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In lines 63-70 of chapter XVIII of Lingua latina per se illustrata. Familia Romana, one reads:

Discipuli magistro tabulās suas dant. [...] Magister suam cuique discipulō tabulam reddit, prīmum Sexto, tum Titō, postrēmō Mārcō, atque [...].

For third person possessive adjectives, I've learned that suus, sua, suum should be used when the possessor is the subject of the phrase. But, if it's not the case, the genitive of the pronoun is, ea, id must be used: eius for singular, eorum for masculine and neuter plural, and earum for feminine plural. At least, it's explained this way in my Latin grammar book.

Following the above explanation, the usage of suas in the first sentence is clear: the possessors of tabulas coincide with the subject discipuli. But I don't understand why suam and not eius is used in the last sentence. Can anyone explain it?

2 Answers 2

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The idea that suus is used when the possessor is the subject is a simplification for beginners. It can be used in a variety of other contexts, generally with a sense along the lines of "her/his own". There is probably a more formal way of putting it, that someone who knows Latin syntax could tell you.

Lewis and Short has a lengthy entry that cites a number of examples: suus. It mentions that suus is often used "With quisque, distributively, each (every one) ... his own; in prose quisque is generally preceded by suus."

Compare Cicero's

Iustitia est habitus animi communi utilitate conservata suam cuique tribuens dignitatem.

(De Inventione 2.160.8)

Also see from Lewis and Short "Scipio suas res Syracusanis restituit" (Liv. 29, 1, 17), which refers to Scipio returning their own possessions to the Syracusans, not his own.

(As is often the case, L&S is giving a slightly reworded paraphrase here rather than an exact quotation. It seems the actual wording of the cited sentence is

Omnium primum ratus tueri publicam fidem, partim edicto, partim iudiciis etiam in pertinaces ad obtinendam iniuriam redditis suas res Syracusanis restituit.

Scipio's name appears earlier in the passage.)

Here is an article that gives other examples of exceptions to that rule and that discusses the use of suus:

Elena Zheltova, “Latin reflexive pronouns at the crossroads of syntax and pragmatics”, Pallas [Online], 102 | 2016, Online since 20 December 2016, connection on 13 October 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/pallas/3700; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/pallas.3700

(mentioned on Reddit by Unbrutal_Russian)

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    I see, but could "eius" also be used in this case?
    – Charo
    Oct 13, 2023 at 14:42
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    @Charo: I'm not sure. In the PHI corpus, "suam cuique" seems to occur more than a couple times (I haven't checked the context of these), whereas "eius cuique" doesn't occur at all, so at minimum it might require some restructuring of the sentence to use "eius" instead.
    – Asteroides
    Oct 13, 2023 at 14:45
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    So, I suppose that the answer is that suus, sua, suum are generally used with quisque to convey the idea of distribution. I've found this other example by Cicero: homines nobiles [...] atque ornamenta sua cuique reddebant.
    – Charo
    Oct 13, 2023 at 18:28
  • @Asteroides: In the Livy quote why was "ad" + gerundive = "for the purpose of" used? The second part is then: "partly by edicts delivered even against the stubborn ones, for the purpose of obtaining unjustly, he restored...", which doesn't fit?
    – tony
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:02
  • @tony: I'm not sure! That seems worthy of a separate question.
    – Asteroides
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:57
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Although suus (the reflexive pronoun) usually refers to the subject of the sentence, it can refer to other nouns in the same clause or sentence as well. Ideally, the word eius should not be used, if there is the possible ambiguity that it could refer to someone outside of the sentence.

In this particular passage, there is an idiom involved: suus -a -um +cuique which specifically means "to each their own". So, the reason why the text uses suam here is to teach this idiom. This is explained on p. 158 of Lingua Latina: A Companion to Familia Romana.

If you wanted to use a possessive pronoun, rather than the reflexive pronoun, suam, then it would be preferable and less ambiguous to use ipsius. For example: Magister cuique discipulō ipsius tabulam reddit...

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    I don't understand why eius should refer to someone outside of the sentence. This example comes from my book: Filium meum et eius amicos agnovi. In this case eius refers to filium, that is, they are the friends of the son of the person who is the subject of the sentence.
    – Charo
    Oct 13, 2023 at 15:04
  • @Charo Well, you can, but there might be an ambiguity because eius could refer to some other person previously mentioned. Since you said the passage came from lines 63-70 it is clear that there is a lot of text and for all I knew, there could have been some other man or boy mentioned elsewhere which eius could refer to. I looked up this passage and see that an idiom is involved so I have edited my answer to make everything more clear. Oct 13, 2023 at 16:38

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