Indirect Statement

Strictly speaking, there is no future infinitive passive in Latin, and the form described here, amatum iri etc., is a periphrasis constructed to compensate for this deficiency. In Lily’s Royal Grammar, the standard Latin textbook in England for centuries, amatum iri “to be about to be loved” is rendered, rather more felicitously, as “to be loved hereafter”. The indeclinable fore is used as the future infinitive active of sum as an equivalent to futurum esse. puer dicit se piratam futurum esse and puer dicit se piratam fore both mean “The boy says that he is going to be a pirate”. For the avoidance of the future infinitive passive by means of the idiom fore (futurum esse) ut …, see Chapter 28. That construction is much commoner than forms such as amatum iri, little favored by writers other than Cicero.

Further permutations are possible in the construction of infinitive forms: for example, discipulus dicit magistrum porcos semper laudaturum fuisse (“the student says that the teacher has [or had] always been about to praise pigs”) employs a hybrid compound of the future participle and the perfect infinitive.

English occasionally constructs an indirect statement with a noun in the object-case and an infinitive. In the American Declaration of Independence, for example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is followed by several clauses introduced by “that”, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness etc.”

The potential for ambiguity in the accusative and infinitive construction is discussed repeatedly by ancient grammarians. The most celebrated instance of such ambiguity is the deliberately misleading oracle devised by the Latin epic poet Ennius, purporting to be the response given to Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, in the early third century BC, when he asked the oracle of Apollo at Delphi whether it would be advisable for him to invade Italy and attack the Romans:

aio te, Aeacida, Romanos vincere posse.

He did in fact win two battles against the Romans, but suffered extremely heavy losses in doing so (hence the expression “Pyrrhic victory”, a victory so costly as to be no better than a defeat). When Pyrrhus inspected the Roman corpses after one of his victories, he was intimidated to find that they all had their wounds on the front of their body, an ominous sign of Roman determination, and is said to have raised his hands to heaven and said that he could have conquered the whole world if he had been lucky enough to have such soldiers (Eutropius, Breviarium 2.11). The Greek phrase equivalent to “Pyrrhic victory” is “Cadmean victory”, found first in the 5th century BC (Herodotus, Histories 1.166), referring either to the Spartoi, the “Sown Men”, who arose from the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes, or, perhaps more probably, to the wasteful fraternal strife between Eteocles and Polynices, princes of Thebes.

His invasion of Italy was unsuccessful, and the true sense of the oracle was seen to be “I say that the Romans can defeat you, descendant of Aeacus”.

The construction and consequent ambiguity would have been the same in Greek, the language spoken by the Delphic Sibyl, though it is highly probable that Ennius invented the oracle himself. Galen cites an example of ambiguity which turns on this use of two nouns in the accusative case, one as the subject and the other as the object of an attendant infinitive: γένοιτο καταλαβεν τν ν μέ (genoito katalabein ton hun eme) “May it happen that I catch the pig” and “May it happen that the pig catches me” (On Fallacies in Diction 1).

Numerous other such examples are cited by ancient grammarians. Quintilian quotes Ennius’ line, and also the statement Lachetem audivi percussisse Demean, which can mean either “I heard that Laches has struck Demea” or “I heard that Demea has struck Laches” (Education of the Orator 7.9); Donatus cites audio secutorem retiarium superavisse, which can mean either “I hear that the chaser defeated the fighter with the net” or “I hear that the fighter with the net defeated the chaser” (Ars Maior 10).

An obvious solution to this ambiguity presents itself to a speaker of any language regulated more by word-order than by inflection: why did the Romans not simply agree that the first accusative be the subject, the second the object? Alternatively, clarity might be achieved by using a passive construction: e.g agricola dixit porcum a magistro amari “The farmer said that the pig is loved by the teacher”. Quintilian suggests precisely this solution: audivi a Lachete percussum Demean “I heard that Demea was struck by Laches”.

A further infelicity arises in the accusative and infinitive when the subject of the main clause, the subject of the indirect statement and the object of the verb in the indirect statement all refer to the same person, as, for example, in the sentence “He says that he will kill himself” dicit se se interfecturum esse (with the first se as the subject of the infinitive, the second se as its object) would not be elegant, but such clumsiness is easily avoided by slight rephrasing: e.g. dicit se sua manu esse periturum “He says that he will perish by his own hand”.

Reflexive forms, however, give Latin an advantage over English in some contexts. The English sentence “He thinks that he will be king” could stand equally well for “Brutus thinks that he (Caesar) will be king” or “Caesar thinks that he (Caesar) will be king”, whereas putat eum regem fore and putat se regem fore are quite unambiguously distinct.

As the above discussion makes clear, the accusative and infinitive construction was not entirely effective, being susceptible to ambiguity, obscurity and simple clumsiness. Not surprisingly, the Romance languages largely rejected it, preferring to introduce a finite clause with a conjunction, as in English:

I know that the girl is beautiful

Je sais que la fille est belle

So che la ragazza è bella

Sé que la muchacha es hermosa etc.

That construction, with the conjunction quod [which became que, che] and a finite verb, usually in the subjunctive (see Chapter 22), occurs occasionally in classical Latin, and was presumably a common feature of less formal speech.

Classical Greek had more complex rules, using both an acc. (or nom., if the subject of the main clause and of the subordinate phrase is the same person) + inf. (or participle, if the main verb is a verb of perception) and also a finite clause. Modern Greek has done away with infinitives almost entirely.

As an illustration of the way in which context prevents confusion, consider the following sentence from Caesar’s Gallic Wars: Ariovistus respondit … neminem secum sine sua pernicie contendisse “Ariovistus replied … that no one had contended with him without (bringing about) his own destruction” (1.36.6). Caesar has already made clear the German chieftain is boasting of his own prowess: the reflexive pronoun se refers to Ariovistus as the subject of the main clause, but the reflexive pronominal adjective sua reflects back only as far as neminem, the accusative subject of the indirect statement.


The proprietary name Formica has nothing directly to do with ants, and means simply what it says: it is a substitute “for mica”, which is an orthosilicate of aluminum and potassium. Even so, it is interesting that “a formica is so called because it carries [fert] crumbs [micas] in its mouth” (formica dicta est ab eo, quod ore micas ferat Servius on Vergil Aen. 4.402).