In English, it is fairly common to write/say such sentences as the following:

What is the possessive case of she?

Should I use who or whom after man?

What is the past participle of run?

These kinds of questions quickly get thorny when I attempt to translate them into Latin. Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head translation options:

  1. Precede with verbum/vocabulum: Quid est casus genitivus verbi ea?
  2. Treat as indeclinable: Debeo qui aut quem post vir uti?
  3. Rework the sentence: Correre quale habet participium praeteritum?

Can anyone offer general guidance for speaking about inflected words outside their original context?


In Medieval Latin, the word "ly" could be paired with the relevant term, which could then be treated as an indeclinable term.

See for example these passages from St. Thomas Aquinas written in the 1250's:

Quia ly se potest esse ablativi casus, et tunc simpliciter vera est: et est sensus: genuit alterum se, idest alterum a se. Vel potest esse accusativi casus; et tunc vel facit simplicem relationem . . . (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 4 q. 2 a. 2 expos.)

Si enim cum dicitur, Deus genuit Deum, qui est Deus pater, ly pater construitur appositive ad ly Deus, locutio falsa est: quia tunc ly Deus restringetur ad standum pro persona patris . . . (Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 4 q. 1 a. 3 ad 4)

In the first example "ly se" allows "se" to function as the subject of the sentence even though it is in the accusative or ablative. "Ly" seems to act a lot like mention marks in English. For instance, I would be inclined to translate the first example: "Since "se" can be in the ablative case . . . "

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  • Fascinating! I wonder whether this is related to the use of ille that I discussed in my answer. – Joel Derfner Apr 15 '16 at 5:07
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    This is really cool--any idea how common this is? I've read a lot of Aquinas (though no, not the Commentary on the Sentences) and never came across this. – brianpck Apr 15 '16 at 13:17
  • @brianpck It seems to have been generally adopted by the scholastics; see this book. – Nathaniel is protesting Apr 15 '16 at 17:24
  • I got my laugh for the day: "Tantum cuiuslibet hominis praeter Sortem quilibet non asinum c et alterum c ipsiusmet hominis nigrum contingenter incipit esse" – brianpck Apr 15 '16 at 17:38
  • @brianpck Using this search engine reveals that the Commentary on the Sentences contains the most instances, followed by the Lectura on the Gospel of John. To see the breakdown of instances across works, enter "ly" into the search box and click "works." Note that some works by authors besides Aquinas are also included in the search. – SAG Apr 19 '16 at 4:28

The most important aspect here is clarity, and your first option is best for that.

I recommend against treating declined words out of context as indeclinable (casus generalis), unless you mark them with quotes of some kind. With pronouns and other common words the reader might not parse them the way you intend. Reading qui and quem in your second example sentence as declined pronouns makes the sentence a mess.

Quotes around the inflected word (or any other phrase for that matter) make the indeclinable status clear. To clarify the syntactical role of the indeclinable, I would add a suitable noun in front of it. That is, write Debes voce "qui" uti or In locutione "…" accusativo utimur. If the case of the auxiliary word would be nominative or accusative or it would come with a preposition, leaving it out does not confuse too much. In other situation the risk of confusion is significant.

I have been taught to use vox for "word" and verbum only for "verb", but I do not always do so. Unless you need to discuss pronunciation, it might be better to reserve verbum for verbs and use vox or vocabulum for words in general.

Suggested translations of your examples:

  1. What is the possessive case of she?
    Qualis est casus genetivus vocis "ea"?
  2. Should I use who or whom after man?
    Debeone adhibere vocem "qui" aut "quem" post vocem "vir"?
    Utro uti debeo post vocem "vir": "qui" aut "quem"?
  3. What is the past participle of run?
    Quale est participium praeteritum verbi "currere"?
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  • @brianpck, thanks! Maybe I should have added explicitly that double quotes often feel too heavy for frequent use, so you might want to go with simple quotes instead. But I definitely think you should use some kind of quotes. The fact that I value clarity more than beauty might have something to do with my being a mathematician... – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 14 '16 at 14:18

A few times in spoken-Latin circles I've come across this kind of locution:

In sententiá "Ódió virum quí canem meum siccávit," opportébatne vóce "quem" pró illó "quí" útí?

However, my experience is of limited enough scope that you probably shouldn't take this answer as definitive.

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  • So the general principle would be to add either vox or a kind of pseudo-article ille before the inflected word? – brianpck Apr 14 '16 at 13:56
  • I'm not sure it's an either/or thing (it might be), but yeah. (Out of curiosity: why a pseudo-article rather than just an article? We have the same thing—"In 'I hate the man who assassinated my dog,' should I replace the 'who' with 'whom'?"—not the most usual way of phrasing it, perhaps, but certainly a possibility.) – Joel Derfner Apr 14 '16 at 14:17

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