'Se' vs. 'eum', etc. and 'suus' vs. 'eius', etc.


Staff member
'Se' vs. oblique cases of demonstrative pronouns (eum, etc.) and 'suus' vs. genitive of demonstrative pronouns (eius, etc.)

Perhaps you have felt unsure about when exactly you should translate (for example) "him" by eum, and when by se; or when you should translate "his" by eius, and when by suus. This post aims at clarifying it for you.


If you are a beginner in the very first stages who has not yet dealt with anything else in Latin than very simple sentences, it may be enough for you, for the time being, to assimilate the contents of this first section, while being warned that there are more subtleties to the matter and some exceptions which you will learn in time.

When "him", "her", "it" or "them" represents someone/something different from the subject, you use a demonstrative pronoun, in the appropriate gender, number, and case. (E.g. cases of is/ea/id, hic/haec/hoc, iste/ista/istud, or ille/illa/illud. You will choose the one that is most appropriate in the context. The differences between these aren't the topic of this thread; I wrote another post about it.)

Se, on the other hand, is used to represent the same person/thing as the subject, when the subject acts in some way upon itself — and therefore it will, in simple sentences, often translate in English to "himself", "herself", "itself", or "themselves".


Illum vocavi = "I called him": here the direct object "him" is a different person from the subject "I", therefore in Latin a demonstrative pronoun is used (here illum).

Marcus se in speculo vidit = "Marcus saw himself in the mirror": here the direct object "himself" represents the same person as the subject "Marcus", therefore in Latin the reflexive pronoun se is used.

Mendicum vidit et ei pecuniam dedit = "He saw a beggar and gave him money": the indirect object "him", representing the beggar, is a different person from the "he" who gave the money, therefore in Latin a demonstrative pronouns is used (here ei).

Cenam sibi paraverunt = "They prepared dinner for themselves": those for whom dinner was prepared were the same people who prepared it, therefore the reflexive pronoun sibi is used. If it had been "They prepared dinner for them", "them" being some other people, we would have used a demonstrative pronoun, for example illis.

If you are an English speaker, the above probably feels fairly instinctive to you, because in all of those sentences, English makes the same sort of distinction between non-reflexive (him, them...) and reflexive (himself, themselves...). Perhaps the difference will, at first, feel less instinctive to some people when it comes to possessives, because here English often doesn't make a difference. Yet, the principle is just the same: the reflexive possessive suus is used when the owner is at the same time the subject, while the genitive of a demonstrative pronoun is used when the owner is someone/something else than the subject.


Canem suum alit = "He feeds his dog" ---> his own dog.
Canem eius alit = "He feeds his dog" ---> not his own dog, but the dog of some other person who was mentioned shortly before. E.g. Cum Lucius abest, Publius canem eius alit = "When Lucius is away, Publius feeds his dog."

Liberos suos amant = "They love their children" ---> their own children.
Liberos eorum amant = "They love their children" ---> not their own, but those of some other people who were mentioned shortly before. E.g. Gaium Claudiamque oderunt, sed liberos eorum amant = "They hate Gaius and Claudia, but love their children."

NOTE: When, in English, "himself", "herself", "itself", "themselves" or "oneself" is not used as a reflexive pronoun denoting the same person/thing as the subject in a clause where the latter acts in some way upon itself as in e.g. "He sees himself", but is used to emphasize identity as in e.g. "He did it himself", "He saw the king himself (= the king in person)" or "They themselves are sick", you don't use se in Latin, but ipse. "He did it himself" = ipse fecit; "He saw the king himself (= the king in person)" = regem ipsum vidit; "They themselves are sick" = ipsi aegrotant.


There are cases where se or suus is used in a subordinate clause without referring to the subject of that very clause, but to the subject of the verb on which the subordinate clause depends. One may say as a general rule that this happens whenever the subordinate clause denotes something in the mind of the subject of the verb on which it depends; that is, something that the subject says, thinks, perceives, feels, asks, wishes, commands, intends... Thus, this will happen notably in indirect speech, indirect questions, indirect wishes, indirect commands, and purpose clauses. (In other sorts of dependent clauses — those which have nothing to do with something in the mind or mouth of the subject of the clause they depend on — although there can be exceptions, demonstrative pronouns are generally used.)


Lucius Marcum sibi pecuniam dedisse ait = "Lucius says that Marcus gave him money": sibi doesn't refer to the subject of the acc.-inf. clause it is in, Marcum sibi pecuniam dedisse (the subject here is Marcum), but it refers back to Lucius, the subject of ait, upon which the acc.-inf. clause depends; and that acc.-inf. clause denotes something that Lucius says concerning himself. If we had had a demonstrative pronoun like illi instead of sibi, it would have meant that Marcus had given the money not to Lucius but to some third party, some other "him".

Lucius nescit ubi sit liber suus = "Lucius doesn't know where his book is": suus doesn't refer to the subject of the clause it is in (the indirect question ubi sit liber suus, where the subject is liber suus) but it refers back to the subject of the verb (nescit) upon which the indirect question depends; it refers back to the person in whose mind that question is, and that person is ignorant of something concerning his own book, not someone else's. If we had had the genitive of a demonstrative pronoun instead of suus, it would have meant that Lucius was wondering about some other person's book.

Lucius vult ad se venias = "Lucius wants you to come to him": se doesn't refer to the subject of the clause ad se venias, which is an implied tu, but to that of vult, Lucius, who wishes something concerning himself. A demonstrative pronoun here would mean that Lucius wanted you to come to a third party, some other "him".

Multa Lucius fecit ut Iulia se amaret = "Many things did Lucius do so that Julia might love him": se doesn't refer to the subject of the purpose clause ut Iulia se amaret (the subject is Iulia), but it refers to Lucius, the subject of fecit, upon which the purpose clause depends; and this purpose clause denotes something — an intention — in Lucius's mind; something that Lucius intended concerning himself (he wanted himself, not some other guy, to be loved by Julia).

Similarly, reflexives are used in subordinate clauses that depend on indirect speech (when they are integral parts of the reported speech/thought rather than additional info given by the author). E.g. Ait eo te sibi curae esse quia se olim multum adiuveris = "He says that the reason why he cares about you is that you helped him a lot in the past": se doesn't refer to the subject of the clause quia se olim adiuveris but to that of ait. The quia clause, however, is an integral part of what "he" says, that is why the reflexive is used (as well as a subjunctive verb).

This also happens when there is no acc.-inf. clause, but when the content of a subordinate clause is nonetheless viewed as reported words or thoughts. E.g. Gratias mihi egit quod se adiuvissem = "He thanked me for helping him", or "He thanked me because (as he said) I had helped him" — "I had helped him" isn't presented as a fact so much as as the reason why he personally thought he had to thank me, or the reason he gave for it, the words he said when he thanked me. Imperator illum magna pecunia donavit quod fortissimus multo suorum militum ille exstitisset = "The general granted him a lot of money because (as the general said/thought) he had been by far the bravest of his soldiers": we could also have eius here, but then it would be the author stating as a fact that that soldier had been the bravest of all the general's soldiers (and in that case the verb, too, would be in the indicative rather than in the subjunctive); whereas with the reflexive (and subjunctive verb) the author is presenting it strictly as the general's opinion, which he is reporting.

Reflexives are also used when the person to whom an utterance/thought/intention, etc. is ascribed isn't the grammatical subject of the introducing verb, but it is logical that the reflexive be used because it refers to the one speaking/thinking/intending, etc. E.g. A Lucio accepi litteras, adventare suum fratrem = "I received a letter from Lucius, (saying) that his (Lucius's) brother was arriving". Even if it isn't said literally, it is Lucius who says that his brother is arriving. A Romanis consilium initur ut imperio suo hostes parere cogantur = "A plan is formed by the Romans so that the enemy may be forced to obey their (the Romans') command". Here again, the Romans are, strictly, the grammatical subject of nothing (the subject of the purpose clause is hostes and that of the main clause is consilium), but they are a "logical subject" of sorts; the Romans are the ones who form the plan, and the intention concerning the enemy being forced to obey their command is in the Romans' minds.

There are other situations where reflexives are used to refer to a "logical subject"; notably in constructions with the gerundive. E.g. Fama illi sua respicienda erat = "He had to take his (own) reputation into account": here in the "normal English" translation, "his" refers to the grammatical subject; but in the Latin, sua does not, since the word-for-word translation of the Latin is "His (own) reputation was for him to be taken into account": the grammatical subject is fama, but you see how the person in question is a sort of logical subject: he would be the subject of the desirable "taking into account".

Again, you may find reflexives used with reference to something else than the grammatical subject when there is a strong logical "own" relationship that calls for it. Here are a few examples: sua cuique sententia optima videtur = "To every person their own opinion seems best": there is no way you could use the genitive of a demonstrative pronoun here. Tibi tua cupido est, Marco sua = "You have your own desire, Marcus has his" — but literally "To you is your desire, to Marcus [is] his (own)", so in Latin Marcus isn't the grammatical subject; yet the reflexive is required — the genitive of a demonstrative pronoun would make it look like Marcus had the desire of someone else. Misericordia magis regem decet quam corona sua = "Mercy becomes a king more than his (own) crown does": even if the king isn't the grammatical subject, the "own" relationship is logical. Suus illos terror perdidit = "Their own terror caused their ruin."

With participles, a reflexive can refer to the subject of the participle as well as to the subject of the main verb. Examples: Audivit feminam secum ipsam loquentem = "He heard the woman speaking to herself": here se refers to the subject of loquentem. Vidit feminam ad se currentem = "He saw a woman running towards him": here se refers to the subject of vidit.

Voila. Yet others situations may be encountered, and in some of them there may be some leeway, and, as in all things human, some irregularities can be found (for example, you may find suus used to emphasize an "own" relationship where it isn't mandatory and a demonstrative pronoun could have been used, and even in some instances where it wouldn't be the most "classically correct" construction), but this covers most of the matter. I hope it helps.

Carolus AN

New Member
You must be psychic, I was working on this very thing today! This has helped me understand the usage of 'is' and given me some more examples to refer to. Thank you,