With a specified subject or object, it's easy to say "this" or "that."

This picture is of my dream.

Haec pictura somnii mei est.

But what if the noun being described is not present?

What is this?

Quid ... est?

If a noun is not specified, how is a demonstrative declined? If this is possible, are there any Classical examples?

  • 1
    Quid is neuter, so I'd use a neuter demonstrative. Not sure if this is attested but it makes sense.
    – Draconis
    Mar 11, 2017 at 21:29
  • It seems logic to me to use the neuter as demonstrative.
    – L. Peters
    Mar 12, 2017 at 12:49
  • 2
    Indeed, the neuter is used when nothing is known at all about a thing in Latin and Greek. If it is known to be a person but of unknown sex, the masculine is used. In this case, you have already answered your own question: you've chosen the neuter word quid. To agree with that, you would use neuter hoc or similar.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 12, 2017 at 15:32

1 Answer 1


To complete your example, it would be,

Quid est hoc? What is this?

Because "what" is neuter, whereas "who" could be masculine or feminine.

The demonstratives (hic, ille, iste, and is) can be used as either pronouns or adjectives. You can read about their paradigms on section 146 of Allen and Greenough, and their uses on section 296.

When demonstratives are used as substantives, which is the scenario you speak of, the gender and number are determined by context. Allen and Greenough give some examples from Caesar.

sī obsidēs ab eīs dentur (Bellum Gallicum 1.14)

if hostages should be given by them

In the above example, Caesar is at war, so it's only natural that "them" refers to male soldiers. Thus it makes sense that the plural masculine is used. However, this sadly does not make a difference, since the plural is equivalent in masc./fem./neut. for the ablative.

sunt extrā prōvinciam trāns Rhodanum prīmī. (Bellum Gallicum 1.10)

These (men/people) are the first (inhabitants) beyond the province across the Rhone.

Above, the masculine plural is used. The demonstrative pronoun Hi refers to men, or men and women. When you are referring to men and women it is common to use the masculine plural.

ille minimum propter adulescentiam posset (Bellum Gallicum 1.20)

He could do little on account of his youth.

Above, the demonstrative ille is used more like a personal pronoun. It means "he". This use of the demonstrative as personal is quite common. You can think of it as, that (man) = he.

Lastly, let's look at a famous Latin phrase.

Ad hoc ("for this")

The phrase ad hoc uses the neuter pronoun because it refers to a thing, task, or purpose, as opposed to a person. This idea of a thing or task is often expressed by the neuter.

Hope that's clear. Gender and number are determined by context, in the case where demonstratives are used substantively. Sometimes there is an implied noun, such as one expressed in the previous sentence or clause, and then the demonstrative will get its gender and number from the implied noun.

  • 2
    Thanks, I thought that demonstratives in latin could only be adjectives, for whatever reason. But now I understand. Thank you also for including examples and further explanation! Mar 13, 2017 at 13:27

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