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When the formidable classicist A. E. Housman published his critical edition of Manilius' Astronomicon, he stated in his infamous preface, "When Scaliger says at v 39 Manilius nesciebat quid scribebat his judgment is sounder than his grammar."

My question is, what's wrong with Scaliger's grammar?

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This is an example of an indirect question, e.g.

  • I asked where he was.
  • I know what he did.
  • I told you what I would do.

Or, as in this case:

  • "He didn't know what he was writing."

This construction takes the subjunctive with the usual sequence of tenses.

In this case, since the main verb (nesciebat) is imperfect indicative, and therefore secondary sequence, the dependent verb should be imperfect subjunctive, since it denotes an "incomplete action" (i.e. one that is "present or future with reference to the main verb"; see Allen & Greenough §484).

In this case, that would be scriberet.

Scaliger should therefore have written:

Manilius nesciebat quid scriberet.

Cicero embeds a similar construction in a longer sentence: I've bolded the relevant parts.

Nam cum propter dilationem comitiorum ter praetor primus centuriis cunctis renuntiatus sum, facile intellexi, Quirites, et quid de me iudicaretis et quid aliis praescriberetis.

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    Would it be possible to interpret it as a relative clause instead of an indirect question? "He did not know the thing that he was writing about." That would justify the indicative. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 9 at 9:38
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    @JoonasIlmavirta think you would need quod instead of quid in that case. See, for instance, Pontius Pilate's response: "Quod scripsi, scripsi." – brianpck Apr 9 at 12:11
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    Something still seems off to me about using quod with nescio: there's a funny interchange in Plautus that goes between the two, but I can't quite capture why the quid seems appropriate first and then the quod: "Phaed. Perii hércle, huic quid primúm dicam nesció. Pal. Em istuc, quod míhi dixti [=dixisti]." – brianpck Apr 9 at 12:26
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    @Figulus I added an answer about the other reading. It'd actually be nice to have a question about the difference between scribere aliquid and scribere de aliquo if the latter even exists. Many languages make the distinction. Go ahead and ask if you're interested! – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 9 at 16:39
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    @fdb "I know what he did" can represent two Latin constructions: indirect question (where "what he did" is the embedded version of "What did he do?") and relative clause (where "what he did" = "that which he did"). Hence the two alternatives in Joonas's answer. "Indirect question" is a misleading term because there isn't necessarily a speech act involved. – TKR Apr 11 at 21:32
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I would say that the original expression Manilius nesciebat quid scribebat can be read in two ways:

  1. There is an indirect question: He did not know what he was writing about.

  2. There is a relative clause: He did not know the thing about which he was writing.

The answer by brianpck covers the first case, and indeed then one would expect scriberet.

In the second case the indicative mood is perfectly fine. (Relative clauses can have conjunctive, but it is certainly not required for a simple statement about facts. While not required, I would accept it for emphasis on Manilius' relation to his writings.) However, the interrogative pronoun must be replaced with a relative pronoun, so one would expect quod instead of quid.

Of the four combinations of these two words only one is invalid, and that is the one that Scaliger picked:

Manilius nesciebat quid scribebat.
Manilius nesciebat quod scribebat.
Manilius nesciebat quid scriberet.
Manilius nesciebat quod scriberet.

It is not easy to tell whether the original intention was an indirect question or a relative clause. Both make sense, and one could argue that semantically the difference is not all that great. Either way, there is a grammatical mistake.

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