Pronouns are words that replace a noun or noun phrase in a sentence when it has already been mentioned in the sentence or in a previous one. Most of the time they can be seen as an abbreviation of something. Sometimes they replace the noun entirely, sometimes they appear to be a sort of adjective, and sometimes they just connect the noun from the first clause to the next one. Altogether there are eight different types of pronoun.
These refer to persons or things that fulfil functions in the sentence. Examples in English are ‘I/me’, ‘he/she’, ‘they/them’.
Latin makes less use of personal pronouns than does English, because a lot of the information that they convey is present in the verb forms.
Some uses of the pronoun in various cases:
- The pronoun is especially rare in the nominative (i.e. when talking about the subject of the sentence): in the sentence ‘He opened the door and then he went outside,’ the word ‘he’ would not appear at all. In the sentence, ‘I think dogs are cuter than cats,’ it would not be necessary to say ‘I’ in Latin because this is implicit in the verb ending. But the pronoun is used for contrast or emphasis: for example, in the sentence, ‘My brother likes dogs but I like cats’, there would be a pronoun ‘I’.
- Latin used ‘the royal “we”‘. Cicero, surprisingly enough, was very fond of it.
- When translating into Latin and you come across a pronoun that refers to the subject of the verb, think this: could I put it in italics? If not, don’t include it in your Latin. A useful tip for translating the pronoun into English when it appears is to structure the sentence like so: ‘My friend thinks X, while I think Y.’
- The accusative personal pronoun is the direct object, as in ‘He hit me.’
- ad + accusative: denotes a person’s residence. ‘ueni ad me‘ means ‘come to my house’. ‘ad me’ on its own literally means ‘towards me’; it does not mean ‘to me’, in the sense ‘give that to me’ (see below).
- The dative personal pronoun is usually the indirect object, i.e. ‘Give that to me‘.
- There is also a so-called ‘ethical dative’, as in ‘That is very important to us‘. This use of the dative extends into the gerundive, where ‘nobis agendum est‘, ‘it is to-be-done for us’, means ‘we must do it’. It also appears in phrases such as: ‘mihi nihil refert‘, literally ‘it returns nothing to me’, i.e. ‘I don’t care’; ‘mihi placet‘, literally ‘it pleases me’, i.e. ‘I approve’ or ‘I like it’. If you know French/Spanish/Italian you may recognise this type of construction from e.g. a mí me gusta, ça m’est égal, mi piace.
- The genitive personal pronoun is, in my opinion, one of the most confusing parts of speech for an English speaker learning Latin. It means ‘of me/you’, but it is used very rarely, in the sense ‘a part of him‘, ‘do this in memory of me‘, or ‘he did it for love of you‘. It also follows some verbs that take the genitive but are translated slightly differently in English, e.g. ‘miserere mei’, ‘have mercy on me‘. It is never used to denote the person to whom something belongs.
- The ablative personal pronoun appears in ablative absolutes and also after prepositions. It cannot be used on its own to mean ‘by/from me’; it must have the preposition a(b). For example, ‘He was scorned by you’ would be ‘spretus est a te‘.
The personal pronoun exists only in the first and second person. Where a third person pronoun (he/she/they) is necessary, Latin uses one of the demonstrative pronouns (is or ille).
* When the pronoun is used as an object, it is ‘nostri’, e.g. ‘compassion for us’ (this takes the genitive), ‘the matter of restoring us’ (in which ‘restoring’ is a gerundive that depends on ‘us’). When it is partitive, as in ‘how many of us’, it is ‘nostrum’.
Possessive Pronouns (vs. Possessive Adjectives)
The possessive pronoun refers to an object that belongs to someone and can be seen as an abbreviation of ‘my ____’. For example, ‘You do your homework and I’ll do mine.’ ‘Mine’ is short for ‘my homework’. Again it is used where it replaces a word that you’d stress in speech, that you could put in italics, like so: ‘You do your homework, I’ll do my homework.’
However, be careful not to confuse possessive pronouns with possessive adjectives. ‘Mine’ is a pronoun in English, but ‘your’ is an adjective.
Pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs
Adjectives: my, your, his, her, its, our, their
Things get more complicated. In the third person, whether you use the possessive adjective (agreeing with the noun) or the demonstrative pronoun in the genitive (agreeing with the person) depends on the subject of the sentence. The possessive adjective is usually used only for emphasis. So for example:
‘She betrayed her own father’ – prodidit patrem suum. suum is the possessive adjective and it agrees with the noun patrem so it is masculine, even though the subject is female (‘she’). The pronoun is not necessary to the sense (if you saw ‘prodidit patrem‘ you could reasonably infer that it meant the father of the subject of the verb) but it is appropriate here, as it stresses the enormity of the act. Notice that there is no word for ‘she’.
‘I bumped into Marcus and Quintus; earlier I had seen their father’ – Marcum Quintumque offendi; antea uideram eorum patrem. ‘eorum’ is the genitive of the demonstrative pronoun, and it agrees with ‘Marcus and Quintus’ (so it is masculine plural).
And now, annoyingly, the possessive pronoun is declined exactly like the possessive adjective, which follows the paradigm of bonus. Here it is solely in the nominative singular:
Mine: meus, mea, meum
Ours: noster, nostra, nostrum
Yours (singular): tuus, tua, tuum
Yours (plural): vester, vestra, vestrum
His/theirs: suus, sua, suum
In the third person the genitive of the demonstrative pronoun (below) is used.
The most important trap to avoid when translating into Latin is the agreement; the pronoun agrees with the possessed object, not the possessor!
‘Are those books mine?’ = ‘hi libri, suntne mei?’
‘Yes, they are yours.’ = ‘equidem sunt tui.’
Even though ‘I’ am one person and female, the pronoun is ‘tui’, not ‘tua’.
Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns
These may appear the same in English because they both contain the suffix ‘-self’; however, they are distinct and in Latin their difference is important.
The REFLEXIVE PRONOUN is used when the subject and object are the same noun. For example, ‘he pinched him’ suggests that one person pinched another person, as opposed to ‘he pinched himself‘ where one person pinched himself and there were no other people involved. The subject is ‘he’ and the object is also ‘him’, i.e. ‘himself’. In Latin this pronoun looks the same as the personal pronoun, with an added third person.
* See above (Personal Pronoun).
The INTENSIVE PRONOUN is used to emphasise the subject. For example, ‘When the generals failed to complete the mission, Caesar himself had to do it’ or ‘Caesar had to do it himself‘. Here the ‘-self’ applies to the subject (Caesar) but the object is ‘it’ (the mission, i.e. not Caesar).
Some differences from modern English:
- For the generic second person pronoun (i.e. ‘that feeling when you…’) Latin uses the impersonal passive (see the Verb section).
- Latin has no ‘singular they’. For the generic third person (e.g. when talking about ‘the reader’) Latin usually uses the indefinite relative pronoun (‘the one who …’).
- Latin is a very specific language. Remember that all Latin pronouns (and nouns) have gender. There are very few common-gender nouns. There is no commonly used word for ‘child’, only ‘boy’/’girl’ and ‘son’/’daughter’. The collective noun, ‘children’, is masculine. The neuter pronoun is never used for people in Latin and Latin has no pronoun that corresponds to a conjunction (such as ‘that’). Thus, you can’t say in Latin, ‘I have a friend who…’ You can only say ‘I have a male friend; he…’ or ‘I have a female friend; she…’ There are some nouns such as ‘comes’ (companion) that can be either masculine or feminine but not both at once.