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Obviously it is not incorrect to say lavo le mie mani (c.f. Salmi 26:6), but mi lavo le mani (also mi lavo la faccia) is more common. Why is this?

Is this a special use of reflexive verbs to stand in for possessive adjectives. Can you also say mi lavo la macchina for lavo la mia macchina or is it only something that works for items that are related to (or owned by) the subject?

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    In mi lavo le mani there is no reflexive verb. Mi is complemento di termine and this construct is called forma riflessiva apparente ("seemingly reflexive verbal form"). Mi lavo le mani is structurally more similar to mi compro la macchina than to lavo le mie mani. Anyway I appreciate this doesn't answer your question. I don't know why lavo le mie mani just sounds wrong. What is really weird is that saying lavo le mie mani kind of implies to my ears that you wash your hands as opposed to somebody else's. – gd1 Jun 6 '15 at 23:01
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    Forma riflessiva indiretta and forma riflessiva apparente are the same stuff AFAIK – gd1 Jun 6 '15 at 23:31
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    Out of special situations when one looks for a poetic effect or, as said above, to emphasise something, lavo le mie mani is completely un-idiomatic and sounds like a bad translation from English. – DaG Jun 6 '15 at 23:34
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    lavo le mie mani just sounds weird, don't use it as people will assume you don't know italian. A general rule I just made up: mi lavo whatever should be used in relation to your body parts, it's very common to hear that. Not your car. You wash THE car. – Formagella Jun 7 '15 at 19:06
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    There is plenty of expressions in which a possessive is used in English but not in Italian. For instance, fai i compiti vs. Do your homework, mangia la verdura vs eat your vegetables, prendi(ti) tempo vs take your time. – Federico Poloni Jun 9 '15 at 16:26
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I'll be bold and state that, while “lavo le mie mani” and “lavo le mani” are not technically agrammatical (nouns and verbs agree as they should and so on), they are so unusual with respect to “mi lavo le mani” that – if we agree that the rules are made by the actual usage and not by some combinatorics of morphological items – the former are plain wrong, in the sense that they attract the attention of the listener to the phrasing rather than to what is being said, and as such are either mistakes or poetic choices.

To give at least a statistical basis to the above, we may compare the Google Ngrams graphs for “lavo le mani” with those for “me ne lavo le mani” and for “mi lavo le mani“ added together, and see that the two graphs virtually coincide. “lavo le mie mani”, on the other hand, doesn't even show up.

(I am grateful to Sklivvz for our exchange of opinions on this.)

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  • Totally agree with DaG. I don't know why many people fail to understand that human languages are not designed top-down as computer protocols but they are "created" bottom-up on a very slow process taking thousand and thousand of years. So it's very common to find exceptions, tons of way to say the same thing and even arbitrary choices and preferences regarding one sentence construct over an another. Maybe one sentence sounds "right" and another sounds plain "wrong" just because the former is actually used by people and the latter is not used. – user1531 Jun 11 '15 at 9:44
  • @Gianluca: Welcome to Italian.SE! This is not a discussion forum, and your “answer” is not really one. Nevertheless, I think it can be edited to become a good answer: please have a try. – egreg Jun 11 '15 at 10:32
  • I would also add that we tend to accept more oddities and absurd sentences when we answer questions on Italian.SE, things that we would possibly never have said when speaking spontaneously with each other. Thinking about it is what sometimes fails us. – gd1 Jun 11 '15 at 10:32
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When washing your own body parts, it is appropriate to use the reflexive version of the verb: lavarsi instead of lavare, or often simply omit the specification. It's not very usual to wash someone else's body parts.

Lavarsi le mani, "Lavati i capelli!", Mi lavai i denti

or (less frequently)

Lavare le mani, "Lava i capelli!", Lavai i denti

You can always use the active form and specify whose body parts you are washing

Lavare le proprie mani, "Lava i tuoi capelli!", Lavai i miei denti

However, since the version without the adjective is very common, this version sounds overwrought and is seldom used unless you are washing someone else's body parts.

Lavare le mani di qualcuno, "Lava i suoi capelli!", Lavai i suoi denti

In which case you can also use the form with the joined complement, like so

Lavarle le mani, "Lavagli i capelli!", Le lavai i denti

However you can not specify both: the presence of the reflexive form of the verb and the adjective are redundant and are not correct Italian.

Lavarsi le proprie mani, "Lavale i suoi capelli!", Mi lavai i miei denti

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    Not going to downvote of course, but 1) lavarsi le mani is not reflexive, let alone lavagli i capelli, 2) lava i suoi capelli! is pretty bad unless you are implying something very specific (suoi as opposed to tuoi, for example), 3) your examples that "simply omit the specification," i.e. lava i capelli and especially lavai i denti, are indeed weird. – gd1 Jun 7 '15 at 21:55
  • I've added a reference for point 1. I don't know what to make about point 2 or point 3. Regarding point 2, I think it's the only correct translation of "wash their hair!", so I don't find it weird, and regarding point 3, I normally tell my son "lava i capelli" and ask him: "hai lavato i denti?". It's perfectly normal, common Italian, I am not sure what you find weird in it. – Sklivvz Jun 7 '15 at 22:01
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    Points 2 and 3 are subject to opinions of course - I find that lava i suoi capelli! implies suoi as opposed to tuoi or anybody else's - , point 1 is simple as "it is not reflexive." – gd1 Jun 7 '15 at 22:03
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    Thanks but it is not fixed IMO. In your whole post, there isn't a single reflexive verb and that includes lavarsi le mani. – gd1 Jun 7 '15 at 22:06
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    If it does, it's wrong, and I wouldn't be surprised given the source. :) Please read my first comment to the OP – gd1 Jun 7 '15 at 22:08

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