The Mysterious Pronouns *swój, swoja, swoje*
In Polish there are a variety of pronouns that behave more or less like their English equivalents (except that Polish has more pronouns than English). But not all of the Polish pronouns are so predictable and dull as "he" or "his". There are also so called impersonal pronouns, that are deceptive and surprising.
What are the Impersonal Pronouns (or possessive reflexive pronouns)
There are some cases, when regular pronouns ought to be replaced by impersonal pronouns: swój/swoja/swoje (singular forms) /swoi/swoje (plural forms).
The pronoun "swój" and its forms replace the following pronouns:
- mój/moja/moje (sg.)/moi/moje (pl.) - my
- twój/twoja/twoje (sg.)/twoi/twoje (pl.) - your (sg.)
- nasz/nasza/nasze (sg.)/nasi/nasze (pl.) - our
- wasz/wasza/wasze (sg.)/wasi/wasze (pl.) - your (pl.)
- jego/jej/-- (sg.)/ich/ich (pl.) - his, her, [see note 1 below], their.
The process takes place when the object in a phrase is composed of a possessive pronoun and a noun together [see note 2 below]. It may be either a direct or an indirect object. It happens in contexts where what the noun accompanied by the pronoun expresses belongs or relates to the subject of the clause, and the subject may be:
1. The person speaking:
- Spakowałam wszystkie swoje rzeczy - I packed all my things
- Żegnam swoich przyjaciół - I bid my friends farewell
- Dam Ci swój adres - I will let you know my address
- Umówiłem się ze swoją dziewczyną - I made a date with my girlfriend
2. The group of people that the speaker is a member of:
- Wyjaśniliśmy im swoje racje. - We explained our arguments to them
- Bierzemy swoje książki - We take our books
- Myślimy o swoich dzieciach - We are thinking of our children
3. The person that the speaker is addressing:
- Zabierz swoje rzeczy! - Take away your stuff!
- Wracaj do swojej mamy! - Go back to your mom!
- Tak, przyniosłeś swoje książki. - Yes, you have brought your books
- Pożyczasz im swoje pieniądze - You lend them your own money
4. The groups of people that the speaker is addressing:
- Dlaczego nie mówiliście o swoich problemach? - Why did you not tell about your problems?
- Porozmawiajcie ze swoją córką - Talk to your daughter.
5. Third persons:
- Oni rozmawiają ze swoimi dziećmi - They talk to their chidren
- Pies je swój obiad - The dog is eating its dinner
- On umawia się ze swoją dziewczyną - He is setting a date with his girlfriend
- Ona chodzi tylko do swojego fryzjera - She only goes to her hairdresser
- Szkocja słynie swoimi zamkami - Scotland is famous for its castles
- On czyta swoją książkę dzieciom - He reads his book to the children - Attention: this book (direct object) is his property (or is written by him), and the children are just any children - hence "swoją" matches "książkę" by gender, case and singular number.
- On czyta książkę swoim dzieciom - He reads a book to his children - Attention: these children are his children (indirect object), and the book is just any book - hence "swoim" matches "dzieciom" by gender, case and plural number.
When the Impersonal Pronouns must be used
The impersonal pronoun always relates to the person or object, to which the noun is most closely related. It is especially important in 3-person phrases, where using the wrong pronoun creates ambiguity:
- Pies je swój obiad - The dog is eating its dinner
- Pies je jego obiad - Wait, what? So in a previous phrase there was a boy or a man mentioned, whose dinner the dog is eating now, or what?
- Nauczyciele prosili rodziców, by porozmawiali ze swoimi dziećmi - The teachers asked the parents to talk to their children - Attention! In Polish, unlike English, there are 2 clauses here, divided by comma. The subject of the 1-st clause is teachers, but the subject of second clause is parents - and the pronoun swoimi links the subject within the clause, so it shows a relation between the parents and their children. If a regular pronoun is used, then it denies that link, thus linking the children to the subject of the first clause:
- Nauczyciele prosili rodziców, by porozmawiali z ich dziećmi - Wait, what? Why should the parents of the pupils talk to the children of the teachers?
When the Impersonal Pronouns should be used
In 2-nd person phrases it is just more natural to use the impersonal pronoun. If you use the 2-nd person pronoun, in many cases it is not wrong, but it sounds unnatural, or adds extra stress:
- Zabierz swoje rzeczy! - Take away your stuff!
- Zabierz twoje rzeczy! - Take away your own stuff!
In 1-st person phrases (singular and plural) it is just more natural to use the impersonal pronoun. Using the 1-st person pronoun may add extra stress, which may also be intentional:
- Odwiedzam swoich rodziców - I visit my parents
- Odwiedzam moich rodziców - I visit just my parents
A note based on "A Concise Polish Grammar" by Ron F. Feldstein:
Notice that the English sentence "John lost his book" is ambiguous, and can mean either that John lost his own book or somebody else's. In Polish, third person possessive pronouns must make this distinction. If the possessive agrees with the subject of the clause, then the appropriate form of swój must be used. However, if they do not agree, then the non-reflexive jego/jej/ich are selected. Therefore, the ambiguous English sentence has two unambiguous Polish equivalents.
- Jan zgubił swoją książkę - John lost his own book
- Jan zgubił jego książkę - John lost his (someone else's) book
In the first and second persons, the choice is more of a stylistic one, since ambiguity cannot occur as it can in the third person (e.g. Mam moją/swoją książkę - I have my book, Masz twoją/swoją książkę - You have your book.
- PWN Dictionary: swój
- Dictionary by prof. Doroszewski: swój
- Declension of swój/swoja/swoje in Grammatical Dictionary of Polish
 In Contemporary Polish presently there is not any pronoun for the English pronoun its. Instead, the forms jego and jej are used for male and female nouns, and for neuter nouns - either jego is used (as with male nouns) or tego + noun (eg. tego dziecka), although tego is actually another pronoun: ten/tej/tego (sg.) tych/tych (pl.). The Middle-Polish equivalents of its: onego/onej/onego (sg.)/onych/onych (pl.) are almost forgotten, they are used only in quite old books.
 The pronoun has to directly precede the noun that it describes (in rare cases - like poetry - it may go right after the noun, but it is quite unnatural). Also, the possessive and possessive reflexive pronoun must agree in gender, number and grammatical case with the noun that it describes.
I am not a linguist, but an engineer who loves his mother tongue. If there is something missing above, something is wrong or unclear, please do not hesitate to suggest corrections.
You may also want to check:
- Conjugation of Verbs in Polish
- Aspect of Verbs in Polish, Verbs of Singular, Multiple and Completed actions
- What is Genitive Case Useful For
- The Meaningful Position of Adjective
- Translating "and" into Polish explained
- The verbs znać, wiedzieć and umieć
- English "that" is sometimes Polish ten, sometimes tamten
- The versatile word to
- The Logical Accent in Polish
So my question is more "when the impersonal pronoun should NOT be used".
I've never used "swój" in 3 years of Polish and I'm only seeing this thing now, and it seems even the most simple sentence needs it and I'm talking non sense for three years. "I like my car" should be "Lubię swój samochód" if I understand your explanations.
Well, it is hard to me to find a general rule when it should NOT be used, but I can give some examples.
You should not use the impersonal pronoun in complex sentences, when the object of the second clause refers/belongs to the subject of the first clause.
- Ratownik kazał zagubionemu turyście użyć jego liny zamiast swojej. - The rescuer told the lost tourist to use his rope instead of the tourist's one.
You should be cautious when using the impersonal pronoun with the verb "być" or when the subject is a pronoun, because then the object refers to itself. That is rare with unanimated nouns, but may happen. With animated nouns, in cases when it is intentional, you usually add the adjective "własny/własna/własne" = "own" / "oneself":
- To jest mój dom. - This is my house. - Not "swój", because that would mean that the house belongs to itself.
- Drzewo ma swój cień. - The tree has its shadow. - Well, the shadow refers/belongs to the tree, so it is correct to use the impersonal pronoun
- Jestem teraz swoim własnym szefem! Hurra! - I am the boss to myself now! Hooray!
There may be some more cases when the impersonal pronoun should not be used, but I can't find any more now.
So I had a lesson today and a problem came up, but my teacher wasn't sure. She has to check on her side, but I'm checking on mine.
The sentence was "Boję się mojego/swojego psa". She says "mojego" sounds better but can't explain why. She thinks it has something to do with the fact that you're talking about a living being, someone that you love.
I didn't ask her, but how would you say the same thing with a computer instead of a dog, for example?
Here are some usage frequencies from the Polish corpus:
Even though these results may be distorted by the fact that some nouns are more likely to be grammatical subjects than objects (thus making swój inapplicable), I still think that you can see that there is no rule here. In the case of the dog, both options should be fine.
Actually I do not have the time to read and understand all, but I also discussed this question recently with a polish friend, but I didn't understand the use of these special pronouns: as they do not exist in the German language, I found this concept hard to understand. I hope your post will help me, thank you very much! :-)
As a Pole, too - both forms are correct:
- słynąć z + noun in Genitive
- słynąć + noun in Instrumental
I have chosen the 2-nd option to make it easier for Anglophones, as the English phrasal verb "to be famous for" is the exact translation of "słynąć", while the Polish preposition "z" does not usually translate to English "for".
I think you can find it in literature as a stylistic device, either archaisation (obviously) or to make something sound very elevated, serious, emphatic, perhaps ironically so. I think it's most commonly associated with expressions about time, like "onego dnia", which means "that day". So yes, it means "that" and not "its" (unless there's some even more archaic usage of the word of which I have no idea but that would be centuries). A less archaic but still quite archaic word is "owy" ("owego dnia" = "onego dnia" = "(tam)tego dnia").
BTW...it's weird cause it seems English grammarians would call it a demonstrative adjective (requires a noun) but Polish grammar calls it a pronoun? At least that's what I'm getting from google?
Is there any correct use of the word 'swoja'? The '-a' suffix is only used with feminine nouns in the nominative and vocative cases, and I don't believe they could ever be the referent of the reflexive pronoun 'swój'. However 'swoja' is listed as a correct conjugation of 'swój' on both wiktionary and sjp.pl
Personally I have doubts if "Jestem tak wysoki jak swoja siostra" is correct. I don't know if "swoja" can be said to refer to the subject (I) here or if it's a part of a separate noun phrase which potentially could be a subject of another clause so it can't use "swoja". I tried asking in the Facebook group "Poprawna polszczyzna", but I didn't really get an answer, which seems to prove that the matter is complicated.
Ergo, while I can't guarantee that it's wrong, I'd say that it's a lot safer to use "moja" in that sentence and to assume that there isn't really any usage of "swoja" and other Nominative forms.
"Swoja dziewczyna", as well as "swój chłopak" or "swój człowiek", etc., mean they are, or appear to be, close to the speaker because of origin, place of residence, family or community relationships. Someone you can trust. These expressions were used especially in the underground activities during the war, foreign occupation and clandestine organizations.
I would say, that "moich" puts more emphasis (my parents, not my wife's or somebody's else), but this might be a result of speaking habits in my region or in my family, and I agree that in 1-st person phrases the difference is be very subtle. Perhaps that it is better visible with objects than with people, eg. "jężdzę moim samochodem" vs. "jeżdzę swoim samochodem" - when speaking loudly the first phrase I instinctively put the phrasal accent to "moim", while the second phrase seems neutral to me.