When I learnt about the pronoun "suus", I was originally taught that it always referred to the subject at the start of the sentence. Having read some original Livy, I am not confused as I realised that it almost always (only through my limited experience though) refers to the subject of a specific clause within a sentence (which is not necessarily the main subject of a sentence). Is this true (especially as original Latin didn't have punctuation and therefore no distinct sentences)?

  • 2
    Welcome to this site! I don't think I get the meaning of your question, but you are right that suus doesn't always refer to the subject, but also to the direct/indirect object, and sometimes even to something not syntactically expressed. See the Lewis & Short's dictionary entry (logeion.uchicago.edu/suus) for details Commented Feb 23 at 14:14

1 Answer 1


Latin definitely has sentences, but sentence division generally has little effect on the grammar, and certainly has no bearing on your troubles with the reflexive pronoun.

What is much more important is that Latin has a construct called subordination, which means that certain clauses are subordinate to another clause. The other clause may also be subordinate to yet another clause, or it may not. A clause and its subordinate clauses are often in the same sentence, but not always.

When I learnt about the pronoun "suus", I was originally taught that it always referred to the subject at the start of the sentence.

That is incorrect (as you have discovered), although it has a certain kernel of truth. The basic rule is that the reflexive pronoun refers to the subject of the clause it appears in. Here is how Allen & Greennough put it:

The reflexive pronoun (sē), and usually its corresponding possessive (suus), are used in the predicate to refer to the subject of the sentence or clause.

However, if you read on, you will find there is an important exception affecting indirect speech, and indeed all situations where (in A & G's words) “the subordinate clause expresses the words or thought of the subject of the main clause”: In these cases, the reflexive pronoun refers to the subject of the main clause. (The term “main clause” in this case must be understood to mean “superordinate clause.”)

Here is a typical example from A & G (Caes. BG 1, 41):

Decima legiō [Caesarī] grātiās ēgit, quod dē sē optimum iūdicium fēcisset.
The tenth legion thanked him because [they said] he had expressed a high opinion of them. (An not of himself.)

This is a very important exception to the rule, and is usually stressed quite a bit in Latin instruction, and students are taught to remember to use the demonstrative pronoun referring to the subject in indirect speech. I assume it is what you remember from your Latin class. But it is almost totally restricted to this particular type of subordinate clause. (I say “almost totally” because, Latin being Latin, there are probably exceptions.)

If you are not in an indirect speech / “expressing words or thought” situation, the general rule applies, which is that the reflexive refers to the nearest subject. A & G give a really good example from Cicero (Cat. 2, 22):

Sunt ita multī ut eōs carcer capere nōn possit.
They are so many that the prison cannot hold them.

Could you imagine saying ut se carcer capere non possit here? It almost hurts the ear.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.