Språkkänsla – hans eller sin?

A grammatical issue in Swedish that many beginners, especially English speakers, find difficult is how to use the reflexive possessive pronouns sin, sitt and sina.

I personally think that the Swedish language is pretty neat in this way, that we can easily distinguish between:

  • Han talade med grannen om hans bil (He spoke to the neighbour about the neighbour’s car)
  • Han talade med grannen om sin bil (He spoke to the neighbour about his own car)

Isn’t it pretty cool to be able to clarify that with the uses of hans and sin? This distinction does not exist in English, which can give rise to confusion (and require clarification about who you are actually referring to).

You use this reflexive possessive pronoun when you say that the noun belongs to the subject in the sentence. “Han talade om sin bil” – He talks about his (own) car. The word sin links back to the subject (han), and means that the car belongs to the subject.

You use sin in this example, because sin is the en-word version – and the word bil is an en-word. If it was an ett-word instead, let’s say hus, then the sentence would look like this:

  • Han talade om sitt hus

We would use sitt, because this is the ett-word version of this reflexive possessive pronoun. Sin and sitt are used when the noun is singular, just 1 thing.

If the noun is in plural, you would use the plural-version (regardless of whether the noun is en or ett in singular) – sina – like this:

  • Han talade om sina bilar (He spoke about his own cars)

But if he was talking to the neighbour about the neighbour’s house, or cars, the sentences would look like this:

  • Han talade med grannen om hans hus
  • Han talade med grannen om hans bilar

So the important thing is that the noun belongs to the subject of the sentence, then you use sin, sitt, or sina.

Sin, sitt, sina are only used in this way for the third person – both singular and plural. So, in other words, this only kicks in when you talk about someone else (not jag or du). It could be han or hon, or de. It could also be when you use people’s names when you talk about them in third person.

Interestingly, according to research, this distinction is become more blurred – especially among young people who do not have Swedish as their mother tongue. They are less likely to use sin, sitt, sina and would instead use hans, hennes or deras.  They are also particularly likely to use hans, hennes or deras after a preposition, such as på or av. So for example: “Vem är han arg på?” “På hans mamma.” Whereas those who have Swedish as a mother tongue are more likely to say “På sin mamma”, in this case.

But does this mean that this grammatical rule is slowly changing? Researchers are divided, but it seems that this kind of use of the reflexive possessive pronoun does not influence “mother tongue speakers”, so it seems unlikely that the rule will change within a near future, even though examples of alternative uses may become more common in the future.

15 thoughts on “Språkkänsla – hans eller sin?

  1. Thank you very much for this, but I have a question:

    Which pronoun do you have to use in an example like “Peter brough Jake his car”? In English, this sentence is ambiguous between “his” referring to either Peter or Jake. So do you use one of the forms if it is Peter and the respective other if it is Jake, or is only one of the pronouns possible in these environments and it is as ambiguous as in English?
    Thanks in advance!!!

    • Good question! Not ambiguous at all in Swedish, actually, which is good news. I will use the verb gav (gave) in this example to keep it simple. Peter gave Jake his car (i.e. Peter’s car) = Peter gav Jake sin bil. Peter gave Jake his car (i.e. Jake’s car was perhaps bought by Peter, but wasn’t Peter’s car) = Peter gav Jake hans bil. Although we might also construct the latter sentence in a different way, for ex: Peter gav Jake en bil, or, Peter köpte en bil åt Jake. Hope this helps! /Anneli

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