Russian Language Blog

«Свой человек»: Unraveling a Possessive Pronoun Posted by on May 21, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, Soviet Union

«Свой» [one’s; his; her; their] is a «притяжательноеместоимение» [possessive pronoun] just like «мой» [my], «твой» [your (singular)], «наш» [our], «ваш» [your (plural)], «его» [his], «её» [her] and «их» [their]. Not all languages have this possessive pronoun – shout out to all you proud native speakers of English! – and that’s why it is not always clear when to use «свой» and when to use one of the others. Sometimes you might even wonder why Russian language would even need this possessive pronoun, when it has all the ones that English has and English seems to do just fine without «свой». Well, that’s a whole other conversation and for now I advice us all just to make peace with the fact that it exists and try to learn how to use it correctly. The key is to remember the following rule: «свой» is used when the possessor is the SUBJECT of the sentence. «Свой» changes according to the six cases of Russian languages very much like any other usual adjective ending on «-ой». Let’s have a look at a couple of examples of how to properly use «свой»:

«Яберусвоюсумку» [I take my bag].

«Тыберёшьсвоюсумку» [You take your bag].

«Онаберётсвоюсумку» [She takes her bag].

«Онберётсвоюсумку» [He takes his bag].

«Мызнаемсвоёдело» [We know our thing].

«Вызнаетесвоёдело» [You know your thing].

«Онизнаютсвоёдело» [They know their thing].

«Возьмисвойчек [Take (singular) your receipt!]

«Возьмитесвойчек [Take (plural) your receipt!]

I know what you’re all wondering now: What happens to the sentence «онаберётсвоюсумку» if we replace «свою» with «её» [her]? To the untrained eye these two possessive pronouns both mean one and the same thing (especially when seen in translation): HER. Russian language is not that easy for the sentence «онаберётеёсумку» [she takes her bag] will come to mean that she takes someone else’s bag, a bag belonging to another woman. «Свой» can thus save this poor unnamed woman from being suspected of the theft connected with using «её» in the last sentence (maybe she’s actually just trying to be helpful). Compare also the two following sentences:

«Он позвонил своему брату» [He called his (own) brother].

«Онпозвонилегобрату» [He called his (somebody else’s) brother].

But when to use «мой» instead of «свой» when speaking about oneself? That’s even trickier because the rule about always using «свой» when the possessor is also the SUBJECT of the sentence is not always followed by Russians themselves in colloquial speech. Russians often use «мой» when the possessor and subject of the sentence is «я» and «твой» when the possessor and subject is «ты». See for yourselves:

This is correct: «Япозвонилсвоейсестре» [I called my sister].

This is common: «Япозвонилмоейсестре» [I called my sister].

This is correct: «Ты закончил свою работу?» [Have you finished your work?]

This is common: «Ты закончил твою работу?» [Have you finished your work?]

And then there’s the trickiest part of all: in Russian possessive pronouns are not used when speaking about family members and relatives. That’s why the first two sentences are not correct at all – well, they’re alright grammatically and can be easily understood, but after all they have the word ‘sister’ in them, so you should just go ahead and skip any pronoun whatsoever: «Япозвонилсестре» [I called my sister]. The same goes for family words like «брат» [brother], «отец» [father], «мать» [mother], «дочь» [daughter], «сын» [son], «муж» [husband] and «жена» [wife]. Sometimes the leaving out of possessive pronouns will make a simple foreigner confused. Read this sentence for example:

«Вчераотецсходилвкиноссестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with (his or my?) sister].

In such cases as that one all you can truly hope for is that the context around the sentence will bring some clarity into whether the speaker’s father went to the movies with the speaker’s sister or with his own sister. Or ask them to use a possessive pronoun in which case you’ll hear one of the following two:

«Вчераотецсходилвкинососвоейсестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with his sister].

«Вчераотецсходилвкиносмоейсестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with my sister].

Because father is both the subject and the possessor in the first sentence, you have to use «свой». But in the second sentence father is only the subject, whereas the person speaking is the ‘possessor’ of the sister. Got it?

«Свой» is also used in Russian with the meaning of ‘one’s own’, when paired together with the subject of the sentence. This is not that hard. Think of how Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is translated into Russian as «Своякомната» [lit.: “A Room of One’s Own”]. Sometimes it is also translated as «Собственнаякомната» – but the difference between these two titles is so small that it is really only a matter of taste which one you personally prefer. Have a look at a couple of examples:

«Уменясвоямашина» [I have a car of my own].

«Унассвойдом» [We have a house of our own].

«Увсякогосвойвкус» [Everybody has their own taste].

And now for a question to the attentive reader – or just a reader not so attentive but keen on expressing «своёмнение» [one’s; his; her; their opinion] – what is more positive: when Russians call you: a) «свойчеловек»; or b) «нашчеловек»? Or are both of them equally positive?

P.S. I don’t know the right answer – that’s why I’m asking! I’ve been called mostly «наша» in Russia as a compliment, rarely «своя»… But somehow they both sound equally good to my ears.

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  1. Dale D:

    Is it possible to sometime make Byki card with native speakers for some of these Blogs? I do not feel comfortable with my decoding skills of written Russian. It would greatly help learning.

  2. Jim Nichols:

    As a retired professor of Romance Languages and Lit., now learning Russian (my son married a Russian girl, but now I would do it “проста так”) I want to compliment you on the clarity and quality of your posts. This last one is a good example and has helped me enormously. I have a blog myself and am well aware of all the hard work involved. Thank you!

  3. Moonyeen:

    Love your blogs! I just have two small English corrections to this one: advice is a noun and advise is a verb. “For now I advise . . . ”
    The second is a very common mistake many Americans make. The word “everybody” (meaning each body) is singular: “Everybody has his (or her) own taste.” (not THEIR taste.) and . . . “everyone IS here (not were here); everybody IS here (not WERE here). Everybody WAS (not were) happy; everyone WAS on time (not were on time.)

  4. Svetlana:

    As for the difference between
    “Она свой человек” and
    “Это наш человек”,
    it’s very hard to explain such details, but it could be that in the second case the meaning is that this person has very much in common with us, the same attitude and opinions, etc. With that, the first means that she has become very close to us, if not like a family member, then at least like a very close friend; someone with you can discuss very personal things.

    I expect to hear the first phrase when two people are talking about their plans, a third person enters, the first two startle for a moment, then say, “Да ладно, она свой человек, продолжай”, and continue talking.

    The second one would be expected in the following context:Me and my friend love eating ice-cream outside in winter, and when we saw some acquaintance doing the same, we’d say, “О, это наш человек!”

    Hope i managed to explain it)

  5. Svetlana:

    God, so many mistakes in the post – I shouldn’t hurry)

    someone with WHOM you can discuss very personal things.

    The second one would be expected in the following context: Me and my friend love eating ice-cream outside in winter, and if we see some acquaintance doing the same, we can say, “О, это наш человек!”

  6. Moonyeen:

    To the writer of the commend: “The second one would be expected in the following context: Me and my friend love eating ice-cream outside in winter, and if we see some acquaintance doing the same, we can say, “О, это наш человек!”
    Say what? Me and my friend love eating . . . ? How about: My friend and I? This blog is about grammar!

  7. josefina:

    Svetlana, thank you for your explanation! I think I get now!

    Monyeen, this blog is not about English grammar – if it was, then I would’ve been fired many years ago! But it is so nice to have you helping us out from time to time 🙂

  8. Moonyeen:

    Josefina, I really DO LOVE your blogsI I am offering corrections to English grammar so that anyone reading will see the correct usage. There are actually many similarities between English and Russian grammar. Russians do not say “Меня и мой друг ” just as Americans should not say “Me and my friend . . . Also, another mistake AMERICANS often make is . . . “If it WAS …” just like Russian, English uses the past tense in a conditional phrase. “Если бы были” in English is “If it WERE.” Maybe some Americans can learn English from your wonderful Russian blog.

  9. Svetlana:

    Прошу прощения за ошибки в языке, который не является моим родным. (Кстати, что такое “commend”?) Больше ошибок не будет.

    Re: Russians do not say “Меня и мой друг ”
    – Да, так не говорят. Говорят “мы с моим другом”, “я и мой друг” или “мой друг и я” – в зависимости от ситуации. А слово “меня” – это “я” в родительном или винительном падеже, поэтому (в общем случае) не может быть подлежащим.

    Re: The word “everybody” (meaning each body) is singular: “Everybody has his (or her) own taste.” (not THEIR taste.)
    – Не знаю, насколько, Вы доверяете автору пособия “Practical English Usage” Майклу Свону, но цитату из его книги приведу:
    In an informal style, we often use THEY to mean ‘HE OR SHE’, especially after indefinite words like SOMEBODY, ANYBODY, NOBODY, PERSON. This usage is sometimes considered ‘incorrect’, but it has been common in educated speech for centuries. (God send everyone their heart’s secire (Shakespeare)).

    Благодарю за внимание!

  10. Lionel:

    Very informative post!

    There may be a parallel in English to the lack of possessive pronouns with family members: I’m not sure if this is true for American English, but in colloquial British English you may hear someone referring to “the wife” – in other words, “my wife”. This is also occasionally used with other relatives, such as “the mother-in-law” or “the grandparents”.

  11. Joerg:

    @Moonyeen: Your comments and corrections are highly appreciated and come as an enrichment to this blog – no questions about that – but still there is no need to make other members of this community down. After all, mistakes can happen, all the more when writing in a foreign language as Svetlana did.

    @Svetlana: Спасибо Вам большое за отличные примеры что касается различения между “свой человек” и “наш человек”!

    @Josefina: Your post is just awesome! Thank you so much for your efforts you put in to explain tricky aspects of the Russian grammar so that everyone could understand and thank God for your indisputable skills to do so!
    As somebody who is longing for perfectionism in almost everything, I’d appreciate if you could take into consideration to use Moonyeen’s corrections in order to get “advise” right in your post. Спасибо!