Ils se sont serré la main.
eel suh saw say-ray lah MAA. Click below to hear this.*
They shook hands.
Today is a lesson in nuances and nitpicky rules. Every language has some! That’s what drives language learners crazy.
You may already know that when you put a reflexive verb into the passé composé–the compound past–you have to make the past participle agree with the subject. If that sounds like gibberish, let’s go with an example: Ils se sont serrés. Serrer means to press or squeeze. Ils se sont serrés means They squeezed each other. A big bear hug comes to mind.
A reflexive verb is always conjugated with être in the passé composé. This makes the participle look like an adjective. It isn’t really, and that’s not the technical reason why you have to make the agreement, but that fact can help you remember to do it.
But there’s an exception, and today’s phrase is an example of it. When the reflexive verb (se serrer) has a direct object, you don’t make the agreement. That’s because the action is deflected away from the subject, and onto the object.
So when we say Ils se sont serré la main, they are no longer squeezing each other, but squeezing hands. And since la main comes after the verb, no agreement is made.
Which brings us to another point: Why do we say se serrer la main in French when we shake hands in English? That’s a cultural issue, not a grammatical one (I can hear your sigh of relief!). French people don’t shake hands. They grasp each other’s hand firmly, pump once, and let go. You don’t keep shaking up and down, up and down, and you don’t hang on. The only hard part about that is remembering how to do it.
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: