Is there any traditional or accepted classification of French pronominal verbs by how they are related to their respective non-pronominal forms?

As a beginning student of French I have noticed that this relationship can vary from verb to verb. In the background below, I will try to explain what I mean.

I am looking for an account of French pronominal verbs that will subsume what I have noticed, lay out the different possibilities, give them names, and so on.

Of course I would appreciate an answer that undertakes to do all that here on the spot.


It seems to me that a French pronominal verb can "separate" from its non-pronominal form by a small or great distance.

  1. s'asseoir

(1A) Le docteur asseoit la patiente.
(1B) Je m'assois.

I call this a case of no separation. In each sentence, the (grammatical) subject causes the (grammatical) object to have a seat. The doctor and je do the seating. The patient and me get seated.

  1. s'étonner

(2A) Vous m'étonnez.
(2B) Je m'étonne.

Here, me gets surprised in each sentence. But only in 2A does vous do any surprising; in 2B je does not do any surprising. Still the sense of étonner is the same. We just don't know who or what did the surprising in 2B. So we may say that there is only a slight syntactic separation (because étonner connects to vous and je in different ways).

  1. s'agripper

(3A) Il m'agrippe
(3B) Je m'agrippe à Tom.

Here the separation seems much greater. In 3B, if anybody is grabbed, it's Tom. We may say that 3b's m'agrippe à corresponds to 3A's agrippe, or that agripper has undergone an extensive syntactic change. (If we had to isolate the sense of aggriper alone in 3B, it might be "to put someone in a state of grabbing." Also, expressions like je suis agrippé à Tom would seem to derive from 3B rather than 3A. If I was grabbed by Tom, would that be je suis agrippé par Tom?)

  • I'm not sure how or even if the following could be used to help you, but maybe it could give you some ideas: My “Le Robert” has 4 different entry keys for pronominal verbs: “pronominal réfléchi”; “pronominal réciproque”; just plain “pronominal”; & “emploi pronominal isolé.” I THINK the non-reflexive/non-reciprocal ones are used either 1) in fixed/essential forms (they always use “se”); 2) to alter the meaning of non-pronominal verbs used in the active voice (douter to se douter); or else 3) to change non-pronominal verbs from active to passive voice (agripper might be one of these).
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 23:49

2 Answers 2


As far as I know, there is no hard classification between verbs based on the difference of meaning between their pronominal form and non-pronominal form. This in probably due in part to the fact that some verbs can only be reflexive, and that each verb can have multiple meaning. Furthermore, some verbs lost their pronominal meaning, but kept their pronominal form.

For example : s'en aller (leaving someplace) is a pronominal verb, but the pronoun has no meaning.

That said, we can classify pronominal verbs based on the meaning, in the context, of the pronoun.

  • Reflexive Pronominal Verbs are the most common and appear when the subject act on itself. (Ex : Il se nourrit. "se nourrir" is here reflexive, since "he" feeds himself.)
  • Reciprocal Pronominal Verbs appear when multiple subject act on each other. (Ex : Ils se battent. "se battre" is here reciprocal, since "they" fight each other.)
  • Successive Pronominal Verbs appear when there is a notion of consecutivity. (Ex : Les jours se suivent. "se suivre" is successive, because the subject follow one-another.)
  • Passive Pronominal Verbs appear when the subject is acted upon, but isn't the actor. It often happens when the subject is inanimate. (Ex : le pain se vend bien. "se vendre" is passif in this context since bread obviously cannot sell itself.)

Please note that, based on the context, the same verb can be in different categories.

Concerning your examples :

  • (2B) je m'étonne. Here, this sentence can have two meanings. It can either be "I surprise myself" (although we usually are more explicit by saying "Je m'étonne moi-même") or "I am surprised". In the first case, we have a Reflexive pronominal verb; in the other, we have a Passive pronominal verb.

  • (3A & 3B) Agripper basically means grab, but can be used as a variant of accrocher where one of the objects must be the subject.

    • In (3A), the subject (he) grab the object (me).
    • In (3B), the subject (me) attach the primary object (me) to secondary objet (Tom). I could have juste said "J'agrippe Tom", but by using a pronoun I created an emphasis on myself, indicated that I really latched on him.

Whenever you encounter a separation between the pronominal and non-pronominal form of the same verb, there is a big chance it is either due to a subtle difference in meaning between English and French, or a special case born from history (history loves to f**k up with language rules).

  • Thank you. Unpacking of A s'agrippe à B to A's attaching A to B was very helpful because it is a form of A agrippe C à B, meaning that (what I called) syntactic separation has suddenly been bridged and that I have now a single syntactic form of the verb to deal with.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 9:35
  • @Papa Poule gave me (in the comments to original post) an interesting example: A se doute de B. Your (Aralicia's) "unpacking" scheme does not apply to this right away; for I presume we don't say A doute C de B. Yet, I can almost imagine A drawing a chain of suspicion from A himself to B.
    – Catomic
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 9:39

Heureusement qu'en changeant la structure de la phrase il s'établit des différences, changez :

  • le 1A en Il m’assoie,
  • le 2A en Il m'étonne,
  • supprimez à Tom dans 3B, (la phrase reste correcte)
    ... les relations/distance entre A et B seront identiques dans les exemples choisis.

Pour chaque verbe, A représente une action d'un tiers sur moi, et B une action que j'exerce sur moi-même.

Dans les exemples :

  • 1 - il y a action d'un tiers sur un autre (et non sur moi-même),
  • 2 - un changement de il en vous qui met une distance de courtoisie, mais pas de personne,
  • 3 - il y a une qualification de mon action qui n'existe pas dans les autres cas, donc une intensité dans la relation évoquée.

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