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Translating Latin Reflexive Pronouns

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 1/20/2012

Both English and Latin use reflexive pronouns to refer back to a previous noun. As an inflected language, Latin’s reflexive pronouns change form to indicate to which subject they reflect back. Learn how to translate Latin's reflexive pronouns into English.

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    Pronouns take the place of nouns and, therefore, can refer to any person, place, thing, idea, or state of being. Personal pronouns, for example, are used to reduce the need to use the proper name of a person both within and between sentences. For example:

    John walked to the store. Then John went home.

    John walked to the store. Then he went home.

    Notice that in the first pair of sentences, the subject “John" is used twice to indicate the subject of each sentence. In the second pair, “John" is replaced with “he" in the second sentence. This use of a pronoun eliminates the need to repeat “John" repeatedly in consecutive sentences.

    However, pronouns create a slight problem. Although it is assumed in the second pair of sentences above that “he" refers to “John," it is possible that “he" refers to some other male subject rather than referring back to “John." This ambiguity creates problems in both writing and speech because the reader or listener may interpret a sentence differently than the writer or speaker intended.

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    English Reflexive Pronouns

    Reflexive Pronouns are used in several different ways in English. They function as direct objects,

    I taught myself to read.

    they function as indirect objects,

    He bought a new book for himself.

    and they function as an object of a preposition,

    They wrote about themselves.

    Notice that in each case, English uses the enclitic –self (-selves for plural) to indicate that a pronoun refers back to a previous subject. This telltale enclitic eliminates the possibility that the pronoun refers to another, previously unmentioned, object or person. Just like the personal pronouns, there is a reflexive pronoun for each person and number:

    1st person: myself (singular), ourselves (plural)

    2nd person: yourself (singular), yourselves (plural)

    3rd person: himself, herself, itself (singular), themselves (plural)

    Notice that for one of the rare times in English, there is no ambiguity between the second person singular reflexive pronoun (yourself) and its plural form (yourselves). This is in contrast to the usual ambiguity with the second person. For example:

    Your daughter is tall.

    Without more information, the word “your" may be singular in the case where the sentence is directed at one parent of the daughter or plural in the case where the sentence refers to both parents.

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    Latin Reflexive Pronouns

    Latin reflexive pronouns function similarly to English’s. There are Latin reflexive pronouns for all of the personal pronouns. To form Latin’s reflexive pronoun, first determine the subject of the pronoun (nominative case) and then determine the use of the reflexive pronoun in the sentence to match the correct case (genitive, dative, accusative, or ablative). Latin’s reflexive pronouns are:


    1st person: ego, mei, mihi, me, me

    2nd person: tu, tui, tibi, te, te

    3rd person: is (ea, id), sui, sibi, se, se


    1st person: nos, nostri, nobis, nos, nobis

    2nd person: vos, vestri, vobis, vos, vobis

    3rd person: ei (eae, ea), sui, sibi, se, se

    Some example sentences include:

    Me legere docuit. (I taught myself to read)

    Sibi librum novum emit. (He bought a new book for himself)

    De se scripserunt. (They wrote about themselves)

    There is one quirk about Latin’s reflexive pronouns that give students trouble. Notice that the singular and plural forms of the 3rd-person reflexive pronouns are identical for the genitive though ablative cases. This is because there is never any ambiguity whether the noun to which a 3rd-person reflexive pronoun refers is singular or plural.

    Since the pronoun always refers back to a subject, (unlike other ambiguous pronouns) there is no need for separate singular and plural forms. However, when translating from Latin to English, the student must take care to indicate in the English sentence whether the reflexive pronoun is singular (as in himself, herself, or itself) or plural (as in themselves). Whereas Latin does not distinguish singular and plural 3rd-person reflexive pronouns, English does.

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    Reflexive pronouns, like other pronouns, take the place of nouns and reduce the need to repeat a noun in the same or subsequent sentences. However, use of a pronoun can create ambiguity to exactly which noun it refers. Reflexive pronouns eliminate this ambiguity by indicating, with a new form, that the pronoun refers back to a subject. English adds –self and –selves to pronouns to form reflexive pronouns. Latin uses entirely new forms that, like most things Latin, must be memorized.

    One difficulty Latin students often have with reflexive pronouns is the lack of distinguishing forms between the number (singular or plural) of the pronoun in the 3rd-person. When translating from Latin to English, elementary Latin students often find it difficult to match a plural noun with its plural reflexive pronoun because the plural forms have what appear to be singular forms. There is no useful trick here that a Latin student can use to overcome this translation obstacle. Only memorization and practice assures that a 3rd-person reflexive pronoun is properly matched with its antecedent noun.