Do Latin reflexive pronouns confuse you? This post will help you to understand what they are and how they are used.
The best-known reflexive pronoun is sē, but there are others, too. We will cover them all, but before we get started, I want to clarify one thing.
In this post, I will assume that you are already familiar with personal pronouns. If you aren’t, or if you need a refresher, I recommend that you read this post before diving into reflexive pronouns.
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What are reflexive pronouns?
A reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the sentence. In English, reflexive pronouns end in “self” or “selves.”
The boy sees himself in the mirror. = Puer sē videt in speculō.
Why did you write a letter to yourself? = Cūr tibi litterās scrīpsistī?
In the first sentence, the subject is the boy – but the object is also the boy. He performs the action of seeing on himself. He doesn’t see someone else in the mirror, but rather himself. The action is reflexive.
In the second sentence, the subject is “you.” You have not written a letter to your friend; instead you have written something for yourself. Once again, the action that you perform affects you. You are the subject and the object of the action.
As you can see, reflexive pronouns help us to express how subjects affect themselves. The act comes from the subject, but it also reflects back on the subject. This is why this type of pronoun is called reflexive.
Why are reflexive pronouns not used as subjects?
Reflexive pronouns do not have a nominative form. In the reflexive pronoun declensions below, you will see that there are only four cases listed: genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative.
Why can’t reflexive pronouns be in the nominative case? The answer is quite logical, when you think about it.
The function of the nominative case is to express the subject of a sentence. But the very definition of a reflexive pronoun is a pronoun that refers back to the subject. And if reflexive pronouns must refer back to the subject, this means that they can’t be the subject.
In consequence, Latin reflexive pronouns have no nominative. One less case form to memorize!
Reflexive vs. intensive pronouns
Before we move on to Latin reflexive pronouns (and many example sentences), I want to address a potential stumbling block.
Up above, I said that English reflexive pronouns end in “self” or “selves.” This is true. But the problem is that in English, intensive pronouns also end in “self” or “selves.”
These are two different kinds of pronouns that just happen to have the same forms in English. Their functions are different, and in Latin they look completely different, too.
Intensive pronouns emphasize a noun or pronoun, but there is no reflexive element to the action. Consider the following sentence:
The farmer himself did it. = Agricola ipse hoc fēcit.
In this example, the farmer isn’t doing anything to or for himself. Instead, “himself” emphasizes that it was the farmer, and not some other person, who performed the action. This is an intensive pronoun, not a reflexive pronoun.
If you want to learn more about intensive pronouns in Latin, then check out my guide to ipse, ipsa, ipsum.
What are the Latin reflexive pronouns?
There are three sets of reflexive pronouns in Latin: first person, second person, and third person. But since the first and second person reflexive pronouns are the same as the first and second person personal pronouns, people generally focus on third person reflexive pronouns.
In this post, we will look at third person reflexive pronouns first before moving on to first and second person reflexive pronouns.
Third Person Reflexive Pronouns
The third person reflexive pronoun in Latin is sē. Sē is both singular and plural. It is also masculine, feminine, and neuter. This means that the same word can have various English translations based on the context.
Sē can mean himself (masculine singular), herself (feminine singular), itself (neuter singular), or themselves (plural).
As is typical of nouns and pronouns in Latin, sē is declined. But, as I mentioned above, there are only four cases: genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative.
|Case||Sing. / Plur.||Translation|
|Genitive||suī||of himself, herself, itself, themselves|
|Dative||sibi||to/for himself, herself, etc.|
|Accusative||sē (sēsē)||himself, herself, etc.|
|Ablative||sē (sēsē)||by/with/from/about himself, herself, etc.|
Note that the genitive suī is not used to express possession. It is only used for the partitive and objective genitive. (Not sure what the difference is? Check out my post on the genitive case.)
Sēsē and sē mean the same thing and are used in the same way; sēsē is just more emphatic.
Amor suī eam dēcipit. = Love of herself deceives her. (objective)
Nēmō est bonus suī iūdex. = No one is a good judge of himself. (objective)
Ille vir dōna sibi semper dat. = That man always gives presents to himself.
Tālēs sibi inimīcī sunt. = Such people are enemies to themselves.
Hostēs in montēs sē recēpērunt. = The enemies retreated (literally: withdrew themselves) into the mountains.
Fīlia sē vocat bonam. = The daughter calls herself good.
Quisque prō sē dīcit. = Each one speaks for himself.
Fābulās dē sē numquam nārrant. = They never tell stories about themselves.
First Person Reflexive Pronouns
The first person reflexive pronoun in used when the subject of the sentence is in the first person. In English, our first person reflexive pronouns are myself and ourselves.
In Latin, the first person reflexive pronouns are the same as the first person personal pronouns. The only difference is that there is no nominative case.
Here are a few example sentences.
Carmen scrīpsī meī laudandī causā. = I wrote a song for the purpose of praising myself. (a genitive gerundive construction with causā)
Amīcum similem mihi invēnī. = I found a friend similar to myself.
Nōs dēfendimus verbīs, nōn gladiō. = We defended ourselves with words, not the sword.
Saepe mēcum loquor. = I often speak with myself.
Second Person Reflexive Pronouns
The second person reflexive pronoun is used when the subject of the sentence is in the second person. In English, our second person reflexive pronouns are yourself and yourselves.
In Latin, the second person reflexive pronouns are the same as the second person personal pronouns. The only difference is the lack of nominative case.
Once again, let’s look at a few quick example sentences.
Dissimilēs tuī nōn laudās. = You do not praise those different from you. (genitive with adjective)
Vōbīs haec omnia facitis! = You are doing all these things for yourselves!
Cūr mē ad tē vocāvistī? = Why did you call me to yourself (i.e. your house)?
Dē vōbīs multa verba dīxistis. = You spoke many words about yourselves.
Reflexive Possessive Adjectives in Latin
I mentioned earlier in this post that the genitive of these reflexive pronouns cannot be used to express possession. Instead, we use reflexive possessive adjectives for this purpose.
The name is a real mouthful, but the concept is simple. A list of the reflexive possessive adjectives, with their definitions, will clarify things.
- meus, a, um = my own
- tuus, a, um = your own (singular)
- noster, nostra, nostrum = our own
- vester, vestra, vestrum = your own (plural)
- suus, a, um = his own, her own, its own, their own
The first four adjectives can also be non-reflexive. Meus, a, um can mean “my”; it doesn’t have to mean “my own.” Similarly, tuus, a, um can mean “your”; noster, nostra, nostrum can mean “our”; and so forth.
Suus, a, um, however, is always reflexive. As you can see from its meaning, it can refer to a possessor of any gender and any number. You have to choose the correct translation based on the context.
I discuss these adjectives more in my post on possessive adjectives, but the following example sentences will give you an idea of their use.
Agricola fīliam suam amat. = The farmer loves his (own) daughter.
Claudia dormit in suō cubiculō. = Claudia is sleeping in her (own) bedroom.
Puerī pecūniam suam in flūmen iēcērunt. = The boys threw their (own) money into the river.
Latin Reflexive Pronouns in Indirect Statements
If you are a beginner and you have not yet learned indirect statements, then I recommend that you stop reading here. You can come back to this post later once your textbook introduces indirect discourse.
Still with me? Okay. We need to talk about two ways that reflexive pronouns are used in indirect statements.
First, if the subject of the indirect statement is the same as the subject of the direct statement, a reflexive pronoun is used for the subject of the indirect statement.
Marcella dīcit sē nōn venīre. = Marcella says that she (herself) is not coming.
Nautae vīdērunt sē longē ā lītore abesse. = The sailors saw that they (themselves) were far from shore.
Iam tibi dīxī mē in Italiā nōn habitāre! = I already told you that I do not live in Italy!
Second, it can sometimes be difficult to decide which subject a third person reflexive pronoun refers back to. Consider the following sentence.
Titus dīxit amīcum sibi domum aedificāvisse. = Titus said that his friend had build a house for him(self).
Sibi is a reflexive pronoun, so it must refer back to the subject. But does it refer back to amīcum (the subject of the indirect statement) or to Titus (the subject of the main clause)?
In Latin, either scenario is possible. Titus’ friend may have built a house for himself, or he may have built a house for Titus. The broader context of a sentence will clarify which subject sibi refers to.
This confusion also occurs in the following types of subordinate clauses: indirect commands, indirect questions, wishes, and purpose clauses. Whenever you are dealing with multiple subjects, it is important to consider which subject the reflexive pronoun likely refers to.
Reflexive pronouns in Latin are quite similar to reflexive pronouns in English. They refer back to the subject of the sentence and thus express how the subject affects itself.
If you would like to read even more about Latin reflexive pronouns, I recommend the following resources:
- §299-301 of Allen and Greenough’s, my favorite Latin grammar
- §349-354 of Bradley’s Arnold, a helpful Latin prose composition manual
I hope that you now feel more comfortable with reflexive pronouns. While you are here, don’t forget to check out my other posts about pronouns!