Some Pronominal Verbs of Note
Many Are Strange; All Are Useful
This file focuses on select pronominal verbs that may raise issues of interpretation when you encounter them, or that it may be useful to get under your belt before you encounter them. If you can get all or a good number of these into your permanent word-hoard, you will be that much advanced. The discussions I offer will (I hope) help you to remember these verbs, as well as provide you with models for deciphering other similarly problematic pronominal verbs.
The main Language file on this site dealing with these verbs is: The Four Meanings of Pronominal Verbs. For a quick initial view (including conjugation of the present indicative) of pronominal verbs see Tex’s French Grammar. For the complete conjugation of a pronominal verb, see se parler. See also these Language topics: Imperative of Pronominal Verbs, Pronominal Verbs and Agreement of Past Participles.
In Part I I discuss some terminological issues. You can bypass this part if you are eager to learn about a particular verb.
Table of Contents
- I. Terminology
- II. Individual Verbs
- s’abstenir (de)
- s’agir (de)
- s’en aller (de)
- s’apercevoir (de)
- s’approcher (de)
- s’attaquer (à)
- s’attendre (à)
- se battre
- se confronter (à)
- s’y connaître (en)
- se douter (de)
- s’échapper (de)
- s’efforcer (de)
- s’emparer (de)
- s’entendre bien (avec)
- s’évader (de)
- s’évertuer (à)
- se fier (à)
- se joindre (à)
- se méfier (de)
- se mettre (à)
- se moquer (de)
- se passer, se passer (de)
- s’en prendre (à)
- se promener
- se réjouir (de)
- se rendre
- se rendre compte (de)
- se succéder
- se souvenir (de)
Essentially Pronominal Verbs
Most verbs capable of having an object of whatever kind (direct or indirect) can be made pronominal by adjoining a reflexive pronoun.
|Elle le voit.
(She sees him.)
|Elle se voit.
(She sees herself.)
|Nous leur téléphonons.
(We telephone [to] them.)
|Nous nous téléphonons.
(We telephone [to] outselves/each other.)
It follows that most verbs that can be used pronominally can and do also appear in simple (non-pronominal) form.
A few verbs, however, appear only (in modern French at least) in pronominal form, never (or almost never) in simple form, and they are called “essentially” (meaning, “exclusively”) pronominal. Verbs of this type discussed below are: s’abstenir (de), s’écrier, s’écrouler, s’efforcer, s’emparer (de), s’évader (de), s’évanouir, s’évertuer, se méfier (de), se moquer (de). To which can be added, as all-but-essentially pronominal: s’avérer, se fier (à), se souvenir (de). (For a much longer list of essentially pronominal verbs, see here.)
A number of these verbs, though not all of them, are also “subjective” pronominal verbs, for which see the next paragraph.
Subjective Pronominal Verbs
For a number of pronominal verbs the reflexive pronoun does not seem to be functioning as an object of either kind, direct or indirect. Rather, it serves to underline the interior character or origin or the volitional (personal, intentional) aspect of the action indicated by the verb. The contrast in meaning between such a subjective pronominal verb and the “simple” form of the same verb (if such exists) may be clear and considerable:
|se douter (to suspect)||douter (to doubt)|
…or subtle to the point of invisibility:
|s’approcher de (to come closer to)||approcher de (to come closer to)|
Though it is not really a direct object (or an indirect object either), the reflexive pronoun in such verbs is treated, for purposes of participial agreement, as if it were a direct object:
La petite fille s’est moquéE de son amie. (The little girl made fun of her friend.)
For more on this last point, see the Language topic Pronominal Verbs and Participial Agreement.
Subjective pronominal verbs discussed below include: s’abstenir (de), s’en aller (de), s’apercevoir (de), s’attaquer (à), s’attendre (à), s’y connaître (en), se douter (de), s’échapper (de), s’écrier, s’écrouler, s’emparer (de), s’évader (de), s’évanouir, s’évertuer, se moquer (de), se passer (de), se souvenir (de).
For a brief overview of verbs of this type see the Language topic Subjective or Idiomatic Pronominal Verbs.
II. Individual Verbs
An “essentially” pronominal verb, meaning it appears only with a reflexive pronoun. It is simultaneously a “subjective” pronominal verb, meaning that the reflexive pronoun does not have a genuine syntactical or lexical function, but rather serves to highlight the personal and volitional character of the action.
- Je vais m’abstenir de toute boisson alcoolisé. (I am going to abstain from any alcoholic drink.)
- Pour améliorer l’état de vos poumons, il faudra vous abstenir de fumer. (To improve the state of your lungs, you will have to abstain from smoking.)
The pronominal form of this verb presents a problem only in that, in English, we frequently dispense with the reflexive pronoun.
- Je vais m’acheter une glace à la fraise. (I am going to buy [me] a strawberry ice cream [bowl or cone].)
- Pour se changer les idées, elle s’acheta une luxueuse robe du soir. (To take her mind off her troubles, she bought [herself] a luxurious evening gown.)
The French seem to consider the reflexive pronoun called for, when the thing purchased is for the buyer’s exclusively personal (and especial bodily) use. In contrast, when the thing purchased is not for one’s more or less immediate enjoyment, French prefers the simple form of the verb:
- Ce matin-là, Georges acheta cent actions Boeing, affaire dont il était très content. (That morning Georges bought 100 shares of Boeing, a transaction with which he was very pleased.)
Il s’agit de is always impersonal, that is, always 3rd-person singular and with the “fake” subject il that does NOT stand for anything. Here are guides for translating:
How to Translate Il s’agit de + NOUN
Do not ever treat the il of il s’agit de as if it were a real subject. Always begin translating il s’agit de + NOM as “it is a matter of.”
French: Dans ces chapitres, il s’agit des religions de l’antiquité.
→ First English version: “In these chapters, it is a matter of the religions of antiquity.”
→ Second English version only: “These chapters deal with the religions of antiquity.”
How to Translate Il s’agit de + INFINITIVE
Usually this construction refers to a course of action called for immediately in the given circumstances. You may, if you like, initially translate with “it is a matter of,” but you definitely shouldn’t stay with that formulation.
- « Il a cessé de respirer. —Il s’agit de le réanimer! »
(“He’s stopped breathing.” “Quick! We’ve got to give him C.P.R.!”)
- « Quelqu’un est en train d’enfoncer la porte! —Il s’agit d’appeler la police! »
(“Someone is breaking down the door!” “You’d better call the police pronto!”)
Ordinary non-pronominal French agir means “to act.” How did il s’agit de come to mean what it does?
French il s’agit de and Latin agitur de
The base meaning of Classical Latin ago agĕre was “to drive (something) forward” (as you might do with cattle), and metaphorically “to conduct OR pursue” an affair. In the passive, and in a juridical context, Res agitur de… meant “The matter is (right now) being pursued regarding…” This construction was adopted by French, pronominal s’agit standing in for passive agitur.
s’en aller (de)
= “Go off, go away, leave.” A notable (perhaps the most notable) case of a “subjective” pronominal verb: for how can an intransitive verb like aller have a personal pronoun as a direct object?
In spite of its weirdness, pronominal s’en aller is much used in colloquial French.
- Il faut que je m’en aille. (I gotta go.)
- Allez-vous-en! Va-t’en! (Scram!)
- Si tu ne veux pas de moi, je m’en vais. (If you don’t want me around, I’m leaving.)
Whereas ordinary apercevoir means “catch sight of, glimpse,” s’apercevoir (de, que) means “realize = become aware of,” similarly to se rendre compte (de) (for which, see below).
- Elle marcha sur le pied de son partenaire sans s’en apercevoir. (She walked on her partner’s foot without realizing it.)
- Alors je me suis aperçu(e) de ma méprise. (At that point I became aware of my mistake.)
For verbs conjugated like apercevoir, see the Language topic Devoir/Concevoir Type Irregular Verbs.
The verbs approcher, approcher de, and s’approcher de overlap in a very confusing way, on a par with the muddle formed by English “to wake,” “to waken,” “to awake,” and “to awaken.”
1. Approcher = “to bring (a thing) closer.” A basic meaning of simple approcher followed by a direct object is “to bring” (that object) “closer,” either to oneself or to something else.
- Il a approché la lampe. (He brought the lamp closer [to himself].)
- Il a approché sa chaise. (He brought his chair closer [to something else].)
- Il a approché sa chaise de la fenêtre. (He brought his chair closer to the window.)
2. Approcher = “to approach.” Howevrer, approcher, with or without a direct object, can, it seems, mean the same as our “to approach = to come closer (to).” With approcher + A PERSON, the nuance may be: “to gain access to” (so as to be able to communicate with).
- Approcher used absolutely. 1
- Approche, ma fille! (Come closer, my daugher!)
- La nuit approche. (Night is approaching.)
- Approcher (a person).
- Estelle est sans vergogne. Chaque fois qu’elle voit une vedette du cinéma, elle tente de l’approcher. (Estelle is shameless. Every time she sees a movie star, she tries to make contact with hurrim.)
3. Approcher de = “to come close(r) to.” Seems to be the absolute use referred to above, 2 together with adverbial use of de… to mean “[come close(r)] with regard to…”
- Julien me parlait alors que l’avions approchait de l’île. (Julian was talking to me as the plane was nearing the island.)
- Nous approchons de la Toussaint. (We are getting close to All Saints’ Day.)
- Nous approchons du but. (We’re getting close to the goal.)
- L’œuvre de cet artiste approche de la sévérité de son maître. (This artist’s work comes close to the severity of his teacher.)
4. S’approcher de = “to come close(r) to.” Beginning with the meaning of approcher = “to bring (something) closer,” the original meaning of the reflexive s’approcher would have been “to bring oneself closer.” In current usage s’approcher (de) overlaps a good deal with both (2) Approcher and (3) Approcher de. Perhaps occasionally the reflexive pronoun adds the subjective note of “originating within” or “consciously intended.”
- Approche-toi, soldat. (Come here, private.)
(Here, S’approcher = Approcher (2).)
- Des pas s’approchaient. (Footsteps were approaching.)
- La nuit s’approche. (Night is getting closer.)
- L’avion s’approchait de la côte. (The plane was approaching the coast.)
- Je m’approchai du lit du mourant. (I approached the dying man’s bed.)
- Vous risquez de vous faire tuer si vous vous approchez de l’appareil. (You may get yourself killed if you come close to the apparatus.)
- Cette version des faits s’approche de la réalité. (This version of the facts comes close to the truth.)
- On s’approche du but. 3 (We are getting close to the goal.)
How does s’attaquer à differ from simple attaquer? It can mean “to tackle,” that is, to begin an effort to deal with something:
- Aujourd’hui, nous nous occupons des entrées. Demain nous nous attaquerons aux sorties. (Today we are taking care of the entrances. Tomorrow we will tackle the exits.)
- Il importe à toute nation de s’attaquer au problème de la pollution atmosphérique sans tarder. (It is important for every nation to tackle the problem of air pollution without delay.)
The presence of the reflexive pronoun provides a slightly greater emphasis on the intentionality of the attacking party. Sometimes the idea is close to “to target.”
- Le politicien s’est attaqué aux mœurs de ses adversaires. (The politician went after the morals of his adversaries.)
- Foncièrement lâche, le Lion peureux s’attaquait surtout aux plus faibles. (Being fundamentally cowardly, the Cowardly Lion targeted above all the weakest.)
Nonetheless, in most cases (certainly in the ones above), “to attack” will do as a translation of s’attaquer à.
Ordinary, transitive attendre means, most of the time, “to wait for, await.”
- Une vingtaine de personnes attendaient le bus. (About twenty people were waiting for the bus.)
- Nous attendons que quelqu’un nous fasse signe de partir. (We’re waiting for somebody to tell us to leave.)
In cases when you are waiting, and intending, for someone to perform a certain way, simple attendre can be Englished as “to expect”:
- Ce qu’on attend de vous, c’est que vous veniez nombreux. (What we are expecting from you is that you [should] come in great numbers.)
- On ne peut rien attendre d’un tel homme. (You can’t expect anything from such a man.)
There is also: attendre un bébé = “to expect a baby.”
Otherwise, “to expect” corresponds to French s’attendre à:
- Je ne m’y attendais pas; je m’attendais à tout, sauf cela. (I wasn’t expecting that; I was expecting everything except that.)
- Je ne m’attendais pas à l’Inquisition espagnole! (I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition!)
- Le déluge est venu au moment où l’on s’y attendait le moins. (The deluge came just when people were the least expecting it.)
- Dans ce domaine, il faut s’attendre à rencontrer des obstacles. (In this domain, one must expect to encounter obstacles.)
- Nous nous attendions à ce que Georges nous reçoive avec sa politesse habituelle. (We were expecting for George to receive us with his usual politeness.)
This verb is rarely used in plain form, avérer, with the meaning of our English “to aver”; most often French uses other verbs for that purpose (e.g., affirmer, déclarer). Starting from an original reflexive meaning “to affirm/state/allege oneself” to a passive one “to be affirmed, etc.”, at length s’avérer became a kind of copulative verb, with the meaning “to turn out to be, to prove to be.”
- À la grande surprise de ses proches, Jacques s’est avéré un excellent comédien. (To the great surprise of those close to him, Jacques turned out to be an excellent actor.)
- Cette solution s’avère très coûteuse. (This solution proves [is proving] to be very costly.)
Battre covers pretty much the same semantic ground as English “to beat”: to strike repeatedly; to pulsate (heart, wings); to defeat an adversary. Se battre may have started out as a reciprocal verb meaning “”to strike each other” and consequently “to fight each other,” as here:
- Les deux hommes se sont longuement battus. (The two men fought each other a long time.)
Eventually, however, the verb began being used even in the singular with the meaning “to fight”:
- C’est au nom de toutes ces personnes que je me bats aujourd’hui. (It is in the name of all these persons that I am fighting today.)
- Jonathan était obligé de se battre pour survivre. (Jonathan was obliged to fight in order to survive.) Nous étions obligés de nous battre pour survivre. (We were obliged to fight in order to survive.)
- Nos braves soldats se battent un peu partout contre l’ennemi. (Our brave soldiers are fighting all over the world against the enemy.)
Se battre (avec, pour, contre) has thus become synonymous with combattre (also lutter [avec, contre]).
se confronter (à)
Confronter means to place two things so they are facing each other (the noun le front means “brow, forehead,” hence the verb means “to put two things face to face”). Figuratively it can mean “to compare”:
- Il s’agit de confronter l’inculpé et son accusateur. 4 (What we’ve got to do [literally: “It is a matter of”] is to bring the accused party face-to-face with hizzer accuser.)
- Nous allons confronter les dires de cet homme avec (à) ses faits. (We are going to compare this man’s statements with his deeds.)
For the French equivalent of “to confront (somebody or something)” you have to use the pronominal form of the verb:
- Cette compétition nous permet de nous confronter à des opposants de marque. (This competition allows us to confront 5 worthy challengers.)
- Dans l’escalade, on se confronte aux dures exigences de l’univers matériel. (In rock-climbing, one confronts 6 the harsh demands of the material universe.)
French has another verb, affronter, with much the same meaning as se confronter à:
- Les Jets vont affronter les Sharks ce soir. (The Jets are going to face off with the Sharks tonight.)
s’y connaître (en)
Whereas connaître means “to know through experience,” s’y connaître means “to know a lot about,” to be capable of making good practical decisions in a certain domain. The y is frozen into the expression, and is odd in that it seems to represent the same thing as the prepositional phrase en… .
- « Vraiment, vous vous y connaissez en enfants. » (You really know a lot about children.) –Une Visite médicale
- Roger s’y connaît en informatique. (Roger knows a lot about IT.)
se douter (de)
Douter means “to doubt,” but se douter means “to suspect.”
- Vous pourrez procéder tranquillement; votre mari ne se doute de rien. (You can go ahead tranquilly as planned; your husband doesn’t suspect anything.)
- Je m’en doutais! (I thought so!) Je ne m’en doutais pas. (I had no idea.)
- Il ne se doute pas que nous allons le trahir. (He doesn’t suspect that we are going to betray him.)
The ordinary verb douter means pretty much the same as the English, although when used with a following noun the preposition de intervenes:
- Je ne doute pas de votre bonne foi. (I don’t doubt your sincerity.) Je n’en doute pas. (I don’t doubt it = I have no doubt about it = I am quite certain of it.)
- On peut douter de l’efficacité de ces méthodes. (One can doubt the efficacity of these methods.)
Only an entire clause can serve as a direct object to douter:
- Je doute que Jacques soit au courant. (I doubt that Jacques is in the loop.)
How Did This Verb Come to Mean Its Opposite?
Well, I don’t really know. The Classical Latin verb meant “to hesitate, to waver,” and thus “to be uncertain about whether something is the case or not” (pretty much the same as French douter and English “to doubt”). However, there was a shift in the Middle Ages, and the Latin word, along with its French and Italian reflexes, 7 took on the meaning “to fear.” (See entry in Du Cange’s Glossarium.) I suppose the (unconscious) reasoning may have been: if you are uncertain about something (such as, in the case of a wild animal, if it is going to attack you or not), then you fear it. (The idea of “to fear” is still contained in the derivative words redouter, redoutable [cf. English “redoubtable”].)
In Old French both douter and redouter were sometimes used (with meaning “to fear”) in pronominal form.
And how do we get from “to fear” to “to suspect”? Well (again, I am surmising), if you fear something, you suspect that it may happen…
The non-pronominal verb échapper (à) means “to get away from what has caught you or is holding you (or is trying to do those things),” hence “to escape”; also “elude, evade; avoid; get OR come loose from.”
- Le suspect a échappé aux policiers. (The suspect got away from the police.)
- S’il le faut, je… je… je… Diantre! le mot m’échappe. (If necessary I’ll… I’ll… I’ll… Hang it! The word escapes me.)
- Il avait l’impression qu’un élément essentiel lui échappait. (He had the impression that an essential element was eluding him.)
- Il y a certains méfaits qui échappent à l’emprise de la juriprudence. (There are some misdeeds that escape the control of jurisprudence.)
- Vous ne sauriez échapper à une punition tant méritée! (You couldn’t possibly avoid so just a punishment!)
- La bouteille échappa à ses mains et se cassa au plancher. (The bottle slipped from his hands and shattered on the floor.)
The pronominal s’échapper de covers some of the same ground, but seems more specifically to imply escaping from a container.
- « Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé » (“A Man on Death Row Has Escaped”) –title of a 1956 film by Robert Bresson
- Seuls quelques mots s’échappaient de sa bouche. (Only a few words escaped from his mouth.)
- Pour pouvoir vous rejoindre, je vais tenter de m’échapper de la réunion à 3H. (To be able to meet up with you, I’m going to try to get away from the meeting at 3 o’clock.)
- Le gaz s’échappait lentement de son contenant. (The gas was slowly escaping from its container.)
See also s’évader below.
The verb crier means basically “to shout (scream, yell)” (to make a loud sound with the voice, not necessarily involving words).
- L’homme au supplice cria de douleur. (The man being tortured shrieked in pain.)
S’écrier (an “essentially pronominal verb”) means “to exclaim, impelled by a strong feeling.” Expressivity seems to be a bit more in the forefront here.
- « Jamais je ne renoncerai à ce combat! s’écria-t-il ». (“I will never give up this struggle!” he exclaimed.)
This is an “essentially pronominal” verb. It is related to crouler, which has a similar meaning. Both verbs refer to a movement by which a large mass collapses when its elements shift and separate. Crouler emphasizes the movement, without implying that it is completed; s’écrouler, the movement resulting in total collapse. (The nouns croulement and écroulement make a similar contrast.)
- En un instant l’édifice entier s’était écroulé. (In an instant the entire structure had collapsed.)
Figurative uses (involving, e.g., empires and the human body) are, of course, monnaie courante.
- À la nouvelle son visage entier s’écroula. (On his hearing the news his entire face collapsed.)
- Devant les incursions des tribus germaniques au cinquième siècle, l’empire romain s’écroula. (Faced with the incursions of Germanic tribes in the fifth century, the Roman Empire collapsed.)
Of related meaning is pronominal s’affaisser = “to sink, settle, subside” (as a result of some pressure, if only of gravity). Soil does it, houses do it. This verb also gets a lot of figurative use.
- Une fois rentrée, Joelle s’affaissa dans son fauteuil favori. (Once she was back home, Joelle collapsed into her favorite armchair.)
Ultimately, from un faix, meaning “a burden.” Faix comes from Latin fascis, “bundle (of long items); burden” (also the basis of “Fascist,” of course). Non-pronominal, transitive affaisser is still occasionally used today to mean: “to cause something become lower” by applying pressure from above.
- Georges nous invita à sauter sur le tas de compost pour l’affaisser. (George encouraged us to jump on the compost heap in order to lower it.)
= “to do everything one can” to accomplish something. An “essentially pronominal” verb.
- Depuis plusieurs années la Commission s’efforce de remédier à ce problème. (For several years the Commission has been doing everything it can to remedy this problem.)
An “essentially pronominal” verb meaning “to take control or possession of; seize, capture.”
- Les invahisseurs s’emparèrent de la capitale sans tirer un seul coup de feu. (The invaders seized the capital without firing a shot.)
- Une impulsion mystérieuse s’empara de mon âme. (A mysterious impulse took control of my soul.)
Ultimately it comes from Classical Latin paro parare = “prepare; furnish, provide.”
In between came an un-Classical derivative im- or ante-parare, which passed (by way of Old Occitan) into Old French as emparer. One of the latter verb’s meanings was very close to Classical parare, namely, “to fortify.” It also took on its modern meaning “to take control of,” in both simple (emparer) and pronominal form (s’emparer de).
I suppose the (unconscious) reasoning may have been: if you’re “preparing” something like a fortified place, the best way of all (especially when you’re doing it “beforehand”) is to capture it…
s’entendre bien (avec)
In ordinary language entendre means “to hear.” In somewhat fancier language it can mean “to understand.”
- « Attention! Votre ami n’est pas du goût de tout le monde, si vous m’entendez à demi-mot ». (“Watch out! Your friend isn’t to everyone’s taste, if you get my hint. 8 “)
- « Qu’est-ce que vous entendez par cela? » (“What do you mean [understand] by that?”)
- (pronominal 3rd-person use: s’entend = [literally] “it is understood” = “of course,” “it goes without saying”:) Vous recevrez le grand prix. Si vous venez à la cérémonie, s’entend. (You will receive the highest award—if you come to the ceremony, obviously.)
Of course, this verb meaning “to understand” can be used reciprocally:
- Un Tchèque et un Slovaque, chacun parlant sa langue, peuvent s’entendre mutuellement. (A Czech and a Slovak, each one speaking his own language, can understand each other.)
By a slight shift, the verb meaning “to understand each other,” with bien or the like added, comes to mean “to get along with (each other)” (because, you see, they “understand” each other “well”).
- Alice et sa camarade de chambre s’entendent bien (ensemble). (Alice and her roommate get along well [together].)
Not very logically, s’entendre bien (avec) with this meaning can also be used in the singular:
- Alice s’entend bien avec sa camarade de chambre. (Alice gets along well with her roommate.)
- Je m’entends bien avec mes parents. (I get along well with my parents.)
An “essentially pronominal” verb (and a subjective one), it means “to escape (from emprisonment).”
- Après cinq tentatives ratées, le détenu s’est enfin évadé de prison. (After five failed attempts, the convict at last escaped from prison.)
Verbs of related meaning: s’esquiver; se dérober.
“Essentially pronominal.” Two meanings:
- “to vanish”
- J’allais adresser la parole au magicien, mais il s’était évanoui. (I was going to address the wizard, but he had vanished.)
- Les fumées montaient et s’evanouissaient au ciel bleu. (The smoke rose and vanished in the blue sky.)
- “to lose consciousness”
- J’allais adresser la parole au magicien, mais il s’était évanoui. (I was going to address the wizard, but he had fainted.)
- J’étais si saisie de détresse que j’ai failli m’évanouir. (I was so taken by distress that I almost fainted.)
The first meaning (“vanish”) is also that of Classical Latin evanescere. Medieval forms of the French word could mean “disappear,” “grow weak,” or “faint.” All seem reasonable, given the original elements é- = ex = “out of” and van- = “empty, void”: you can empty out something till it disappears, you can empty the body of its strength, and consciousness can empty out of a body (or the world).
Verbs of related meaning (to “disappear”): s’effacer; s’estomper.
= “To make a great effort (to accomplish something).”
- Nos employés s’évertueront à rendre votre séjour agréable. (Our workers will do everything to make your stay pleasant.)
- On me dit que je dois améliorer ma pratique du violon; alors, je m’évertue. (I’m told I’ve got to improve my performance on the violin; so, I’m making an effort.)
Apparently the verb is based on the noun vertu, presumably with its meaning of “strength”: make a show of strength > make an effort.
se fier (à)
Mostly only pronominal. “To trust, rely on.”
- On peut se fier à lui. (You can trust him.) 9
- Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences. (You can’t trust appearances.)
The TLFi entry for se fier has this wonderful example from Claudel:
Ne te fie pas aux femmes blondes, car elles sont lâches et infidèles. Ni aux noires, car elles sont dures et jalouses. Ni aux châtaines. Ne te fie pas aux femmes! Ne te fie pas à la figure perfide qui est pleine de lignes / Et de secrets, comme la main!
Don’t trust blonds, for they are craven and faithless. Nor brunettes, for they are hard and jealous. Nor brown-haired women. Don’t trust women! Don’t trust the treacherous face that is full of lines / And secrets, like your hand!–Claudel, Échange,1894, I, p. 670.
See also se méfier (de) below.
What does the reflexive pronoun add to ordinary imaginer? As I say elsewhere: “The pronominal form (s’imaginer) puts slightly greater emphasis on the personal, private, inward-directed (and perhaps illusory?) character of the psychic event.” You are not only calling up images in your mind, you are contemplating them (perhaps delectating in them).
- « On n’est jamais si heureux ni si malheureux qu’on s’imagine ». (One is never as happy or as unhappy or as unhappy as one fancies.)–La Rochefoucauld
- « N’allez pas vous imaginer que le premier devoir de notre état soit de nous venir en aide les unes aux autres… ». (Don’t go thinking to yourself that the first duty of our state is to come to each other’s aid…)–Bernanos
- Le pauvre homme se trouvait sous la flotte, sans abri, imaginez-vous! (The poor fellow found himself in a downpour without any shelter; just imagine!)
- Imaginez-vous la tour Eiffel fendue en deux de haut en bas! (Picture to yourself the Eiffel Tower split in two from top to bottom!)
se joindre (à)
As I say elsewhere regarding joindre and se joindre:
- Joindre usually means to join two things together.
- To “join” a group (as, at a table) is se joindre à.
- To catch up with someone already in motion is rejoindre.
se méfier (de)
The negative of se fier (à).
- Méfie-toi de lui! (Don’t trust him!) Mefie-toi de leurs projets ambitieux! (Don’t trust their ambitious schemes!)
- Si quelqu’un vous promet le ciel, méfiez-vous! (If somebody promises you the sky, beware!)
- Il y a quelque chose qui cloche dans cette affaire. Il faut s’en méfier! (Something isn’t quite right in this business. Better be careful!)
se mettre (à)
Se mettre (à) is in no way problematical, since it is easy to see how “to put oneself to (doing something)” can be the equivalent of “to begin (to do something)” (= commencer [à/de]). But it is very common and should be learned.
- Pour faire preuve qu’il n’avait pas peur, Pierre s’est mis à chantonner des airs populaires. (To show he was not afraid, Pierre began humming popular songs.)
- Mettons-nous tout de suite au travail! (Let’s start in on work right away!)
se moquer (de)
A classic case of a “subjective” pronominal verb, in which the reflexive pronoun truly has no lexical-syntatical function, but merely underlines that the action is inward-originating.
- Il ne faut pas se moquer de son professeur. (One mustn’t make fun of one’s teacher.)
- On me dit que je recevrai un juste châtiment. Je me moque de leurs menaces! (They say I will be justly punished. I don’t give a hang for their threats!)
- Je me moque volontiers de moi-même. (I quite happily make fun of myself.)
Se prendre (à) is yet another way (not quite as common) to say “to begin (to do something).” See below.
se passer, se passer (de)
Ordinary passer has two principal uses:
- Transitive: “to spend” (time doing something)
- « Je vais passer mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre ». (I am going to spend my [time in] heaven doing good on earth.) –Thérèse de Lisieux
- Ne sachant pas que nous étions à l’hôtel, notre pauvre ami a passé des heures à notre recherche. (Not knowing we were at the hotel, our poor friend spent hours looking for us.)
- Intransitive (mostly): “to pass” (by a place; also metaphorically)
- « Le chien aboie; la caravane passe ». (The dog barks, [and still] the caravan passes by = People can say what they like.)
- Georges est 10 passé au bureau cette après-midi. (George came by the office this afternoon.)
- Nous sommes tous passés par là. (We’ve all had the same experience [literally: “We have all passed that way.”])
- Vous avez passé un cap difficile! (You have passed a difficult hurdle OR an important milestone.)
- Ça passe la mesure (OU: les bornes). (That’s outrageous! [literally: “That goes beyond the limit!”])
- Ouf! Le foie que j’ai pris au déjeuner ne passe pas. (Erg! The liver I had at lunch isn’t going through my system very well.)
- Il a insisté pour voir la chapelle, le réfectoire, le dortoir, le cloître, et j’en passe. (He insisted on seeing the chapel, the refectory, the dormitory, the cloister, and I’ll skip the rest.)
Pronominal se passer also has two important uses:
- Absolutely: “to happen, take place” 11
- Qu’est-ce qui se passe? (What’s happening?)
- Cette altercation s’est passée à notre insu. (This altercation took place without our knowing it.)
- L’histoire se passe en Hollande au XVIIe siècle. (The story takes place in Holland in the 17th century.)
- Followed by de + nom: “to do without”
- Peut-on se passer de dormir? (Can one do without sleeping?)
- Je peux très bien me passer d‘argent, mais je ne saurais me passer d‘amis. (I can very well do without money, but I couldn’t possibly do without friends.)
s’en prendre (à)
There are many uses of se prendre based on the various meanings of ordinary prendre. One of them, se prendre (à) means, like se mettre (à), “to begin (to do something),” (“to set oneself [to doing something].” I have a notion that the far stranger s’en prendre à may have gotten its start from a usage close to this one: You begin with se prendre (“to set/betake oneself”), you add: en (“in the matter under consideration”) 12 and you finish with à quelqu’un (“at or on somebody or something”), the result being the equivalent of our English “to lay into,” that is, to blame for something.
- Chaque fois que Georges faillit provoquer un accident, il s’en prend aux autres conducteurs. (Every time George nearly causes an accident, he blames the other drivers.)
- Pour expliquer son inadaptation sociale, elle s’en prenait à l’éducation religieuse stricte qu’elle avait reçue étant enfant. (To explain her psychological and social maladjustment, she blamed the strict religious education she had received as a child.)
One sees it regularly in a formulation like the following:
- Vous n’avez qu’à vous-même à vous en prendre. (You have only yourself to blame.)
Se promener does not pose a problem; I am just interested in how it works in tandem with ordinary promener, the latter meaning “take (a being with legs) for a walk,” and the pronominal form (used reflexively) meaning “to take oneself for a walk.”
- (promener:) Il promène son chien, son enfant. (He is taking / his dog / his child / for a walk.)
- (se promener:) Le dimanche nous nous promenions du côté de chez Swann. (Sundays we would take walks on the side where Swann’s property was.)
There are metaphorical uses of both promener and se promener that, by and large, should not pose a problem.
- Il a promené la lumière de sa lampe de poche sur la surface de la falaise. (He displayed the beam of his flashlight over the surface of the cliff.)
- Devant nous, les montagnes du Jura se promenaient jusqu’à l’horizon. (Before us the mountains of the Jura extended all the way to the horizon.)
se réjouir (de)
Not a big problem, except that an (English) biblical or liturgical “Rejoice!” will in French be pronominal:
- “Rejoice, O highly-favored one!” 13 = Réjouis-toi, ô comblée de faveur!
Réjouir = “to give delight/joy,” se réjouir (de) = “take delight, etc., in.”
- Votre lettre m’a réjoui. (Your letter gave me joy.)
- Votre lettre m’a réjoui le cœur. (Your letter filled me with joy.) 14
- se réjouir (de)
- Nos ennemis sont tombés dans le piège; nous devons nous réjouir de la nouvelle / nous devons nous en réjouir. (Our enemies have fallen into the trap; we should rejoice at the news / at it.)
- Je me réjouis d‘avoir pu vous rendre ce service. (I am delighted that I was able to perform this service for you.)
Se réjouir also figures in one of the ways of saying “I look forward to it”: Je m’en réjouis d’avance. (Literally: “I am rejoicing at it in advance.”))
Rendre can mean “to give back, restore,” but it can also mean “to deliver over.” 15 Se rendre (with reflexive function) has two meanings worth learning:
- “to go (to an appointed place),” i.e, to deliver oneself to a specific location
- “to give oneself up, to hand oneself over = to surrender”
- Perdant tout espoir, les Gaulois exténués se rendirent aux Romains victorieux. (Having lost all hope, the exhausted Gauls surrendered to the victorious Romans.)
se rendre compte (de)
Rendre compte = “to give an account”; de (quelque chose) = about (something); à (quelqu’un) = “to (somebody).” It can mean “to report (on something to somebody),” also “to give a summary (of something to somebody).” Un compte rendu a detailed record of something (e.g., of a meeting = “minutes”; of a book = “a review”).
Se rendre compte (de) means literally “to render an account to oneself about (something).” However, it is an absolutely standard French equivalent for English “to realize = to be or become aware of (something).”
- Je ne m’en rendais pas compte. (I wasn’t aware of it.)
- Elle s’est rendu compte que son jupon se voyait. (She realized that her slip was showing.)
- J’ai fini par me rendre compte que je n’avais aucun talent littéraire. (I ended up realizing that I had no literary talent.)
It is thus equivalent to (if more logically justifiable than) s’apercevoir (de) (for which, see above).
French succéder does not have to do with “success,” but with “succession.” One succeeds (on) a predecessor:
- Le jeune prince succéda à son père, le vieux roi. (The young prince succeeded his father, the old king.)
Se succéder, with reciprocal function, is a bit odd in that two or more subjects do not act on each other, but: a acts on b, b acts on c, c acts on d… However, I really shouldn’t object, since we are similarly illogical in English.
- Depuis des siècles, dans cette lignée, les rois se succédaient de père en fils. (For centuries, in this lineage, the kings had been succeeding each other from father to son.)
se souvenir (de)
Perhaps the outstanding case of an idiomatic (“subjective”) pronominal verb. It can be explained, but only historically, not logically. Latin subvenio, subvenire means “to come up under,” hence “to come in aid” and even, post-classically, “to come to the mind” (see the Lewis and Short entry for the word). The first recorded uses in Old French appear to be impersonal, of the sort il m’est souvenu de la chose, which can be interpreted as “it came up under me, i.e., it came to my memory, about the thing.”
So far, so logical. Then, still in the Middle Ages, but less logically, the verb began being used personally, as it is today.
- Souvenez-vous de ces paroles, bien qu’elles vous paraissent maintenant obscures. (Remember these words, although they (may) seem obscure to you now.) –Bernanos
- « Je me souviens…de l’Alamo… » (I remember…the Alamo…) –PR
The other verb meaning “to remember” is also pronominal, se rappeler (quelque chose), but one that makes sense as “to recall (something) to oneself.” Note the syntactical differences between the two verbs:
- (se souvenir de qc:) Tout d’un coup elle s’est souvenue des événements de la veille. (All at once she remembered the events of the night before.)
- Se is here treated as a direct object.
- (se rappeler qc:) Tout d’un coup elle s’est rappelé les événements de la veille. (Ditto.)
- Se is here an indirect object.
French-speakers sometimes get confused about these two verbs. In a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film À bout de souffle, Michel Poiccard (a petty criminal, but one who knows his French idioms) instructs a girlfriend on their proper use. (It is on YouTube here.)
Michel. Tu fais toujours du cinéma?
Amie. Oh! non. (muffled) trop de types. … Enrico, tu t’en rappelles?
Michel. Tu te LE rappelles. Tu t’EN souviens.
- “Absolutely” = “without a complement” = “with nothing following.”↩
- I.e., the subject comes closer by its own movement.↩
- Judging from what one finds online, the preference seems to be to use nous with simple approcher de, and on with the pronominal form of the verb: ON S’APPROCHE du but, NOUS APPROCHONS du but.↩
- Also: confronter l’inculpé à, avec, son accusateur.↩
- = “mesure ourselves against”↩
- “is confronted by”? “comes up against”?↩
- In linguistics, a “reflex” is the descendent in a daughter language of an element in the proto-language.↩
- “If you undestand me at a half-word.”↩
- But perhaps more frequent, with a person: Vous pouvez lui faire confiance. (You can trust him.) ↩
- Passer meaning “to pass” wavers on whether it is conjugated with être or avoir.↩
- It is thus similar to arriver (when the latter verb means the same thing) or avoir lieu.↩
- For similar uses of the pronominal adverb en, see the Language file The Adverbial Pronoun en: Its Odder Uses.↩
- Χαῖρε, κεχαιριτωμένη↩
- Only in archaic style will you say: “Your letter rejoiced my heart.”↩
- The same senses apply to Classical Latin reddo reddĕre, from which rendre is derived.↩
- Perhaps: “reported to”↩
- show up at, appear at↩
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