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Suppose I want to say something like "I like being a human". There are undoubtedly several ways to phrase that in Latin, but I want to do it so that it the subject is "to be a human". The complete English sentence would be something like "To be a human pleases me". When translating this to Latin, should the "human" be nominative (homo) or accusative (hominem)? That is, which one of the following is better:

  1. Homo esse me delectat.
  2. Hominem esse me delectat.

Or, for another example, consider "To be a Finn is to sing". I have two options, analogous to the previous ones:

  1. Finnus esse est canere.
  2. Finnum esse est canere.

My intuition suggests that the nominative is the way to go, but I feel very unsure. Comparing with accusativus cum infinitivo suggests that it might be the accusative instead, but then there is also the related nominativus cum infinitivo construction… I would prefer to see examples in classical literature, but also discussions from grammars are welcome.

This question arose in connection to this recent question.

(Originally the question title mentioned "subject of esse", but I corrected it to "complement of esse". There is no subject. Thanks to commenters for clarifying this!)

  • By nominativus cum infinitivo do you mean things like Caesar dictator esse dicitur? If so, in that construction Caesar is the subject of the finite verb, not the infinitive. I don't think a nominative can ever directly be the subject of an infinitive. – TKR Oct 23 '16 at 23:21
  • @TKR, yes, that is what I mean. I had never heard before that a nominative could not be the subject of an infinitive. If that is indeed the case, it would make an excellent answer – with some evidence, of course. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 24 '16 at 7:34
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    Interesting discussion: latindiscussion.com/forum/latin/… – brianpck Oct 24 '16 at 11:42
  • @brianpck, interesting. It seems that I am not alone in my confusion. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 24 '16 at 12:09
  • You might consider changing the first "subject" in the question title to "complement" or "predicate", since that's what the question is really about (as @sumelic pointed out). – TKR Oct 25 '16 at 16:28
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Accusative + Subjective Infinitive seems to be grammatical

Longmans' Latin Course: part III. Elementary Latin Prose, by W. Horton Spragge, says that a subjective infinitive takes an accusative subject, and gives an example using "esse":

That you are happy is agreeable to me
Te beātum esse mihi est gratum

(p. 17)

("Te" is the subject, and "beatum" is the predicative complement.)

So it seems to me "Hominem esse me delectat" would be correct.

However, other people also seem to have been uncertain about this matter; brianpck linked in the comments to http://latindiscussion.com/forum/latin/to-be-yourself-is-not-a-crime.11748/ where the user Bitmap provided the following examples:

Cic. inv.II,171: Nam aliter dicere solemus: "Necesse est Casilinenses se dedere Hannibali"; aliter autem: "Necesse est Casilinum venire in Hannibalis potestatem".

(Example of accusative subject of a subjective infinitive)

Terence, Heaut. 666: non licet hominem esse [saepe ita ut volt, si res non sinit.]

(Example of accusative subject of esse as a subjective infinitive; I extended the quotation to add the end of the sentence using the Packard Humanities Institute Latin Texts)

Cic.TuscI,9: necesse est enim miseros esse eos qui centum milibus annorum ante occiderunt, vel potius omnis, quicumque nati sunt.

(If I understand the grammar right, it's an example of an accusative subject (eos) and complement (miseros) with esse as a subjective infinitive; I might have switched the complement and subject)

I don't think Nominative + Subjective Infinitive is a thing

Another discussion on that site http://latindiscussion.com/forum/latin/the-subject-of-the-infinitive.11753/ mentions some exceptions to the general tendency for the subject of an infinitive to be in accusative. However, as far as I can tell, none of the exceptions seem to apply in this case.

And in fact, my current understanding is that in the structure generally referred to as the "nominativus cum infinitivo", the nominative noun does not actually form a constituent with the infinitive; rather, the infinitive plays the role of a complement (not subject) of some other verb in the clause, and the nominative noun (not the infinitive) is the syntactic subject of that other verb.

The first exception listed is "Hercules fortis esse vult/videtur/dicitur" with "Hercules" and "fortis" in the nominative. I would interpret this the same way as the corresponding English sentences "Hercules wants/seems/is said to be strong': i.e., the grammatical subject is really "Hercules" rather than the infinitive.

This interpretation seems to be supported by patterns of verb agreement. As brianpck points out, in "nominativus cum infinitivo" constructions the passive verb is not always third-person neuter, as we would expect if the infinitive were the subject of the clause. I haven't studied this in depth, but an online worksheet I found (Infinitives, a.c.i. & n.c.i., Latin MILC – W1, MT 2012 October 09, 2012, from Robin Meyer's pages on the University of Oxford website) gives an example that shows the passive verb agreeing with a plural nominative noun:

  1. Parentes adire ad filios prohibentur. (Cic.Ver.2.5,117) Parents were prohibited to see their children.

You can see that the finite verb in this sentence agrees with "parentes" rather than with "adire". I don't have any examples, but I would guess that the same principle applies to gender agreement in compound tenses.

Applying this to "Hominem esse me delectat"

So if I understand this correctly, the nominative + infinitive + main verb structure would not work to express "To be a human pleases me". I think "homo esse me delectat", if it's grammatical at all, would mean something like "A man pleases me to be" (i.e. "For a man to be pleases me"), which is pretty much nonsense. To express the proper meaning, I think it's necessary to make the infinitive "esse" the subject of "delectat" rather than the complement, and that means "homo/hominem" should not be the subject of "delectat", just the predicative complement of "esse". And in this context, it seems that the case of a predicative complement is assigned by the accusativus cum infinitivo rule.

I would interpret the infinitive in sentences like "Hominem esse me delectat" as having an implicit accusative subject like "me," and "hominem" is just the complement to that. (Or possibly, if it makes it feel more logical, you could even consider the following explicit "me" in "Hominem esse me delectat" to be like the subject of the infinitive, or at least the referent/"postcedent" of the complement. You can't do that for your second example "Finnum esse est canere" though.)

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My suggestion is that both phrases are most properly set in the accusative:

Hominem esse me delectat.
Finnum esse est canere.

I will break my argument into two steps:

  1. The accusativus cum infinitivo (AcI) can be used as a subject: this proves that the accusative case is not an "accidental" consequence of the fact that it is the object of such words as dicere, arbitrari, etc.
  2. The nominativus cum infinitivo (NcI) is used in a different context: the suggestive name requires an explanation.

The AcI as subject

Let us begin with Pinkster's examples in Oxford Latin Syntax:

In hac habitasse platea dictum'st Chrysidem. (Ter. An. 796)

Here, the subject is Chrysidem habitasse in hac platea: it is the thing that was said (dictum est).

Pinkster also advances:

...scalpellum adhiberi sine pernice non posse manifestum est. (Cels. 7.20.2)

...though this may be begging the question, since scalpellum is neuter and could thus be nominative or accusative.

A third example from Cicero:

Sed iam tempus est me ipsum a me amari.

A similar one from Plautus not cited by Pinkster:

Video. edepol nunc nos tempus est malas peioris fieri. (Pl. Mil. Glor. 1218)

Another common usage is as the subject of delectat or iuvat (as in the OP's first example sentence).

iuvitque me tibi cum summam humanitatem tum etiam tuas litteras profuisse. (Cic. Epist. ad Fam. 182)

What iuvit'ed? "tuas litteras profuisse"

Applied to your examples:

To justify my conclusion that the accusative should be used, here are two parallel examples that correspond fairly well to yours:

  1. hominem esse me delectat

Venit hoc mihi, Megadóre, in mentem, ted esse hominem divitem, factiosum, me autem esse hominem pauperum pauperrimum; nunc si filiam locassim meam tibi, in mentem venit te bovem esse et me esse asellum. (Pl. Aul. 227-230)

The me esse + acc. N + V seems a convincing parallel.

  1. Finnum esse est canere

One "last frontier" that is seldom crossed presents itself: Is the AcI ever used as the subject of esse? Cicero says yes:

Non est igitur amici talem esse in eum, qualis ille in se est, sed potius eniti et efficere, ut amici iacentem animum excitet inducatque spem cogitationemque meliorem. (Cic. Lael. de Amicit 59:5-8)

For those who have difficulty with the syntax, I would translate the first part as: "Therefore, it is not a friend's task to be the same towards [his friend] as he is towards himself." (Amended by @TKR's suggestion)

Function of the NcI

Although it is difficult to find a definitive resource, it appears that this construction falls into two classes: auxiliary verbs and passive verbs. Let's look at a few examples:

tárdus esse ílico coépi (Pl. Cas 885)

T. Mihin malum minitare? C. Atque edepol non minitabor, sed dabo, mihi si perges mólestus esse. (Pl. Curc 572)

These verbs of "continuing," "beginning," or "ending" can take the infinitive + nominative. I will not cite examples of the most ubiquitous use case (which I'm not sure even qualifies as an NcI): volo and possum (et similia) + infinitive.

And now we get to an interesting case: Nom. + passive verb + Inf.

etenim cum artifex eius modi sit ut solus videatur dignus esse qui in scaena spectetur... (Cic. Quinc. 78.5)

risisse Cupido dicitur atque unum surripuisse pedem. (Ov. Amor 1.1.3-4)

Other passive examples (with fertur, vetatur, iubentur, etc.) abound.

The overwhelming consideration in my mind is that for "auxiliary verbs", the infinitive appears to be part of the verb itself (vult esse, coepi fieri, etc.), essentially functioning as one copulative. For passive verbs it is worth noting that the nominative is the subject of the passive verb--hence the nominative--and, to go out on a limb, the infinitive is added by way of analogy to the active construction.

Regardless, neither case seems to be met in your example sentences. Counter-examples in another answer/comments are very welcome!

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    I don't think it's correct to think of Marcus canere as nominative: it makes more sense to think of Marcus (alone) as the subject of videtur. As for the NcI without passive, I was going out on a limb: If you read German, this is the most in-depth discussion I could find, even though it has a few errors: latein-imperium.de/… – brianpck Oct 24 '16 at 14:03
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    @TomCotton, the evidence provided in this answer suggests that while homo sum is "I am human", hominem esse is "to be a human" (in many cases at least). Why exactly this happens is very unclear and unintuitive to me, but I cannot really argue against attested classical usage. This may change if someone provides evidence for the contrary. My intuition suggest exactly the same as yours, but I do not feel so confident about my intuition on this one. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 24 '16 at 14:38
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    @TomCotton I tried to address that precise objection in my "non est igitur amici talem esse in eum" quote from Cicero: thoughts? – brianpck Oct 24 '16 at 14:47
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    That Cicero example is an excellent parallel. Unrelatedly to the syntactic point, though, I think your translation is a little off: in eum isn't "within him" (which would be ablative) but "towards him". – TKR Oct 24 '16 at 16:42
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    @TomCotton I don't understand what intransitivity has to do with it really. habitare is intransitive as well (I believe), and we are not talking about objects: what is so different about me habitasse as subject and me esse as verb? – brianpck Oct 24 '16 at 18:57
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The accusative is correct. Allen and Greenough, section 452, note 2, say:

An Appositive or Predicate noun or adjective used with an infinitive ín any of these constructions is put in the Accusative, whether the infinitive has a subject expressed or not. Thus, nōn esse cupidum pecūnia est (Par. 51), to be free from desires (not to be desirous) is money in hand. [No Subject Accusative.]

Also relevant is section 455a, which gives some comparable examples, though with impersonal verbs rather than esse as the main verb of the sentence:

expedit bonās esse vōbīs (Ter. Haut. 388), it is for your advantage to be good.
cūr hīs esse līberōs nōn licet (Flacc. 71), why is it not allowed these men to be free?

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In having a principal verb with a subordinate clause, and short as it is, what you propose is technically a complex sentence.

We seem, in @Brianpck's answer and subsequent comments, to have tied ourselves in a Gordian knot over the way to proceed. I should like in this answer of my own to cut away the tangle by pointing out that there is, as ever, no single correct way of saying what you want to in this case.

Subordinate clauses may be of three kinds: substantive, adverbial or adjectival.The types of both substantive and adverbial clauses, as recognised in standard primers of syntax, are many and various (and, incidentally, I have never seen in them a "nominative and infinitive" suggested as a construction for a subordinate clause in classical Latin). Adjectival clauses state, in one way or another, a fact about the antecedent, which seems to me to respond better than the other two types to the question you are asking, though this is a personal preference.

Rather than struggling with grammatical contortions and looking for suitable precedents (which are by no means always to be relied upon) for a substantive or an adverbial clause, my own choice would be a (relative pronoun) followed by an indicative (as of fact) as a neat and simple way to achieve your object — e.g. libet mihi qui homo sum. However, since you want to suggest that it is the fact of being human that pleases, I readily approve of your first suggestion homo esse me delectat, in which homo esse is a direct statement and me delectat its adjectival subordinate.

In fine, keep it simple: your intuition is right.

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    I could definitely get behind this as a viable alternative if you are able to locate some examples of nom. + inf. as subject of a sentence. – brianpck Oct 25 '16 at 10:36
  • An infinitive used as a noun is neuter and can be only either nominative or accusative, but it can be qualified by an adjective — which must, of course, agree in case and gender. If the verb is to be used in this way (which I regard as clumsy), you can easily imagine examples which appear to be either nominative or accusative , whichever floats your boat. I hope that removes your difficulty. – Tom Cotton Oct 25 '16 at 19:00
  • If it's only possible to point to cases where an adjective could be nominative, and everything else is accusative, then isn't it the likelier hypothesis that accusative is the correct form? – brianpck Oct 25 '16 at 19:21
  • I wouldn't argue with that, but does it really matter very much? – Tom Cotton Oct 25 '16 at 19:48
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    Of course the arcana and minutiae of Latin grammar matter! ;) – brianpck Oct 26 '16 at 11:17

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