Roubava-lhes documentos (verb + lhe + noun) [seus vs. deles]

It’s common to see an indirect pronoun (such as lhe ou me ) applied to a verb describing the subject’s action, but with reference to the object . With some verbs, I’ve intuitively come to know the resulting meaning. Yet, I can’t come up with a consistent rule. At times, it can be equal to de + personal pronoun, such as:

Os chefes despediram o Rui pois, roubava-lhes documentos importantes.

Os chefes despediram o Rui pois, roubava deles documentos importantes.

Notice how in the second half of the sentence, an indirect pronoun ( lhes ) is used to reference the object (os chefes) of the verb “roubar”.

However, in other cases, de + personal pronoun is not necessarily the case:

Quanto aos homens, a máquina cortou-lhes os dedos.

Quanto aos homens, a máquina cortou os seus dedos.

Is there a consistent rule for this construction? Or does it just depend on the verb; requiring either foreknowledge or intuition to deduce the meaning?

@mrchasi, these indirect object pronouns are part of what we often call clitic pronouns. It’s mostly the third-person pronouns that require some guesswork, because they can apply to any third person, male or female, and also to the formal second person singular, so they’re non-specific pronouns.

In your examples, it’s not just clitic pronouns giving you trouble, but also their relationship with our very ambiguous third-person possessives. Seu, sua, seus, suas are our “standard” third-person possessives, but they agree with the object, not with the subject, which makes it hard for us to make sense of them when we don’t have enough context. Because of this, we often resort to the “alternative” possessives dele, dela, deles, delas – your de + personal pronoun construction, which is subject-specific and much clearer in any context.

So, seus and deles are in fact two versions of the same thing; it’s not an either/or situation. They are both usable in any of your examples:

  • Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava deles documentos importantes. :white_check_mark: = Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava os seus documentos importantes. :white_check_mark:

  • Quanto aos homens, a máquina cortou os seus dedos. :white_check_mark: = Quanto aos homens, a máquina cortou os dedos deles. :white_check_mark:


I just what to check I have understood this correctly. You use an indirect object pronoun (which agrees with the subject) to avoid using the possessive with the object (only the article being required in this case). But where this may cause ambiguity you drop the indirect pronoun and use the appropriate possessive that makes the possession clearer.
If that is correct, do I conclude that it is considered better Portuguese to use the indirect object to denote possession wherever possible, or doesn’t it really matter?

@michael.pearce, right, this is hard to explain. For everyone’s benefit, I’ll actually rewind and break it down more (sorry, because this got very long):

The indirect object (and the indirect object pronoun that replaces it) is not an element that truly indicates possession of something. It just tells us who is the ‘recipient’ of the action described by the verb (to whom, from whom, or for whom the action of the verb is intended).

For example:

  • His mother gave him life.
    = A sua mãe deu-lhe a vida.
    The verb gave makes us ask “gave what?”. That’s the direct object: life. To whom was it given? That’s the indirect object: (to) him. Note the unrelated possessive telling whose mother we are talking about.

  • His mother gave him his life.
    = A sua mãe deu-lhe a sua vida.
    Here is where we actually have proper possession of life being expressed, by “a sua vida”. Also, we have both the indirect object pronoun and a possessive in the same portion of the sentence, to further illustrate that they’re two complementary, but separate things.

With the examples from the other post, what you might have noticed is that we can sometimes omit one of these two elements when we can easily infer the omitted part or when it’s not our focus.

For example:

  • Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava-lhes documentos importantes.
    The second half just says that he “stole important documents from them” (indirect object). There’s no obvious possessive because we either assume that the documents were theirs or we’re just not so focused on who the documents belong or refer to.

Similarly, we can write:

  • Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava documentos importantes deles.
    Here, it says that he “stole their important documents”. But stole from who exactly? From the bosses’ own hands, from the assistant that was carrying them around…? There’s no obvious indirect object here (for this verb, in European Portuguese, we usually structure it as roubar a, not roubar de), but we can still do without it.

@mrchasi’s post and my own may have given the impression that these two sentences are 100% interchangeable or that the two elements are mutually exclusive, but that’s not truly the case. We could just as well write the whole thing and each element would add its own bit of information:

  • Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava-lhes documentos importantes deles.

On my previous post, I wasn’t so focused on indirect object pronouns, but on the fact that we have two types of possessives at our disposal, where one type (dele, dela, deles, delas) helps to clear out the ambiguity caused by the other (seu, sua, seus, suas). So, it’s not about dropping the indirect object pronoun to solve the ambiguity; it’s about switching from one possessive to another to reduce possessive ambiguity, whether or not indirect-object ambiguity is still there.

  • Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava-lhes os seus documentos importantes (who’s “seus”?)
    => Os chefes despediram o Rui pois roubava-lhes os documentos importantes deles (ahh, that’s who “seus” refers to)

Olá Joseph
I have to say thank you for taking the trouble to give a detailed explanation. I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken you. I really appreciate it as I have searched everywhere to get a full explanation not to mention clear!! There are many times I have come across the use of the indirect object pronoun when it is not needed in English creating all sorts of confusion. This finally makes sense - now I need to practise it so I can apply it to all contexts and a range of different verbs. I frequently double check verbs in the Porto Editora (I mean the big heavy tome and not the simpler smaller dictionaries) to find out what is the correct preposition to follow the verb, if any, but it is not always evident and sometimes the entry gives, under the section correct use, a range of prepositions without any explanation of the difference of meaning, if any.
Anyway thank you for setting me on the right track.
Bom fim de semana

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Well done!! I am revisiting this section for the umpteenth time. Your summary is verbalizing my confusion.

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Happy to help. Thank you too!