Is the sympathetic dative essential to express some meaning in some context or is it just an alternative form, idiomatic in Spanish, of expressing possession/association without possessive pronouns? I believe it is the latter because other languages such as English and Portuguese, never use it and are able to express all possessive /associations relationships that I know, but I'm possibly missing some nuance, so I'd like to confirm with native Spanish speakers. A simple example for discussion:

  • Me lavo las manos
  • Lavo mis manos.

My question has nothing to do with No possessive pronoun for body parts . First, my question is about the sympathetic dative in general, not specifically its usage with body parts. Second, I understand very well how to use that form of dative to express possession. My question is if the sympathetic dative expresses something that a possessive pronoun could not achieve or if the preference for the dative over the possessive pronoun is purely idiomatic.


1 Answer 1


The sympathetic dative (see canonical question) is the standard idiomatic form that is used in Spanish for body parts and possessions, especially inalienable possession, in certain kinds of propositions, for example, with pronominal unaccusative verbs like caerse, for some simple intransitive verbs like doler, and for optionally reflexive verbs like lavar(se), peinar(se), etc.

  • Se le cayó el pelo.
  • ¿Te duele la cabeza?
  • Me lavo las manos.
  • Se peina los rulos.
  • Nos cortamos las uñas.

Although it's usually grammatically correct to use what I'd call the "logical" form, i.e. the one used in English, with possession indicated by a possessive pronoun and no dative pronoun, it's not idiomatic, and can be positively awkward.

For the transitive verbs like lavar, the "logical" form is tolerable:

  • Lavo mis manos.
  • Peina sus rulos.
  • Cortamos nuestras uñas.

No native Spanish speaker would use that form in everyday speech, but it can be found in some registers (literature, poetry) and it doesn't sound too bad.

With the intransitive verbs, the "logical" form simply sounds wrong:

  • Su pelo se cayó.
  • ¿Duele tu cabeza?

These are grammatically correct and they make sense, but they still sound wrong to native Spanish ears. I don't think anybody would use these sentences naturally. (The logic goes as this [feel free to skip]: They are sentences with a passive experiencer that isn't found anywhere among the verb arguments, but only shown by a possessive pronoun, and on top of that, the syntactic subject is neither an agent nor an experiencer, which are the two usual roles of a subject. If your hair falls out, it's not the hair that really experiences anything: from this point of view, the one experiencing the hair's fall is you.)

  • Thanks! I just wanted to make sure that the two constructions are equivalent and that each language has arbitrarily chosen one of them at some moment of its history. From your answer, it is clear that both statements are true. Commented Nov 28, 2019 at 20:40
  • My motivation for creating this question in the first place was that spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/26171/… says that the sympathetic dative is needed sometimes instead of the possessive pronouns, but it seems to me that is a confusing statement. If I got it right, it is not needed; it is just idiomatic. Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 1:25
  • 1
    There's a difference between grammar (how things are supposed to be structured) and pragmatics (how they are actually used). Grammatically, you don't need symp. dat.; pragmatically, you do, because otherwise your Spanish will sound weird and artificial, and thus, depending on your preferred theory of sociolinguistics, maybe even wrong.
    – pablodf76
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 10:39
  • Thanks for the explanation. Rephrasing what I said before, what was meant in the description of the sympathetic dative in the canonical question is that it is needed to sound natural/like a native Spanish speaker Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 12:23
  • @AlanEvangelista - If you have a follow-up question about an existing q-a, I encourage you to mention the existing question, with a link, in your new question. Also, you can post a comment below the existing answer, requesting clarification. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 6:59

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