Verbs of the mind (to feel, to anger, to remember) are naturally reflexive. They are an internal process, rarely caused by an external agent. In fact, they usually aren't even controlled or caused by the person who is experiencing them. It would be really nice if we could control our memories (se souvenir) or our emotions (se sentir).

se fâcher to become angry
s'intéresser à to be interested in
se sentir to feel
se souvenir de  to remember
se tromper to be mistaken

Il ne se souvient pas de cette nuit.
He does not remember that night.

Nous nous sentons triste à cause de la guerre.
We feel sad because of the war.

Of course, not all mental verbs are reflexive.

Il croit à la valeur et au pouvoir de l'amour et de la compassion.
He believes in the value and power of love and compassion.

Tu penses que nous pouvons sortir de ce casse-tête?
Do you think we can get out of this problem.

The case of se marier

Ce soir, Louis and moi nous nous marions en cachette.
Tonight Louis and I will get married in secret.

Does that mean that Loise and I will marry ourselves? No! In France only a priest or mayor can perform the marrying. The pronominal se marier is a way of talking about marriage without continually having to mention the external agent involved in the marrying, the priest or the maire.

Le maire nous a mariés dans la mairie.
The mayor married us in the courthouse.

Se Fermer

La porte s'est fermée.
The door closed.

Actually this sentence can be interpreted in several different ways. In our age of technological wonder, it could be that the door actually closed itself. It could be, though, that it was closed by an external agent that isn't mentioned. Perhaps the speaker of the sentence found mentioning the perpetrator unnecessary. The context might clue us in to the responsible party.

Le vent soufflait terriblement fort. La porte s'est fermée avec bruit.
The wind blew tremendously. The door shut loudly.

J'ai entendu des pas sur le trottoir. Ensuite, la porte s'est fermée.
I heard steps on the sidewalk. Then, the door closed.

Illogical Pronominals
Sometimes it is difficult to see the logic behind a verb's being a pronominal. Sometimes if you search hard you can find logic, sometimes you can't. For example plaindre means to feel sorry for someone...

Je plains les réfugiés
I feel sorry for the refugees.

but se plaindre means to complain.

Ils se plaignent de leur salaire.
They complain about their salary.

What's the logic behind that? Actually, you can argue that if you complain, in a way you are feeling sorry for yourself when it comes to some matter. Otherwise why complain?

Actually, native speakers of French normally don't concern themselves with the logic of pronominal. Often they think of the pronominal and non-pronominal forms as being two completely different verbs.

See pronominals, in the Verb & Object guide, for examples of pronominals and non-pronominal verbs.

Truly Passive
The pronominal is sometimes used to create a passive sentence. The following sentences are clearly passive; There aren't any other interpretations.

Les pommes de terre se cuisent à la vapeur.
Potatoes are cooked by steam.

Les glaces se vendent mieux l'été que l'hiver.
Ice cream sells better during summer than winter.

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