Agreement with Pronominal Verbs

Accord avec verbes pronominaux

All pronominal verbs are être verbs in compound tenses and moods like the passé composé, which means that the past participles must agree with their subjects – at least in theory. In fact, it’s not quite so straightforward.

Pronominal verbs have a reflexive pronoun that refers back to the subject, and that reflexive pronoun represents either the direct object or the indirect object of the verb. Here’s the tricky part: agreement is only required when the reflexive pronoun is a direct object; when it’s indirect, there’s no agreement. So in order to know whether the past participle neeeds to agree, you have to determine the function of the reflexive pronoun. Here’s how to do that.

1) Pronominal verb with no noun after it => Agreement

When you have a pronominal verb that is not followed by a noun, the reflexive pronoun is usually the direct object.*

Elle s’est réveillée tard.   She woke up late.
Nous nous étions soûlés.   We’d gotten drunk.

2) Pronominal verb + preposition + noun => Agreement

When a preposition precedes a noun, that noun is indirect and the reflexive pronoun is direct.

Huguette s’est adressée au proviseur.   Huguette addressed the principal.
Ils se sont fâchés pour la décision.   They got angry about the decision.

3) Pronominal verb + noun => No agreement

When there is no preposition in front of the noun, the noun is direct and the reflexive pronoun is indirect.

Elle s’est rasé les jambes.   She shaved her legs.
Elles se sont lavé les cheveux.   They washed their hair.

 3½) Pronominal verb + object pronoun => No agreement with the reflexive pronoun

When the noun is replaced by an object pronoun, that pronoun is of course still direct and the reflexive pronoun is still indirect, so there’s no agreement with the latter. However, since the direct object now precedes the verb, the past participle is subject to direct object agreement.

Elle se les est rasées. (agreement with jambes)   She shaved them.
Elles se les sont lavés. (agreement with cheveux)   They washed it.

 *4) Indirect object reflexive pronouns => No agreement

For 20 verbs, the reflexive pronoun is always an indirect object regardless of any nouns in the sentence. Therefore, the past participle of these verbs never agrees with the reflexive pronoun.**

Why is this? Because when these verbs are used non-pronominally with a noun, they require a preposition, which means the noun is an indirect object. So when that preposition + object are replaced by a reflexive pronoun, the pronoun too is indirect.

        Why indirect?
s’acheter   to buy (for) oneself   acheter pour
se demander   to wonder   demander à
se dire   to say (to oneself / each other)   dire à
se donner   to give (to each other)   donner à
s’écrire   to write (to each other)   écrire à
se faire mal   to hurt oneself   faire mal à
s’imaginer   to imagine, think   ***
se parler   to talk (to oneself / each other)   parler à
se plaire   to enjoy   plaire à
se procurer   to obtain (for oneself)   procurer à
se promettre   to promise (oneself / each other)   promettre à
se raconter   to tell (each other)   raconter à
se rendre compte   to realize   rendre compte de
se rendre visite   to visit (each other)   rendre visite à
se reprocher   to criticize, blame (oneself / each other)   reprocher à
se ressembler   to resemble (each other)   ressembler à
se rire   to mock   rire de qqun
se sourire   to smile (at each other)   sourire à
se succéder   to follow/succeed (one another)   succéder à
se téléphoner   to call (each other)   téléphoner à

** However, there is still the possibility of direct object agreement, as per 3½, above.

Elles se sont donné les cadeaux.
 > Elles se les sont donnés.
  They gave each other the gifts.
 > They gave them to each other.

*** There’s always an exception, n’est-ce pas ?  :-)

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