Polish Language Blog

Polish Possessive Pronouns – are they really that difficult? Posted by on Jun 30, 2009 in Grammar

Are Polish possessive pronouns really that difficult? I need an honest opinion here.

I have always thought they were one of those relatively straightforward bits in our convoluted language. But it turns out I might have been either mistaken or overly optimistic.

Yesterday I was asked this very complicated question:

Ok, so you say “moja książka” (my book) and “jej książka” (her book). But then you say: “On zgubił moją książkę.” (He lost my book) and because in this sentence “moja książka” is in the accusative (he lost kogo? co?) it became “moją książkę”. And when you say: “On zgubił jej książkę.” (He lost her book) only “książka” morphed into the accusative form, but not “jej”. Why is that?

And my answer: Because it’s Polish, that’s why.

But seriously, this is one of those instances when I realize that Polish possessive pronouns and their declensions can be totally incomprehensible even to the most dedicated learners (and to many Poles, too).

So, in order to make my life easier (because someone out there was bound to know the correct answer), I thought I’d ask this question to a couple of my native Polish friends. But ahem, their responses were not exactly all that helpful:

Friend #1: Dude, you’re right. This is weird. And how come I’ve never noticed this myself?
Friend #2: Because, duh, that’s how it is. Can’t you just tell your readers to memorize everything and stop bugging me?

I’ll ignore friend #2 for now, but yeah, friend #1 was right. We always tend to think about possessive pronouns as behaving kind of like adjectives. However, some of them think they’re special, or something.

Take a look:

  • my – mój (singular, masc.), moja (singular, fem.), moje (singular, neuter), moi (plural, masculine-personal), moje (plural, all other)
  • your – twój, twoja, twoje, twoi, twoje
  • his – jego
  • her – jej
  • our – nasz, nasza, nasze, nasi, nasze
  • your – wasz, wasza, wasze, wasi, wasze
  • their – ich

And see this? Those guys that have only one form – jego, jej and ich don’t decline. The nouns they describe decline as usual, but those pronouns themselves – don’t.

All others that have all the “adjective-looking” forms behave like good little adjectives should.

And to the question of “why is that?” my answer still stands – because it’s Polish, that’s why!

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  1. Basia:

    Hi Anna:
    I’m confused as usual. 🙂 I happen to be working on personal possessive pronouns (ugh)

    I was under the impression that jego/jej/ich do decline:

    Acc/Genitive: jego/niego/go
    Dative: jemu

    Acc: ja (can’t type “a” with tail) but elsewhere jej/niej

    Dative: im/nim but elsewhere ich/nich.

    Lately, I feel like I am making little progress with this language. I think I should resign myself
    to speaking English, being labeled as a hopeless monolingual American* (although
    I am Canadian) and just put up with the smirks while I’m in Poland.

  2. Elizabeth Sadus:

    I’m ok with most of the personal pronouns, except for swoj, swoja, swoje. This one kills me. I never know when to use it properly. Shouldn’t moj & twoj be enough to express possession?

  3. michael farris:

    The rule is very simple, jej, jego and ich are third person. They are in fact the same as the third person genitive pronouns.

    None of the other forms (including swój) are the same as a genitive pronoun.

    Of course it’s a little more complicated when you get to the formal pronouns.

    Pan has pański (a regular adjective) while Pani has ….. Pani. Once I noticed a woman fumbling in her purse hadn’t noticed she dropped a pen. I picked it up and asked her “Czy to Pani?” which means (simultaneously) “Is this yours?” and “Is this you?”

  4. russ:

    It never ceases to amaze me what Poles who learned Polish automatically from infancy don’t notice about their language. 🙂

    I often ask a Pole “Why does Polish say ‘jedna książka jest’, ‘dwie książki są’, but ‘pięć książek jest’ with a different noun ending and back to the singular verb again?” and produce confused surprise and “Wow, you’re right! Why do we do that! I never thought about it before.” I can’t imagine following such arbitrary complex rules automatically and not being aware of them.

    Polish computer programmers who have ever had to program a textual user interface seem more conscious of such linguistic hoops that must be jumped through (e.g. an online store that needs to tell you how many books are in your shopping cart). Programming such complex rules forces you to be aware of them.

    PS: Basia, you are confusing possessive pronouns (my, your, his, her, etc, which don’t decline in the third person in Polish) with pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc, which do decline in the third person in Polish).

  5. Gabriel:

    Well, I don think possessives pronouns in polish are so difficult 😛

  6. David Honley:

    Hi Anna!
    I’m the same as Elizabeth Sadus. The only pronouns I have difficulty with is the ‘swój, swoja, swoje’ group. I believe that if the Direct Object ‘belongs to ‘ the Subject of the sentence, then swój is used instead of mój… But maybe Anna, you could address the swój rules and give examples of how swój etc is used?
    Pozdrawiam serdecznie

  7. Michael Farris:

    Yeah, swój refers to the subject of the sentence.

    It’s not so helpful in the first and second persons (where some people are sloppy with it) but it’s worth its weight in gold in the third person.

    Spalił swoją książkę.

    = He burned his (own) book.


    Spalił jego książkę.

    = He burned his (someone else’s) book.

  8. pinolona:

    Ahhhhh somebody already mentioned ‘swój’! I was going to flag that!
    Sometimes it means ‘mine’, sometimes it means ‘one’s’…. confusion all round.
    I also sometimes get mixed up and think it means ‘his’ or ‘hers’ cos my brain is Latin-oriented where languages are concerned. Ditto David and Elizabeth, please clarify!

  9. michael:

    “Masz mapa gratis?” This is incorrect.
    “Masz mapę gratis?” Correct.

    How can I know when and how to change the end of the the word mapa? What is the name for this, is it a declension?

    Other wrong examples maybe:
    Masz lampka gratis?
    Masz książka gratis?
    Masz kubek gratis?
    Masz krześło gratis?

    Odd questions I know but it is an exercise in grammer.

  10. Justin B.:

    I think this is interesting in that, in the jego, jej an ich, gender is already present, because the most important thing to the Polish speaker isn’t the gender of the noun they are talking about, but the person who is posessing it an their gender.

    If you look at this if you use ‘my,’ ‘you (s),’ ‘your (pl)’ and ‘our,’ you don’t need to know the gender of the person the posessive adjective/pronoun is referring to, because you already know it, and to the poles, the most important thing is the gender of the object in these cases.

    I found that when talking about swoj to think of it as meaning “my own” and if you start a sentence with ‘I’ and you are talking about something of your own and you need a posessive adjective, it is always ‘svoi.” I hope tha thelps.