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Consider a clause in Latin that has n words. Latin frequently uses scrambling, so there are n! possible ways to arrange that clause given a free word order. However, Latin writers use only a small subset of those n! clauses. What criterion did they use to determine that subset?

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    Don't know how free that order really is... the few Latin I learned, I remember genitives were always placed adjacent to the words they possessed, preferably right before them. Word order departed from usual SOV for poetry, but then when using a subordinate phrase words could be scrambled only within the limits of the inner phrase. I'd say both restrictions would limit that n! by one or even 2 orders of magnitude... – Joe Pineda Jan 8 '14 at 23:10
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    Latin was written voluminously for almost two millennia, mostly in Europe until recently. That means there were millions of writers, most of whom were not native speakers of Latin, all of whom had learned to write it by reading different books. Naturally, there were thousands of dialects over the centuries, even (perhaps especially) when it was still a spoken language and diverging into the Romance languages. Consequently there is simply no single rule, nor single set of rules, that everybody followed all the time. One did what one felt was correct, but one was often simply weird. – jlawler Jan 8 '14 at 23:30
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    @JoePineda mangiat isn't Latin: the Latin for eat is edere or comedere. And Lucretiae comest panem filius certainly isn't nonsensical, though it isn't clear whether the son or the bread belongs to Lucretia. – TKR Jan 9 '14 at 2:30
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    @jlawler It's certainly possible to generalize, at least for Classical Latin prose; poetry is more of a free-for-all, while post-Classical Latin gets less and less free and starts to look more like modern western European languages. But word order in Classical Latin (and Greek) actually does obey certain pragmatic principles pretty well, and across authors; see the book I link to below. – TKR Jan 9 '14 at 2:34
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    "Hominus" is not Latin either. – fdb Jan 9 '14 at 13:49
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There's not one criterion, but many, which are usually to do with discourse pragmatics and information structure: phenomena like topicalization, focalization, existential and presentative constructions, etc., can cause departures from Latin's usual SOV order. This recent book gives a lot of details.

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