In this answer, I learned that with "correct" French, you aren't supposed to use possessive determiners for body parts ("ma tête, mes jambes"), but instead use a definite article ("la tête, les jambes"); but that in relaxed French, you might see possessive determiners used.

In this TV show (around 0:54), a superhero needs a kid's help on doing a physical exercise called "The Airplane", and is giving instructions to a kid:

Pour faire l'avion, je m'installe sur le dos, comme ceci. Je replie mes jambes et toi, tu vas appuyer tes hanches ici (points to belly button), sur mes pieds. Et tu vas mettre tes main dans mes mains, et nous allons décoller et redescendre. Ça te va?

I'm curious why he sometimes avoids using a possessive determiner with a body part, and sometimes doesn't. For example, he avoids it when he says: "je m'installe sur le dos", but uses it when he says "Je replie mes jambes" (instead of "Je me replie les jambes").

Here is a bonus example that might be useful to have explained to me: in this show for children (at about 1:35), a woman sings to the audience about her love of fixing things and making crafts:

Avec mes deux mains mains mains,
Avec mes dix doigts coquins,
Je fabrique brique brique
Je bricole colle colle
Des idées plein la caboche
Fabricoler c'est fastoche.

I'm wondering if she could have said "Avec les deux mains" and "Avec les dix doigts" instead, and if it would have the same meaning / connotation, or if there instead would have been a difference?


In this answer, I learned that with "correct" French, you aren't supposed to use possessive determiners for body parts ("ma tête, mes jambes"), but instead use a definite article ("la tête, les jambes").

The reply you quote didn't clearly stated this "rule1" only apply to sentence like:

Elle aime masser ses jambes.

The reason is primarily to avoid ambiguity as ses jambes doesn't tell whose legs they are. That means the sentence is grammatically correct but its style would be improved/clarified by using a reflexive construction.

Using possessive determiners for body parts is certainly possible and correct in many cases.

What is generally considered incorrect is using a redundant determiner like in:

Elle aime se masser ses jambes.

A similar redundancy is:

J'ai mal à ma tête.

but it is less criticized. Redundancy is not forbidden in French. It can be used to emphasize something. It might also be used when talking to kids to make clearer what is said. Reciprocally, redundancy is what naturally comes to kids lips when talking.

The reason is only your own head can aches, not someone else's head so we use:

J'ai mal à la tête.

About the forms you quoted:

  1. Je m'installe sur le dos is the only possible way to tell it. The bogus j'installe sur mon dos would be missing a direct object: "I install on my back" (I install what?)

  2. Je replie mes jambes is less easy to sort out. Je me replie les jambes would be grammatically irreprochable but doesn't happen to be idiomatic. That's not the case with je me bouche les oreilles which is equivalent to je bouche mes oreilles.

  3. Avec mes deux mains and avec les deux mains are both idiomatic and in my opinion could have been used interchangeably.

  4. On the other hand 😉 avec mes dix doigts sounds better than avec les dix doigts. The last form might trigger the question: "which ones?"

1 I wouldn't call it a rule but a mild recommendation

  • Your comment aout "Je me replie les james" is useful to me, to remind me that things can be grammatical, but still wrong only because it's unidiomatic. I'm still not 100% sure what counts as a "redundant determiner". I added another clip from a children's show, where a woman sings: "Avec mes deux mains" and " Avec mes dix droigts"; isn't "mes" in both cases redundant? If it is redundant, is it considered to be incorrect French? – silph Nov 6 '20 at 10:49
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    Redundancy is rarely grammatically incorrect, if ever. These are more style recommendations and sometimes, emphasizing whose body parts it is about is definitely fine, like avec mes deux mains or avec mes dix doigts. One can even argue deux is redundant too as you can't have more ;-) Note also that when talking to kids, we often use more redundancy to make the sentence clearer to them. – jlliagre Nov 6 '20 at 11:09
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    if you are willing, could you add this information to your answer? i had understood the "rule" too rigidly; i didn't know that redundancy is actually usually allowed; and that it can be done for emphasis; and that redundancy is actually encouraged in some contexts (eg kids shows) to make the meaning more clear. – silph Nov 6 '20 at 11:13

This rule does not take into account exceptions that are dictated by context in which various parts of the same sort have to be differentiated.

In the last sentence, if the article is used there is no way to ensure whose hands are meant.
In the second sentence, "mes" (jambes) could have been "les": the rule is not applied in this case (you might refer to that usage as the lax way of speaking); "tes" (hanches) is understandable as there is an initial specification by a possessive (mes): "les hanches" could have an unclear ring as to whose hips are meant, although that is deducible. "Mes" (pieds) is necessary because otherwise is not clear whose feet you are talking about.

The verb "se replier" as meaning "to bend" does not exist in the language; so, in any case, you can't say "se replier les jambes". The verb form "se replier" does exist but it is used in the context of battles.

  • so are you saying that in "proper" French, you are still allowed to say "Je replie mes jambes", because "se replier les jambes" doesn't exist as an allowed usage for "replier"? – silph Nov 6 '20 at 4:31
  • @silph "Se replier" is a pronominal verb that means "to retreat", only (cnrtl.fr/definition/replier), bar a figurative meaning apparently derived from the literal meaning.You are not allowed to say it, normally, see this (same link): "1. En partiulier. [L'obj. désigne une partie articulée de corps] Replier les bras, les jambes. Pour porter ce corps si léger, le héron a assez, il a trop d'une patte; il replie l'autre;". However, occasionally, it is said (ex. Allonge tes jambes sous les siennes. but Allonge les jambes. ) – LPH Nov 6 '20 at 9:10

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