All examples of indirect questions I could find are objects of their governing clauses. A model example would be:

Scio, ubi fueris.
I know where you were.

Here the indirect question quid feceris is the object of the verb scio. I tried to look at some Latin grammar material online, but none seems to explain the grammatical role of the indirect question in the governing clause.

Does some grammar discuss whether an indirect question should always be an object? Are there attested classical examples of indirect questions that are subjects of their governing clause? I imagine the governing verb could be something like est, patet, or a passive form such as scitur. If the indirect question can be a subject, does the verb have to be passive?

2 Answers 2


An indirect question is a noun clause and can indeed be used as the subject of the main clause, as required, wherever it makes sense to do so.

Here are some examples to supplement the passage from De bello gallico 3.14. (The translations aren't mine.)

Indirect question as subject of a form of esse, with a neuter adjective as complement:

primo nobis fuit dubium quid ageremus, 'At first we were in doubt what to do' (Cicero, Verr. 2.4.138)

dubium est uter nostrum sit, leviter [or leniter] ut dicam, verecundior? 'then is it doubtful which of us is – to speak frivolously – the more modest?' (Cicero, Acad. 2.126)

mirum [est] quantum illi viro nuntianti haec fidei fuerit quamque desiderium Romuli apud plebem exercitumque facta fide inmortalitatis lenitum sit. 'It is marvellous what credit was given to this man's story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.' (Livy AUC 1.16)

As subject of a passive verb:

...non erat quaerendum cuius manu numerarentur, sed cuius iniuria cogerentur, 'the point to be inquired into was not into whose hand it was paid, but by whose oppression it was extorted' (Cicero, Verr. 2.2.26)

As subject of an impersonal verb:

quod si in philosophia tantum interest quem ad modum dicas, ubi res spectatur, non verba penduntur, quid tandem in causis existimandum est quibus totis moderatur oratio? 'But if it is a circumstance of so much moment in philosophy, in what manner we express ourselves, where the matter, and not the language, is principally regarded, what must we think of public debates, which are wholly ruled and swayed by the powers of elocution?' (Cicero, Orat. 51)

  • cnread: In the quote from Livy (AUC 1.16) is "illi viro nuntianti (haec) fidei" an example of the dative of purpose/ double dative? Giving: "it is marvellous how much was made (mirum est quantum fuerit) for the narrating credit (nuntianti fidei) to this man (illi viro)? The use of perfect subjunctive, indicates the subordinate clause; and, "haec" is nominative, feminine singular = this (story, "fabula", is understood). I would have expected an accusative after the present participle "nuntianti" i.e. hanc (fabulam)? Finally, "facta fide" is an ablative absolute =
    – tony
    Sep 27, 2020 at 11:59
  • "with the fact having been established". Thank you.
    – tony
    Sep 27, 2020 at 12:00
  • I'd call illi viro nuntianti a dative of possession. I'd find it very strange here to have to supply fabula as the noun that haec modifies, and I'm not sure what 'the narrating credit' would mean. The subject of the indirect question is quantum, which has the partitive genitive fidei, and haec is the neuter plural accusative direct object of nuntianti: 'how much (of) credibility there was to that man [i.e., how much credibility he had] (as he was) narrating these things.' I too would take facta fide as ablative absolute, though the translation I used appears to have taken it as abl. of means.
    – cnread
    Sep 27, 2020 at 19:06
  • @tony (continued) You're right that, form-wise, fidei could be dative, and illi viro is also dative. However, I'm not sure quantum by itself (without, e.g., a partitive genitive or some noun to modify) would work as the subject of a double dative. When I teach double dative, I give as a (mostly reliable) translation formula, 'X [nominative noun] is a source of y [more abstract of the 2 dative nouns] for z [2nd dative noun, often denoting a person].' So the Livy would mean '...what a great quantity was a source of credibility for that man.' It doesn't really work.
    – cnread
    Sep 27, 2020 at 19:16
  • Thank you. In the same quote there is the second indirect question: "...quamque...lenitum sit." = "...and how...it was soothed."; using the perfect passive subjunctive. This given as "lenitum sit", not "lenitus sit", must the supine agree with "plebem" & "exercitumque"--both taking accusative after "apud"?
    – tony
    Oct 3, 2020 at 11:42

Moments after asking the question I stumbled upon this in Caesar's De bello Gallico:

Quae ubi convenit ac primum ab hostibus visa est, circiter CCXX naves eorum paratissimae atque omni genere armorum ornatissimae profectae ex portu nostris adversae constiterunt; neque satis Bruto, qui classi praeerat, vel tribunis militum centurionibusque, quibus singulae naves erant attributae, constabat quid agerent aut quam rationem pugnae insisterent. (3.14)

Apparently it is possible: the indirect question is the subject of constabat. But I have no idea how exceptional this passage is or if the class of possible verbs is somehow restricted.

  • llmavirta: What exactly does "constabat" mean here--"neque satis Bruto" = "nor is it (clear) enough to Brutus"; "....constabat quid agerent [indirect question]" = "(he, Brutus) standing firm/ deciding what they should do"; "quam rationem pugnae insisterent [indirect question]" = "what method of fighting (tactics) they should adopt"? If "constabat" is the progenitor of the indirect questions, then the indirect Qs., are the subjects of "constabat"?
    – tony
    Sep 30, 2020 at 13:41
  • @tony The indirect questions here are indeed subjects of constabat. You could translate the bold part roughly as: "It was not clear enough to Brutus what they should do." In this context constare means "to be clear/evident".
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 30, 2020 at 13:50

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