Occasionally while reading, I've mistaken a first-declension ablative for a nominative, or vice versa,* and gotten confused for a moment until I sorted it out. Both appear the same in writing, of course, except for learners' texts with macrons and the occasional indication by a diacritical mark where the author or editor thought the case was ambiguous.

Do fluent readers occasionally get confused about this, or is the case pretty much always clear? For example, if you're reading aloud, would you pretty much always know when to lengthen the a and when not to, without having to go back and correct yourself?

If you're always able to determine the case on sight, how are you doing that? Are you exploiting a convention about when to mark the ablative case in writing and when it's not needed? Are you just "looking ahead" pretty quickly, like the way skilled pianists sight-read, so you're able to infer the case from context even when the necessary clues come later in the sentence? Or do ablative phrases follow customary word order so frequently in practice that you're actually tracking familiar phrase patterns? (If so, I wouldn't expect that to work on poetry.)

(Sorry I don't have any good examples of this confusion off-hand. I've gotten tired of waiting to happen onto a good example before posting this question. Up above, though, I see in the "Questions that may already have your answer", the sentence Sola Dea fatum novit. Indeed that one throws me every time I see it. I keep expecting the first two words to be ablative, and then they turn out nominative.)

*Should that be read vice versă or vice versā?

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    It's vice versā; "vice" is the ablative of "vicis." Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 21:35
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    Is the neuter nominative or accusative ever confusing? And how about past simple read and past participle read in English? I think they can occasionally be confusing, but mostly it depends on how easy it is for you, as a reader, to keep both possibilities in your mind. If the sentence is long, or if you're less experienced and need a lot of brain capacity dealing with other aspects of the sentence, then it becomes harder.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 22:44
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    @Cerberus I do often misread present-tense and past-participle read, and I almost never misread noun and verb suspect. If I was learning English as a second language, I think I'd find it useful to know that about native speakers. So far, I'm confused by nominative and accusative neuters much more often than by unmarked 1st-decl. ablatives, but the latter is all I'm asking about here. I'm actually motivated half by learning Latin and half by curiosity about what useful role, if any, the case markers are fulfilling if they're not needed.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 22:17
  • Learned long after posting this question: The existence of Humanistic Latin Orthography (and note Quintilian's remark) suggests that some people wanted it clarified; its demise suggests that the clarification wasn't so important.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 17:39

2 Answers 2


I'll give you a partial answer, but I'm not a fluent reader yet, so others will be better able to say.

If the structure is complex enough that I have to "work it out," then it's sort of moot. But, as I've grown more experienced, the complexity of sentences I've been able to "just read" has slowly increased. And when I'm "just reading," it seems I'm able to hold both options (nominative/ablative) in my head as options, and wait for an indication of which one is the right one to decide.

  • I share this experience.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 22:20
  • English is arguably even more confusing - you can catch a ball, catch a train, catch a cold! Catch means something different in each case (pardon the pun), it depends on context.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Aug 15, 2016 at 0:16
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    @TheHonRose Indeed English is way, way more confusing—or rather, in English, determining a word's part of speech or a noun's "case" depends much more on context than in "fusional" languages like Latin. This is a big obstacle for non-natives learning English. Many think they go by rules one word at a time but really English doesn't work that way. Latin seems at first glance to let you parse each word independently of the sentence, but after a while you see that you need context for at least some parsing. In this question, I'm focusing on just one specific form of context-dependence in Latin.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 12:07
  • Joel, thanks for letting me know about holding multiple options in your head until disambiguation comes. I've been wondering about this for a l-o-n-g time! So…if you were reading aloud, and you lengthened that ablative final (speaking hypothetically, of course), would you have to backtrack fairly often? Exempli gratia profecto omnium est optima gratiarum. OK, that's a ridiculous example, but hopefully it illustrates what I'm asking (or at least made you laugh).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 12:32
  • I suppose I might. Then again, word order gives hints in prose, and scansion of course in poetry. So maybe sometimes rather than fairly often. :) Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 14:20

All languages have homographs. In English we have (for example) “read” /ri:d/ and “read” /rɛd/. It belongs to basic literacy to be able to distinguish the two when reading aloud.

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