I was reading @brianpck's post about genitive pronouns vs possessive adjectives, and trying to understand when it's better to use one versus the other. Compare these two sentences:

Mater non est apud filios, ea in peristylo est; illic virum suum exspectat.


Puella lacrimat: in oculis eius sunt lacrimae.

Is there a reason to use one vs the other? Is it based purely on whether the person possesses the object, or is it more of a stylistic choice?

  • 2
    Just to clarify: your example focuses on the difference between a reflexive possessive adjective (suus) and a non-reflexive personal pronoun (eius). My linked question was asking about situations where the reflexive vs. non-reflexive distinction didn't come into play.
    – brianpck
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 17:18

1 Answer 1


The choice is not merely stylistic. The general rule is that suus refers to the subject of the clause, eius to someone else. There is some variation between the two, but the general rule of thumb is that there is a difference.

Your first example can be simplified to: Mater maritum suum/eius expectat. With suus the mother is waiting for her own husband. With eius she is waiting for someone else's husband. In isolation it feels weird, but with some context we can make the contrast:

Mater cum amico in horto sedens maritum suum/eius expectat.
Sitting in the garden with her friend, the mother waits for her/his husband.

I chose the friend to be male so that I can make the English contrast in one word. If you use amica instead, it would be "her own husband"/"her friend's husband".

In a subordinate clause suus can also refer to the subject of the governing clause, so there can be ambiguity. For example:

Marcus dixit Gaium se amare.
Marcus said that Gaius loves him/himself.

With "him" se refers to the subject Marcus of the governing clause, with himself it refers to the subject Gaius of the subordinate ACI structure. Both are valid readings.

In your second example eius looks like the only plausible choice, unless you argue that there is effectively subordination that makes reference to the girl possible. You can say Caesar in castris suis manet when Caesar stays in his camp, but what does it mean if tears are in their own eyes? As tears have no eyes, one would interpret in oculis suis as in oculis eius.

  • So to use my original two quotes, the first is mother waits for her husband (her being a possessive adjective since she is the subject), and the second is the girl cries: in the girl's eyes are tears (genitive pronoun). I'm being very literal for my own sake so I can clearly see the distinction.
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:28
  • 1
    @Adam Exactly! If you want extra emphasis for the first one, you can use "her own husband".
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:29
  • 1
    Great! Future me thanks you when I come back to refer to this post again at some point.
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 14:38
  • @Joonas llmavirta: In the original Q., both yourself and brianpck questioned the use of "mei nata" (Priscian). Brian also questioned (in his answer) Cicero's use of genitive pronouns (the first two examples) when possessive adjectives were expected. There is a natural tendency to accept anything Cicero says as Gospel (truth), which stifles debate. Four-years on it will be interesting to see if there is any fresh thinking on these points, from anyone.
    – tony
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 23:15
  • @tony At least I don't have any new thoughts on that.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 17, 2020 at 5:44

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