A reflexive verb generally refers to an action that reflects back on the subject (something you do to yourself or to each other). You will recognize a reflexive verb in the dictionary by the reflexive pronoun se (oneself) preceding the infinitive, as in se laver (to wash oneself).
Reflexive verbs usually agree… with themselves! That is, the past participle agrees in gender and number with both the subject (such as je) and the object (such as me) at the same time. For example:
Ce matin, je me suis réveillée avec le coq.
This morning, I woke up with the rooster.Play Caption
In the example above, we assume that the subject pronoun je and the reflexive pronoun me are referring to Patricia, the speaker, so the past participle réveillé (woke up) takes an -e at the end to become feminine.
On the other hand, in the example below, the husband wakes up his wife. In this case, the verb réveiller (to wake [someone] up) is no longer reflexive.
Il a même réveillé sa femme qui dormait.
He even woke up his wife, who was sleeping.
Caption 52, Dao Evolution - Noël pour les sans-abrisPlay Caption
In this case, you use the auxiliary avoir (to have) because he isn't waking up himself—he's waking up his wife.
Many reflexive verbs like se réveiller can also be non-reflexive (without the se). The verb dire (to say, to tell), for instance, can be used both ways:
C'est ce que je me suis dit.
That's what I told myself.
Caption 52, Claire et Philippe Je suis en retardPlay Caption
C'est ce que j'ai dit à ma sœur.
That's what I said to my sister.
The verb se dire also belongs to a category of reflexive verbs whose past participles never require agreement. We call these verbs intransitive, because their reflexive pronouns act as indirect objects, not direct objects. You can tell that a reflexive verb is intransitive because its non-reflexive form is usually followed by the preposition à (to). For example: se parler (to speak to each other, to speak to oneself), parler à quelqu’un (to speak to someone). For a complete list of these verbs, click here.
When a reflexive verb is intransitive, the se acts as an indirect object pronoun and thus indicates that the verb doesn’t require agreement:
Ils se sont parlé tous les jours.
They spoke to each other every day.
When a reflexive verb, whether transitive or intransitive, is followed by a direct object, the past participle also doesn't agree:
Ils se sont lavé les mains.
They washed their hands.
Because there's already a direct object in this sentence (les mains), the reflexive pronoun se is “demoted” from its direct object status and acts as an indirect object. And since the direct object is placed after the verb, no agreement is necessary.
However, if the verb is not followed by a direct object, the past participle agrees with the subject and the reflexive pronoun, as we discussed earlier:
Ils se sont lavés.
They washed (themselves).
On the other hand, if a reflexive verb is followed by an indirect object, agreement does occur:
Mes grand-parents, ils se sont beaucoup occupés de moi.
My grandparents, they looked after me a lot.Play Caption
You add an -s at the end of occupé (looked after) to agree with ils (they, masculine plural). The indirect object de moi (after me) doesn’t affect anything.
That about does it for our suite of lessons on the passé composé! It’s a lot to take in, so in case you’re not quite "in agreement" with all these rules yet, here is a summary:
• Verbs conjugated with the auxiliary avoir (to have) don't agree in gender and number with the subject, unless a direct object appears before the verb.
• Non-reflexive verbs conjugated with the auxiliary être (to be) always agree with the subject.
• Reflexive verbs are conjugated with être and usually agree with the subject, unless the verb is intransitive or a direct object appears after the verb.