I find it rather weird that the reflexive pronouns me, te, se etc. are included the passé composé form of reflexive verbs.


  1. Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé?
  2. Je me suis lavé
  3. Nous nous sommes habillés.

What I don't understand is how exactly the reflexive pronouns in the sentences above help to clarify the past because we wouldn't have used être if the receiver of the action were someone else, so I'm really confused how this works. It seems to me that être is taking these pronouns as indirect object pronouns.


2 Answers 2


These pronouns are not there to clarify the meaning but to set it. Removing them is possible but significantly affects it:

Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé ? : What happened? (some event)

Qu'est-ce qui est passé ? : What has moved/gone? (some object)

Je me suis lavé. : I got washed (literally: "I washed myself").

Je suis lavé. : I'm washed (I'm clean)

Nous nous sommes habillés. : We got dressed (some time ago).

Nous sommes habillés. : We are dressed (now) (we are not in underwear/naked).

Note that je suis lavé and nous sommes habillés are ambiguous, as lkl answer shows. I picked the most likely meaning where lavé and habillés are adjectives attributs du sujet. These sentences migth also be understood to be passive voice verbs:

Je suis lavé. : I'm getting washed (by someone else)

Je suis habillé. : I'm being dressed.

The real subject is often explicit in passive mode: je suis lavé par l'infirmière, je suis habillé par un styliste.

  • I now get the difference in meanings, but what I can't seem to get is how the reflexive pronoun changes the subject or makes it clearer who actually did the action from the way its used in the sentence. I see it like an indirect object pronoun
    Aug 19, 2021 at 11:02
  • 1
    In the se laver and s'habiller reflexive verbs, the subject is also the object. That's the definition of reflexive. Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé (which is equivalent to qu'est-ce qu'il s'est passé) is slightly different because the subject is impersonal (il se passe quelque chose) so both the subject and the object are meaningless...
    – jlliagre
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:05
  • If you say je lave, you mean that you are washing something (or perhaps someone but not yourself). If you add me in je me lave, then you are still the person acting but you are also the object, i.e. what is washed.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:08

As Jlliagre explained, the meaning does change without the reflexive pronoun - and the grammatical construction often does too.

Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé / Je me suis lavé / Nous nous sommes habillés = passé composé of pronominal verbs

Qu'est-ce qui est passé is still the passé composé, albeit of the non-pronominal verb passer

However, Je suis lavé / Nous sommes habillés is a different grammatical construction altogether - it's the passive voice in the present tense.

  • 1
    In those last cases, how is it necessarily passive without a complément d'agent? Without more context (par quelqu'un, de quelque chose, en...), the present tense holds, and the past participle functions as an adjective.
    – livresque
    Aug 18, 2021 at 21:48
  • 1
    @livresque Yes, that's precisely what I just added in my answer.
    – jlliagre
    Aug 18, 2021 at 21:49

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