In most cases I find Latin is much more specific than English, but there are some exceptions.

For example, it seems like the use of the 3rd person singular is often ambiguous with regards to gender. For example, where we would say "She has a passport", my lesson just has "Diploma habet" and there is no way to tell if it is a man or a woman (except by looking at the picture).

Is this just an artifact of modern lessons, and in real Latin the speaker always phrases things to indicate whether a man or woman is involved, or did real conversational Latin have the same ambiguity I am seeing in my lessons?

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    Any language will have different mandatory information: in Hebrew even first person verb forms are gendered (so 'I walk' is different for a male or female agent) while in English they are not, in Chinese verbs (as I understand it) do not have tense while in English tense is compulsory. Such differences are just something to get used to when learning a new language.
    – dbmag9
    Sep 4, 2021 at 7:33
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    Also note that it would work differently in Latin anyway because it has grammatical gender. You can see that even in German, which is a (comparatively) close relative of English: "Sie ist zu spät" means "she is too late," but it could also refer to a train (die Bahn), a delivery (die Lieferung) or basically any feminine noun that we could imagine being too late. Sep 4, 2021 at 17:12

1 Answer 1


I wouldn't call it ambiguous; rather, the Latin sentence as given is indeterminate of the gender of the subject of the sentence. (This terminology and an explanation of the difference between ambiguity and indeterminacy can be found in "Ambiguity and Vagueness: An Overview", Christopher Kennedy, 2009.)

Latin speakers certainly did not always phrase things to indicate whether a man or woman is involved, any more than English speakers always phrase sentences including a plural pronoun such as "they" or "them" to indicate whether it refers to a group of men, women, things, or a mixed-gender group.

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    I have read some of Plautus trying to find ambiguous cases of the 3rd person singular and have not found any. It seems that any time he uses the 3rd person singular, there is always an explicit subject of some kind with an explicit gender. Usually there will either be the name of the person doing the action (which is gendered) or he will use the words is, ea or id. So, maybe you could give examples of real Latin in the 3rd person singular where gender is ambiguous? Sep 4, 2021 at 17:14
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    Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit. Cic. Cat. 2, 1 😉 Sep 4, 2021 at 17:18
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    Angelus Domini annuntiavit Mariae, et concepit de Spiritu Sancto, "The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost". Concepit has no gender, so you need context to tell whether he conceived, or she conceived.
    – Figulus
    Sep 4, 2021 at 17:53
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    @Figulus That example is not ambiguous because Mariae is feminine. Nov 21, 2021 at 13:35
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    @TylerDurden, Indeed, but Angelus is masculine. You need to know who did the conceiving. That's what I mean by context.
    – Figulus
    Nov 23, 2021 at 3:58

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