It seems (to me at least) that with regard to the English sentence

You can learn writing.

the following is true:

  • Strictly speaking, the sentence is grammatically incorrect w.r.t. standard modern English. To make it correct, one either one would have to say "You can learn to write." in order to express the opinion that there is the possibility for someone to learn how to write (well), or one would have to add to it some direct object (in the grammatical sense), and in this case a pluralized noun seems to be called for, and e.g. say "You can learn writing reviews.", or, as yet another correction, one could say "You can learn while writing.", to express the idea that writing is a process during which one learns.
  • But, and this brings me to my question about Latin, there is a nice tension and ambiguity in the incorrect short version of the sentence. It somehow simultaneously conveys both the to write-version and the while-version mentioned above, and this compressed richness is lost if either of the corrections is made.
  • Question: can one create the same kind of ambiguity in a Latin translation of the above sentence, and if so how? Or do you rather think that Latin's stronger grammatical rules make it impossible to intentionally create said ambiguity?
  • 1
    There's nothing incorrect about the English sentence -- it's perfectly good standard English. You're right, though, that there's an ambiguity between (in Latin terms) taking writing as a gerund or a participle. Since Latin uses different forms for those two functions, that ambiguity can't be reproduced in Latin.
    – TKR
    Jul 11, 2017 at 16:21
  • @TRK: well, I'll take your word for it, as they say. I am not a native English speaker. Thanks for pointing out. Interestingly (for me), it keeps sounding wrong, even when repeated, and even after having been attested to as right by you. If "writing" is replaced with other English infinitives, I tend to be with you. For example, "You can learn fencing." seems less wrong to me.
    – guest
    Jul 20, 2017 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


There are at least three ways of creating the sort of ambiguity you describe.

.1. Polysemy:
You can use a broader word for 'learn.' A Latin phrase such as perago scribere, creates the same ambiguity as 'I am involved in writing,' Per ago can mean 'I am working hard at,' or 'I'm very skillful at,' or even 'I've had enough of.' A nominative participle 'discens' would add 'while I am learning.'

.2. using a Homonym:
Cicero uses the phrase 'literis deditus,' and Terence 'amore deditus.'
If the first e is long, it comes from dedeo, and means a hostage, a prisoner, an addict of writing.
If short, from dedo, frequentative of do, meaning 'dedicated to,' 'given over to..'
Literis dĕditus disco. or Literis dēditus disco.
This has the advantage of classical usage; and the ambiguity lies in whether you mean, 'I learn as a devotee of writing,' or 'I learn, held hostage by literature.' This does approach your double meaning of passive learner and learning professional.

Quintilian touches on this (Instutio Oratoria Bk7 ch9) "[If it is]doubtful in a written document whether a syllable is long or short. Cato, for example, means one thing in the nominative when its second syllable is short, and another in the dative or ablative when the same syllable is long(adj. catus shrewd.)" (Perseus)

.3. Detached Prefix: or Split Words: is promising provided the phrase is spoken not written.
Quintilian (35 – ca. 96) Institutio Oratoria, Book7 ch9 (Perseus)

There is another form of ambiguity where a word has one meaning when entire and another when divided, as, for example, ingenua, armameniam or Corvinum. and ... the question whether the words mean “in a cultivated place” (in culto loco) or “in an uncultivated place” (inculto loco)

Describendo discere potes.
By writing-about-things you can learn
and De scribendo discere potes.
You can learn about writing.
If "You can " is unimportant, this is shorter:
Describendo discis; De scribendo discis.

Another example example of .3. 'detached prefix,' is versum in cinerem, "turned into dust;" Versum incinerem, "that I might chant a verse." Twelfth century; style of the Archpoet.


My suggestion is this: Scribens discis. While this is most naturally translated as "you write and you learn" or "you learn when you write", you could also parse it as "you learn as a writer". The last interpretation is a bit of a far fetch, but I think this is closest to the desired ambiguity Latin can take you.

For comparison, I would translate "you learn by writing" as scribendo discis and "you learn to write" as scribere discis. I don't see room for the kind of ambiguity you are after with gerund or infinitive, so the participle scribens is my best bet.


That's a nice question.

A rhetorical device for causing confusion is amphibole, or sometimes, if intentional, ambage(s). With a bit of ingenuity, the peculiar grammar of Latin can certainly be used to create deliberate ambiguity: the oracle famously quoted by Augustine of Hippo, Aio te Aeacida Romanos vincere posse, is one of the best known examples. If you want to use that particular trick, you need a verb to govern two accusatives, but for myself I struggle to make your example properly ambiguous. (Can you spot the ambage in that last bit?)

[BTW amphibole is also a type of mineral.]

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