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It's the Middle Ages and you're explaining to someone how to play rock-paper-scissors. You say:

Cisorium pergamenum vincit.

Wait a minute. Both of those nouns, being neuter, are the same in both nominative and accusative. Latin has free word order and parchment is pretty tough, so—what beats what?

More to the point, how do you sort out this kind of ambiguity in Latin if you can't think of a masculine or feminine synonym? Depending on the listener to use sense to disambiguate won't work here, because you're explaining the rules of a game, which are somewhat arbitrary. So, do you call upon conventions for word order? Do you add more words?

  • I would guess that interpretation should default to SOV. If you wanted to refer back to them without repeating the words, you'd use illud 'the former (the further)' and hoc 'the latter (the nearer)'. You could also avoid ambiguity by using the passive with an ablative of means. – Anonym May 12 '17 at 17:01
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This is the same sort of ambiguity we have with accusativum cum infinitivo construction, where both actors are put into accusative:

Reor canem hominem momordisse.

In this case, the free word order of Latin gains further constraints (the same thing happened with Vulgar, as the old case system degraded over the First Millennium).

Particularly, in accusativum cum infinitivo, the subject must be expressed first, and the object second; in the Vulgar languages, the object migrated to after the verb; in transitive phrases where both subject and object are neuter, there are a few strategies:

  1. put the sentence in the Passive voice:

    Pergamenum cisorio vincitur.

  2. add descriptive adjectives:

    Cisorium, quia fortius quam pergamenum/fortius pergameno, id vincit.

  3. if all else fails, rely on the standard word order.

    Cisorium pergamenum vincit vs. pergamenum cisorium vincit.

one can generally assume that the earlier word will be the subject and the later the object, particularly in prose, and the context may make it clearer. Ambiguity is sometimes impossible to avoid, so it's not such a big deal if we have a bit of it.

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  • 2
    One thing: I'd expect to see pergamenum cisorio vincitur (i.e. the ablative of means without ab rather than the ablative of agent with it). – Anonym May 12 '17 at 17:06
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    @Anonym: I guess; I may be personifying the scissors and the paper far too much :-) Edited. – Wtrmute May 12 '17 at 17:34
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I like Wtrmute's suggestions, but I want to add one thing. You can also consider dropping the object. You can clarify it in another clause. For example:

Quando cisorium et pergamenum certant, cisorium vincit.
When scissors and paper compete, the scissors win.

Of course you can refer to cisorium as illud (pergamenum being hoc), but in this case I think clarity demands repeating the noun.

Slight ambiguity remains: you could parse the second cisorium as the object of vincit, but this reading feels a little contrived to me. While leaving the subject out and leaving the object in is possible in Latin, it does not feel natural (to me) in this case.

Another option is to use a preposition to clarify things:

Cisorium contra pergamenum vincit.
Scissors win against paper.

This contra does not feel entirely idiomatic, but it does add the desired clarity without changing the overall structure significantly.

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  • Is "cisorium vincit" unambiguous? I wonder if it would in principle be the subject to the same kind of ambiguity, since my impression is that Latin generally does not require an overt subject to be present in a clause. – Asteroides May 12 '17 at 22:54
  • @sumelic I think there is still a slight ambiguity, but far weaker than in cisorium pergamenum vincit. Leaving out the object looks more probable than leaving out the subject in this case. Having an overt object but leaving out the subject would strike me as odd here. Given the whole sentence, I have trouble parsing cisorium as an object. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 12 '17 at 22:59
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In Institutio oratoria book 7, chapter 9, Quintilian comments on the ambiguity that arises in many accusative plus infinitive constructions. His example is the famous "Aio te, Aeacida, Romanos uincere posse", where one cannot say whether Romans will defeat or be defeated. The solution proposed by Quintilian is the one suggested by some of you, i.e., using the passive voice... I have touched myself the topic of ambiguity in relation with homonymy in a paper with the title:
Quintilian on “grammatical homonymy”: The linguistic sensibility of a Roman lawyer

See https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/joll.2017.16.issue-1/joll-2017-0004/joll-2017-0004.xml

Interested readers can ask for a copy privately (juria@unizar.es)

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