Background (these are some assumptions I'm making. I'm writing these out in case my assumptions are incorrect) :

  1. Suppose you have a simple sentence with a transitive verb, and you re-write that sentence with an object pronoun. If the object of the object pronoun is the same as the subject, then that pronoun is considered reflexive; and thus the verb is considered to be in a pronominal form.


  • Je regarde toi.
  • Je te regarde. (not pronominal)

  • Je regarde moi.
  • Je me regarde. (considered to be pronominal)

Whether or not a verb is considered to be pronomial matters, because being pronominal might change its meaning, and in compound tenses, the auxillary verb will be être instead of avoir, and if the object is a direct object, the past participle will have to agree with the subject/object for gender and number. (example: it is "Je me suis regardé(e)", and not "J'ai regardé").

  1. Perhaps surprisingly, if the object pronoun is reflexive, and would have been one of the third person direct object pronouns ("le", "la", "les") or third person indirect object pronouns ("lui", "leurs"), the object pronoun is written as "se" instead.
  • Alice regarde Bob. Alice le regard.
  • Alice regarde Alice. Alice la regard. Alice se regarde.
  • Alice téléphone à Alice. Alice lui téléphone. Alice se télephone.
  1. But it is possible to have "Elle la regarde" and "Elle lui téléphone", if the object and the subject are different. That is, if the object pronoun is not reflexive.
  • Alice regarde Samantha. Alice la regarde. Elle la regarde.
  • Alice téléphone à Samantha. Alice lui téléphone. Elle lui téléphone.

My question wonders if the pronoun is considered reflexive in cases where the subject and object are a subset or superset of each other, and so not exactly the same.

For example:

  • I'm part of a team of five people. Myself and Alice believe that our team is not trying hard enough. At a team meeting, the two of us (myself and Alice) warn all five of us that the two of us will be watching all five of us closely. "Nous nous regardons". Is the object pronoun considered reflexive, or not?

1 Answer 1


A reflexive pronoun refers to the subject, not a subset or a superset of the subject.

A first- or second-person object pronoun which is the same person and number as the subject (je me …, je … à moi, nous nous …, nous … à nous, etc.) is automatically reflexive. Unlike the third person in French, and unlike languages such as English that allows things like “we … us” as opposed to “we … ourselves”, the first and second person in French don't have a distinct non-reflexive form, and any possible non-reflexive meaning (where the two “we/us” or the two “you” refer to different sets) is so rare that it would not be understood.

For example, in “nous nous regardons”, both occurrences of nous refer to the same set of people. This sentence can have two different meanings: either all of us are looking at all of us, or each of us is looking at himself or herself. But if myself and Alice are looking at the whole team, it's impossible to convey this without using something more explicit than nous.

Whichever nous comes first in the sentence must be clear from the context. If there's a second nous, it refers to the same set of people as the first. So to express a different group, it's necessary to use a noun, not a pronoun. For example:

Alice et moi avons les yeux ouverts. Nous regardons l'équipe.

Alice et moi pensons que notre équipe n'en fait pas assez. Nous allons surveiller l'équipe.

(Note that regarder can't mean “watch” in this sense.)

It would be the same in the third person. A reflexive pronoun cannot work since it doesn't refer to the same thing as the subject. A non-reflexive pronoun can work if it isn't ambiguous.

Alice et lui pensent que l'équipe n'en fait pas assez. Ils la surveillent.   (La is grammatically ambiguous: it could refer to either Alice or the team. But the only plausible meaning is that Alice and him are watching the team, not that Alice and him are watching Alice.)

  • I know in English, ambiguous sentences are acceptable. "Alice is suspicious of Samantha. I think that she's watching her closely". "Listen, I'll explain why Alice and me look so uptight right now; we want us to do better as a team! So that's why we're watching us so closely!". Are you saying that "Nous nous surveillons" cannot be used in this case, and that "nous nous serveillons" can only mean "all of us are looking at each other" or "each one of us is looking at ourselves"?
    – silph
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:32
  • 1
    @silph I find your English example contrived, and it's ambiguous: does we refer to the team and us to Alice and me, or the other way round? But it might be possible to make it work in English because us and ourselves are different. In French, the first- and second-person reflexive pronouns are identical to the non-reflexive pronouns, so “nous nous …” is automatically understood as reflexive. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:40
  • Could you add the last two sentences to your answer? This difference between reflexivity in French and English is a big insight / clarifier for me.
    – silph
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:42

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