Page 18 of "Prosodic Phrasing in Adolescents with High-Functioning Autism" by Jessica Mayo, a doctoral dissertation that has nothing to do with Latin (but watch for the relevance, it's coming), describes an experiment in which children are presented with a set of toys including a lamb, a flower, and a lamb holding a flower, and given the instruction "Hit the lamb with the flower."*

In English, that sentence is ambiguous because "with the flower" could be meant instrumentally, modifying "hit", or restrictively, modifying "lamb". Oh, if only English still had an instrumental case!

Latin also lost the instrumental case from Proto-Indo-European, but, as I understand it, it got absorbed into the ablative case.

Without using a subordinate clause as in Pulsa agnum qui florem tenet, can you disambiguate the two interpretations in Latin? Say, by a different word order, a different preposition, or different noun cases in two (unambiguous) versions of the sentence?

Even "given the instruction" is ambiguous in English, and the most natural interpretation here is wrong. I'm exploiting the ambiguity to avoid going into unnecessary detail about the experiment.

2 Answers 2


The two readings would be distinct in Latin, because the ablative used by itself (without a preposition) generally cannot indicate accompaniment -- you need cum for that -- but does indicate means or instrument. So something like Pulsa agnum cum flore can only mean "Hit the lamb which has the flower", while Pulsa agnum flore can only mean "Hit the lamb using the flower".

  • 2
    Just to be completely sure, then: cum does not have an instrumental meaning like English with in "Hit the ball with the bat"?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 3:49
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    @BenKovitz: Not usually in Classical prose, anyway. L&S gives a few such examples (perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…, section I.D) but qualifies this usage as "most freq. anteclass., or in the poets and scientific writers".
    – TKR
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 3:58
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    With that link to cum, II A,5 "strive with" suggests a neat pair. 'Pulsa cum agno flore.' strike against the lamb by means of a flower, and 'Pulsa agnum cum flore,' Hey you with a flower, strike the lamb.
    – Hugh
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 4:13

.1. If 'with' is translated by a participle instead of instrumental ablative,

Incŭte agnum florem tenens (You with the flower hit the lamb)

'tenens' in the vocative to agree with the subject, "Incŭte agnum, o mi amice florem tenens."

Incŭte agnem florem tenentem (Hit the lamb-with-the-flower)

'tenentem' agreeing with agnum,' accusative.

.2. with a compound adjective:

Florigere incŭte agnum, You, flower-carrier, hit the lamb.
Florigerum incŭte agnum. Hit the flower-carrying lamb.

  • 1
    Florifere should be florifer, I believe.
    – TKR
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 3:30
  • @TKR Ah, yes. I had assumed that both forms were found as with mortifer, and mortiferus, I'll change florifer to florigerus. which has the distinctive vocative.
    – Hugh
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 6:38

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