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I read that it's generally proscribed to use a possessive adjective before a body part. However, when I typed in "She loves massaging her legs" on Collins Translator, it gave the following translation.

Elle aime masser ses jambes

I want to know whether this is correct, and if so, when are body parts preceded by possessive adjectives?

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In a full sentence (ie, with a verb), if the body part is preceded by a possessive adjective "ses/son/sa/leur/leurs", it means that the body part does not belong to the body of the subject (note: this is true for "correct" French: in relaxed speech, speakers may tend to use a possessive article indifferently. This is for instance a mistake children tend to make and that teachers will then frown upon).

If the body part belongs to the subject of the verb, the rule is then to use a reflexive pronoun with the verb, and no possessive article.

Ex: compare:

  • Elle aime masser ses jambes: the legs are someone else's legs (who the "ses" refers to should be given from the context)
  • Elle aime se masser les jambes: the legs belong to the subject ("elle")

Similar example: il se lave les mains vs. il lave ses mains, etc.

With the possessives "mon/ma/mes/ton/tes/notre/nos/votre/vos", there is of course no ambiguity on whose body parts they are, but still the "correct" usage is to use a reflexive pronoun and no possessive article.

Ex: je me masse les jambes ("je masse mes jambes" can be found, but may be considered as poor phrasing).

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    I would not say it is poor grammar; to me, "je masse mes jambes" is perfectly grammatical, but it is just not the usage. – Jhyn Oct 28 at 16:28
  • Agree - I will edit this comment. – Greg Oct 28 at 16:43
  • I also found sentences like "Elle lui masse les jambes" to mean "She's massaging her (someone else's) legs". I wonder why there's 'lui' here instead of 'la'. – Shakir Rather Oct 29 at 3:23
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    Because "lui" is the pronoun for indirect objects. The full matching sentence is "elle masse les jambes à cette personne" => "à cette personne" is an indirect object => it must be replaced by the pronoun "lui". It is the same function as eg "elle lui envoie une lettre" or "elle lui donne un cadeau". You can say "elle le masse" with no mention of "les jambes" but then that means she does a massage on the whole body, or that you don't know which body part is being massaged. – Greg Oct 29 at 6:06
  • French is so hard. :-( – Strawberry Oct 29 at 10:16

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