I have noticed that English tends to use possessive adjectives like "his" in situations for which German would leave them out. For example I would say "er wäscht sich die Hände" rather than "er wäscht seine Hände." The latter would be the most literal translation of "he washes his hands" in English, but it seems like it would be wrong in German.

Are there any definite rules for when to leave out the possessive adjectives in German? In these cases, is it always necessary to specify "sich" (or mir etc. as the case may be) plus the definite article, or can I leave that and use only the article when it is obvious from context who the things in question belong to?

  • 2
    Note: "Ich kämme mir die Haare", but not "Ich wasche mir das Auto"
    – tofro
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 7:22
  • 3
    To elaborate: the construction "<verb> <dative pronoun> den/die/das <noun>" is restricted to human body parts. For everything else, like a car (or a cat), we Germans use possessive pronouns like normal people :-) Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 7:37
  • 3
    The attitude "this would be the most literal translation of X in English (or any other language)" is absolutely wrong. Do not think this way!
    – Eller
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 8:53
  • Related question
    – guidot
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 12:26

3 Answers 3


I am not completely sure about this but the rule seems to be that the dative is used instead of the possessive if the possession is inalienable. There is a Wikipedia article about this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inalienable_possession

So when you are washing your hands you say:

Ich wasche mir die Hände.

because your hands are inalienable - they always belong to you.

On the other hand you don't say:

Ich wasche mir das Auto.

because your car can be taken away from you. Instead you say (like in English):

Ich wasche mein Auto.

The Wikipedia article has an interesting example:

Ich zerriss meine Hose. (I tore my pants)

This would be used if you take your pants and tear them.

However, you can say:

Ich zerriss mir die Hose

but one only would say that when he tore his pants while wearing them.


Being very pedantic the following four sentences have a different meaning:

  1. Er wäscht die Hände.

  2. Er wäscht seine Hände.

  3. Er wäscht sich die Hände.

  4. Er wäscht sich seine Hände.

However in 99.99% of all cases these four sentences will have the same meaning in the context they are used.

Therefore the four sentences (at least 2, 3 and 4) will be used as synonyms by most Germans.

However there are situations imaginable where the sentences have a different meaning. Let's take the following (stupid) example:

The hands of his one year old daughter are very dirty. His daughter is too young to wash her hands herself. He wants his daughter to have clean hands.

In this situation at least sentences 1, 2 and 3 (maybe even 4) can have a completely different meaning.

  • +1. Using 1 or 2 adds unnecessary ambiguity (about who the hands belong to), while in 4 the "seine" is redundant, so these three expressions do sound a little odd when used for one's own hands and most Germans will prefer 3. But they are not wrong.
    – Annatar
    Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 8:13
  • With a little effort you could anyway attach different meanings to the four. 1) Some hands which had previously been mentionend, not necessarily his own ones. 2) His hands, but not necessarily those that are part of his body. He could be a collector of porcellain hands for dolls. 3) His own physical hands, i.e. the most usual meaning that sentence would have in everyday life anyway 4) He cleans some hands, e.g. those from his collection of porcellain doll hands, and he does this especially for (= on behalf of) himself (as opposed to: for somebody else). - Well, yes, far-fetched. But possible. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 16:06

It's not wrong but only a matter of style.

I personally think it's about this one single phrase people find too awkward to say:

Ich wasche meine Hände [in Unschuld].

It's a Bible quote (Psalm 26, David) but also often attributed to Pontius Pilatus though he used a slightly different wording in Luther's translation. So, people don't want to use that phrase.

Ich wasche gerade meine Hände.

Ich wasche meine Füße.

Ich wasche meine Sachen.

are perfectly okay.

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