In circumstances where the same meaning can be expressed by an indirect question depending on a verb of speech, or by a relative clause modifying an (implicit or explicit) object of that verb, which is more idiomatic in Classical Latin?

Example: "He related to me what had happened." This can be cast as an indirect question:

Rettulit mihi quid accidisset.

But it could also be expressed with a relative clause:

Rettulit mihi (id) quod acciderat.

Which is better Latin? Do different verbs have different preferences, and if so what are they?

1 Answer 1


I have always been taught that indirect questions are written as such: Rettulit mihi quid accidisset. Indirect questions are formed where the main part of the sentence, in this case to relate, is in the indicative, followed by the question word (what), and ending with the verb making up the question in the subjunctive. Let me make this more clear with another example:

Rogavisti me cur per noctem ambularem.

You asked me why I was walking during the night.

Rogavisti the main verb, is in the indicative, while ambularem, the indirect question verb, is in the subjunctive but still translated as indicative. The subjunctive tense you use should match that of the indicative it is being translated as.

So, according to my education, neither of your options are correct. But, I have read somewhere that the indicative can still be used instead of the subjunctive. In this case it would then be Rettulit mihi quid acciderat. I'm sure you could bend it to make it relative, but I would advise against it, as it somewhat distorts the meaning when there are already good options that preserve the meaning. Thus, verbs don't really have "preferences."

If I didn't explain it very well, I found this site that does a nice job with great examples.

  • 1
    You're right that I should have used plupf. accidisset -- thanks! (I actually realized this a little after posting the question -- the version I had meant "He has related to me what happened".) But what I'm asking is when/whether a relative clause can be used instead of an indirect question.
    – TKR
    Jul 18, 2016 at 16:24
  • Then, to answer your real question, the "better" Latin would be the subjunctive. A relative clause would be translated as "he related to me that which had happened." This could work if you really wanted to, but it is a bit of a stretch. Subjunctive is the way to go. @TKR
    – Sam K
    Jul 18, 2016 at 17:42
  • 1
    @SamK, why so? Your argument seems to rely greatly on what is natural in English. The two options have the grammatical difference you describe, but they are semantically essentially equivalent. It is really a question of what is idiomatic Latin, and can only be definitively answered by analyzing examples from Latin literature. An indirect question sounds more natural than a relative clause to me, too, but I am not convinced yet.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 18, 2016 at 18:46
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I first learned how to write indirect questions from my high school Latin teacher, who had a doctorate in classical studies and was incredibly well versed in various Latin texts. He taught us to use the subjunctive, which appears to be the consensus amongst other sources as well. I'm guessing that the subjunctive is the more idiomatic way, and my explanation, although probably highly influenced by English, isn't entirely correct. It is also important to note that many English grammar rules came from Latin, so it could have been the same (but that's just speculation).
    – Sam K
    Jul 18, 2016 at 19:45
  • @SamK, that makes your point stronger. I won't consider the question fully answered until an ancient grammarian or a quantitative study of the relative frequency of the two options shows which one is preferred, but I know well that full answers are hard to give. I'm starting to realize that a short and very convincing answer is impossible here unless someone has already figured this out and written it up.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 18, 2016 at 20:12

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