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I am new to Latin and very rough because I am teaching it to myself after so many years. I was working on a sentence that I thought was simple enough but became confused. The translation of "Errare humanum est" is "to err is human", a translation that I did not really like. I wanted the Latin to translate into English in a way that I spoke and made more sense to me.

I attempted to change the Latin so that the English translation would be "To err is to be human" but ran into some problems and need clarification and help. The Latin that I wrote came out as "Errare est esse hominem/homines" and I have a few questions about that.

  • Can 'est' and 'esse' even be used in the same sentence in this instance?
  • Also, can I just get rid of 'est' if 'errare' is already the verb in the sentence?
  • And is the word human plural or singular in the Latin form because it is referring to the whole human species?

I know the plural in English is 'humans' but I did not know if that was a similar case in Latin. Is anything I am saying making any sense at all because I don't know Latin.

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    "I wanted the Latin to translate into English in a way that I spoke" – how about errare humanum est, 'making mistakes is human'?
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 15:18

2 Answers 2

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Latin and English have different selections of structures and idioms available, so translating too literally is often a bad idea — or even outright impossible.

I think your suggestion errare est esse hominem/homines is grammatical (there are subtleties with the subject of the infinitive esse but the accusative seems to be correct), but it does sound unidiomatic to me. You are forcing an English structure on Latin.

I would suggest taking a look at the inventory of structures available in Latin itself instead. One such option is to use the genitive and say Hominum errare est meaning things like "it is in human nature to err" or "it is the humans' tragic weakness to err" or "it is characteristic of humans to err" or similar. If you want to go from the plural "humans" to the singular "a human", just switch hominum to hominis. See Allen and Greenough, §343.c and my answer to a question on such uses of genitives for details.


Do you interpret the word "human" in "to err is human" to be a noun or an adjective? I think it is intended to be an adjective here, although the word is perhaps more commonly used as a noun in English. This might be a source of some confusion. I think "To err is to be human" is a fine translation of Errare humanum est.

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You've stumbled onto some deep subtleties.

The first thing to understand is that errare functions as a noun in "Errare humanum est". Errare is an infinitive: it denotes the action of erring but it does not make a claim about the action of erring. A finite verb asserts a claim, like errat in "Qui rogat non errat" (He who asks does not err). A noun denotes something so we can talk about it; a (finite) verb says something about it.

It's the same in English. In "To err is human", to err functions as a noun: it's the subject of the sentence. The verb is is. And the verb links the subject with the adjective human.

So, you can't get rid of est; errare is not the verb.

If you want a literal translation of "To err is to be human", you could say:

Errare est esse humanum.

"Errare est esse homines" would mean "To err is to be people"—not what you mean.

In English, human functions as both noun and adjective. In Latin, homo is the noun and humanus is the adjective. In "Errare est humanum", humanum is in the neuter to agree with errare; infinitives have neuter gender. Humanum is also in the nominative because it agrees with errare, which is nominative because it's the subject of the sentence. And humanum is singular because errare is singular. Errare really is a noun!


If this doesn't sink in right away, give yourself time—and more examples. While nothing here is complicated, it's subtle, and it's something that people normally pick up intuitively and never develop words to describe. Notice how in English we have no trouble understanding "To be is to be perceived" or "seeing is believing" but most people lack words to explain the grammar. We effortlessly grasp that "to be" is what the first sentence is about, even though we call "to be" a verb. Most people would say that seeing is a verb, but it also functions as a noun. It's the same in Latin:

Esse est percipi.

Videre est credere.

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    In the light of this older question and its answer, I'm not sure if you should have errare est esse humanum instead.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 15:06
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I was wondering about that myself, and looked it up to check my intuition that the subject complement of esse should be nominative since it doesn't modify anything in the sentence. I understand it to be like vis beatus esse mentioned here (not covered by Asteroides, I think). I could be wrong, of course. I was hoping to avoid this much trickier subtlety, but I suppose there's no escape!
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 15:28
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    The accusative is necessary unless the infinitive is complementary. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 15:51
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    @BenKovitz In Vis beatus esse the infinitive is not the subject; that is a very different case. Another example is didici industrius esse. But it is not an NcI, because an NcI is, by definition, a passive construction of a verb that in the active would take an AcI. Commented Jan 5, 2023 at 20:45
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    @BenKovitz the principle seems to be that the subject of an infinitive is an accusative. Therefore, the predicate of an infinitive is an accusative. The only exception is the complementary infinitive, in which case the finite verb and infinitive work together like a single finite linking verb. Commented Jan 6, 2023 at 12:42

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