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So far I was thinking the way of saying "He spends time in writing letters" (example from A&G) might be terit tempus scribendo epistulas or terit tempus scribendis epistulis.

But can terit tempus scribendo epistularum also convey the same meaning? Following from passage from Cicero where he seems to use the gerund with genitive or I misread things:

Primum enim, ut stante re publica facere solebamus, in agendo plus quam in scribendo operae poneremus, deinde ipsis scriptis non ea, quae nunc, sed actiones nostras mandaremus, ut saepe fecimus.

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  • Doesn't terit tempus mean "he is wasting time"? And so terit tempus scribendis epistulis would mean "he is wasting time while there is a letter to be written"? And terit tempus scribendo epistulas would mean "he is wasting time by writing a letter"? – Ben Kovitz Apr 22 at 18:07
  • @BenKovitz, See the link to A&G in my question. When the gerund takes a direct object, a gerundive might be used instead. It is even preferred in some cases. – d_e Apr 22 at 21:01
  • Both examples terit tempus scribendo epistulas and terit tempus scribendis epistulis sound natural in Latin (there is some preference for the latter (in Classical Latin), i.e., for the gerundive construction). What I'm wondering is why the gerund construction (scribendo epistulas) becomes ill-formed or very very marginal when preceded by a preposition: *in scribendo epistulas. In contrast, the prepositional construction with gerundive is perfect: see latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1144/… for related discussion. – Mitomino Apr 23 at 0:34
  • @d_e I've been looking at that page over and over. I'm still digesting it. It appears that I need to radically revise my understanding of gerunds and gerundives. BTW, the previous sentence from Cicero is right on that page! (§504) – Ben Kovitz Apr 25 at 14:25
  • @BenKovitz The grammar of gerunds and gerundives is not an easy topic, which, in my opinion, makes it one of the most interesting topics of Latin syntax. For example, concerning the page you mention (§504), one of the gerundives that seems quite unexpected (at least to me) is the adverbal genitive that expresses purpose: e.g. Aegyptum proficīscitur cōgnōscendae antīquitātis (Tac. Ann. 2.59). If it is not an influence of Greek, I don't know how one could explain it within Latin grammar... – Mitomino Apr 25 at 16:22
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I would not read the genitive and the gerund together. I suggest this reordering and grouping to clarify:

…(plus operae) poneremus (in agendo) quam (in scribendo)…
≈ …we would put more work into doing than writing…

I see operae as a genitive qualifying plus.


You could conceivably read in scribendo epistularum as "in the writing of letters", where the letters are not an object but a genitive attribute describing the action scribere. I am not sure whether this kind of use is attested in classical Latin, but this is not what seems to be going on here.

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  • Thanks. The sentence makes more sense now. Latin does it again. But TBH, not sure I can discern what is the "genitive attribute describing the action scribere" if not the author himself... meaning: How letters write :) . I struggle to capture any other distinction. – d_e Apr 22 at 10:59
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    @d_e I'm not sure myself what that would mean! It was a remotely plausible reading that crossed my mind, but I am unsure whether it makes any sense. Latin does have objective genitives (e.g. amor Caesaris, "love towards Caesar"), but I don't know whether it can appear with gerunds or gerundives. I smell a good follow-up question... – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 22 at 13:04
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    To the best of my knowledge, in scribendo epistularum is not possible (or should I say, this specific pattern is not attested) but, as pointed out in my answer, I think it is interesting to point out that examples like facultas scribendi epistularum could exist. It seems that this construction is a sort of blend of two possible constructions: the gerund one (facultas scribendi epistulas) and the gerundive one (facultas scribendarum epistularum). – Mitomino Apr 23 at 1:02
  • @Mitomino: The second example ("...scribendarum epistularum") falls into the jingle-trap: ugly-sounding jingles ending -orum -orum or -arum -arum. To avoid this trap, the Romans often allowed a gerund to govern a direct object e.g. "ars oppidorum oppugnandorum" becomes "ars oppugnandi oppida" (Oulton Book III; p92)--genitive-of-gerund plus accusative direct-object. Therefore, the first example ("facultas scribendi epistulas") is the correct one, isn't it? – tony Apr 24 at 10:39
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    @tony Yes, the stylistic rule you mention is, for example, typical of Caesar, although there are some exceptions to it even in this author: e.g., in spem potiundorum castrorum venerant 'they had conceived (lit. 'had come to') the hope of taking the camp' (BG 3.6.2); haec faciunt recuperandorum suorum causa (BG 7.43.1). In contrast, it is worth pointing out that Cicero rarely avoids the genitive plural of the gerundive. So Joonas is right when saying "that's a matter of taste". It's a matter of stylistics rather than of grammar. – Mitomino Apr 24 at 16:06
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As pointed out in the previous answers, it seems quite clear that plus...operae is an argument of the verb poneremus. I found that some philologists corrected the text as follows: in agendo plus quam in scribendo operam poneremus (e.g. see here), which led me to misinterpret the syntax of this example (see the relevant comment by cnread, who alerted me of that confusion).

Let me address the second part of Joonas's answer/comment, which is more directly related to d/e's question, i.e. to the interesting title of his/her question: “gerund + genitive” vs. “gerund+accusative”. This is indeed a very intriguing issue of Latin syntax. Although the following examples are rare, they do indeed exist (typically, in Early Latin but even in Classical Latin as well: see Cicero's example below):

Lucis das tuendi copiam 'You give me the privilege of seeing the light.' (Plaut. Capt. 1008)

Nominandi istorum tibi erit magis quam edundi copia 'You will have the privilege of naming those things rather than of eating them.' (Plaut. Capt. 852)

Facultas agrorum suis latronibus condonandi 'the opportunity of bestowing lands on his fellows-bandits.' (Cic. Phil. 5. 6)

The genitive gerund of (some of) these examples has been analyzed as "epexegetic(al)", i.e., as "giving further precision to the expression -'opportunity of light, that is of seeing it'" (Palmer (1954/1988: 321-222); cf. also Woodcock (1959: 162-163), i.a.). Personally, I'm not fully convinced by this analysis since I'm afraid that it cannot be applied to all the examples that show this (rare) pattern. It seems more natural to me to analyze these genitive gerunds as having nominal behavior, this fact triggering the genitive case of their object. The double possibility (genitive vs. accusative object) shown in this contrast (e.g., cf. the infrequent constructional pattern facultas agrorum condonandi with the more frequent one facultas agros condonandi) reminds me a bit of the following one in English, where the object of the -ing nominalization can also be prepositional/genitive or not/accusative: e.g., cf. "John's destroying of the city was horrible" vs. "John's destroying the city would result in..." (e.g. see here and here). Clearly, this parallelism is only approximate since in Latin the construction facultas agros condonandi is by far more frequent than the attested example above from Cicero facultas agrorum condonandi (as is well-known, this gerund construction can in turn be compared with the very frequent gerundive construction facultas agrorum condonandorum; for related discussion, please see my answer of this question).

As for d_e's/Joonas's example ((in) scribendo epistularum), this specific constructional pattern does not seem to be attested. In contrast, as noted above, an example like facultas scribendi epistularum could exist. This example seems to involve a sort of blend of two possible "input" constructions: the gerund one (facultas scribendi epistulas) and the gerundive one (facultas scribendarum epistularum). If this proposal holds water, one could try to apply the cognitive linguistic notion of "input space" (see here) in order to account for the creation of (some of) these "blended" examples. Cf also the interesting example from Plautus: tui (feminine!) videndi copiast (Pl. Truc. 370).

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    I'm confused. Plus isn't omitted at all; it appears 4 words earlier in the sentence. Plus + partitive genitive is so unexceptional – and even the word separation in this example isn't so uncommon, really (though perhaps the arrangement is a bit forced) – that it seems bizarre to try to construe operae as an 'argument of the verb poneremus' or to emend the text to operam. It's perfectly clear to me that the sentence is just to be construed as in agendo plus operae quam in scribendo poneremus. If I ran across this sentence while reading, I wouldn't think twice about it. – cnread Apr 23 at 1:04
  • @cnread Oh, you're right! I was misled by the existing alternative version, the one I consulted: in agendo plus quam in scribendo operam poneremus, where operam would occupy the direct internal argument slot of the verb (this argumental slot could also be occupied by an expression like quantifier+ partitive object operae). But, as you point out correctly, there's no need for this alternative analysis/corrected version. – Mitomino Apr 23 at 1:26
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No, this construction is impossible because it has nominal syntax (hoc domūs tēctum "this house roof") like the English gerund, while the Latin gerund has verbal syntax (not *in hōc scrībendō "in this writing") and governs the same case as the verb (not *epistolārum scrībere "to write of-letters"). With verbs that govern the genitive, where it expresses the stimulus that evokes some feeling (memory, pity, incrimination), you can say:

  • eōs prūdentiae monēmus > tempus perdimus eōs prūdentiae monendō ('to warn them of discretion > we waste time warning them of discretion').

Other than that, nominal syntax with a gerund is probably impossible even in Late Latin, where hoc epistolārum scrībere "this writing of letters, this letter-writing" becomes grammatical. That said, due to the suppletive relationship1 between the infinitive and the gerund, it wouldn't surprise me to find a substantive-like prepositional use, eg. ?in epistolārum scrībendō in Late/Medieval Latin.

1: the infinitive serves as the nominative of the gerund.

In the Cicero quote, operae is the partitive genitive that depends on plūs as the object of pōnere: 'to put in more work.'

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I group the words in the Cicero passage this way:

(in agendo plus quam in scribendo) (operae poneremus)

This makes operae some sort of object of poneremus—I can't tell if it's dative or genitive. Some googling suggests that aliquid operae pono is an idiom for "I put effort into something."

Loeb Classical Library gives this translation (by Walter Miller):

For then, in the first place, I should now be devoting my energies more to public speaking than to writing, as I used to do when the republic stood; and in the second place, I should be committing to written form not these present essays but my public speeches, as I often formerly did.

Apparently Cicero is referring to himself in the plural, and agendo here means "acts" (acting) as in "acts of legislature".

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  • I'm not sure if I understand the thrust of "acts of legislature", but agere simply means "to act in the world" as opposed to "to write". – Unbrutal_Russian Apr 22 at 18:15
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    As to your genitive vs. dative quandary, I'll just note that in book 1, sentence 78 of the same work (De officiis), Cicero uses a very similar sentence, with basically identical word arrangement; there, because of the addition of studiique after operae, it's unambiguous that genitives are involved: sunt igitur domesticae fortitudines non inferiores militaribus; in quibus plus etiam quam in his operae studiique ponendum est. – cnread Apr 23 at 1:37
  • @Ben Kovitz: Why would Cicero refer to himself in the plural; how would that have been received by his audience? – tony Apr 23 at 13:07
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    @tony You should ask that as a separate question. Cicero often refers to himself in the plural, and the phenomenon is worth proper exploration. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 24 at 11:28

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