I often 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 certain verbs, I've intuitively come to know the resulting meaning. However, 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 o dinheiro da conta.

Os chefes despediram o Rui pois, roubava deles o dinheiro da conta.

Note how in the second part 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 solely depend on the verb; requiring either foreknowledge or intuition to deduce the meaning?

  • You have two different cases. In the first lhes is argumental. You just have to know the argument structure of the verb -- look at a decent dictionary like Aulete. You can say roubar alguma coisa a alguém. The lhes with cortar is not an argument though (it's a possessive dative). – Artefacto May 14 '20 at 1:24
  • I didn't realise that dictionaries showed such information, i've just checked out Aulete; great resource. So the fact that one can say roubar [algo] a alguem, is the reason why the indirect pronoun ""lhe" can be used? – Mr Chasi May 14 '20 at 10:53

The clitic lhe(s) has several functions. Most typically, it takes the place of the indirect object, in non-reflexive 3rd person situations. The indirect object is an internal argument of the verb that plays the role of source or target, it's typically animate, and is otherwise introduced by the preposition a.

But lhe can also indicate possession in its non-argumental role as a possession dative. This is the case of your second sentence:

A máquina cortou-lhes os (seus) dedos.

Just like seus, it works as a nominal adjunct to dedos.

I think your confusion regarding your the first sentence:

Os chefes despediram o Rui pois este roubava-lhes dinheiro da conta.

is that you were seeing lhes as indicating possession (=roubava o dinheiro deles da conta). But at least the most obvious reading of the sentence is roubava o dinheiro aos patrões, that is, we're saying who was stolen from, not whose the property was. A sentence like this is enterily conceivable:

O João foi assaltado na rua; roubaram-lhe o telemóvel da irmã, que tinha levado para arranjar.

(There are also other non-argumental (wrt the verb) usages of lhe, where it doesn't indicate possession, as in é-lhe difícil concebê-lo, but those are not relevant here)

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