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Learn the Five Characteristics of Latin Verbs

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Verbs are the action words of sentences and form the basis for understanding the relationships that exist among other words in a sentence. Understanding the five characteristics of verbs is crucial to proper translation and understanding of Latin text.

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    A verb is the action word in a sentence; it literally drives the sentence and indicates much about what is going on when trying to convey a message from one person to another. Verbs are complicated things and take many forms in Latin. Subtle differences in a verb’s spelling can dramatically change how it functions in a sentence. Since Latin is an inflected language, the spelling of a verb changes depending on how it is used. Consequently, it is impossible to learn Latin without a firm grasp of verb characteristics. Thankfully, Latin and English share the same verb characteristics. Learn them in one language, and you know them in the other.

    Verbs have five characteristics:

    PERSON – (from Latin persona, literally person) – The person identifies the subject of a sentence, which either performs or receives an action. From the speaker’s or writer’s point of view, I and we indicate the first person. The person spoken to, you (singular) and you (plural) indicate the second person. The third person, the person spoken about, is indicated with he, she, it, and they. Notice that in English second person singular and plural have the same form, you. If your Latin teacher stood in front of the class and said, “I want you to take out a pencil and a piece of paper for a quiz,” there is ambiguity as to whether he/she was talking to one person, a few people, or the entire class. It’s a quirk of the English language. Latin does not suffer from such trouble; second person verbs have different forms for singular and plural. However, forms for he, she, and it in Latin are identical for the singular third person. Whether the verb refers to a masculine, feminine, or neuter subject is a matter of context.

    NUMBER – (from Latin numerus, literally number) – The number of a verb tells how many subjects are performing or receiving the action, singular or plural. In English they are in the form of I vs. we, you (singular) vs. you (plural), and he, she, or it vs. they.

    TENSE – (from Latin tempus, literally time) – The tense of a verb tells when the action takes place. Latin has six tenses corresponding more or less perfectly with the six tenses of English. The Latin (and English) tenses are the Present (Present), Imperfect (Past), Future (Future), Perfect (Present Perfect), Pluperfect (Past Perfect), and Future Perfect (Future Perfect). Notice that it is a convention to name a few of the Latin tenses slightly differently than in English. There are some differences between Latin and English tenses, but in the early stages of your Latin education, you can think of them as corresponding on a one to one basis.

    VOICE – (from Latin vox, literally voice) – The voice characteristic of a verb indicates whether the subject is performing the action (Active Voice) or receiving the action (Passive Voice). The two sentences below give an example of each:

    (1) Active Voice – “John gave the book to Mark”

    (2) Passive Voice – "The book was given to Mark by John”

    Notice that although the two sentences convey the same meaning, John is the subject of the first sentence but Book is the subject of the second sentence.

    MOOD – (from Latin modus, literally manner) – The mood characteristic of verbs indicates the manner in which an action is performed or received. In both Latin and English there are three moods. The Indicative Mood simply indicates facts such as “John gave the book to Mark.” The Imperative Mood indicates an order or command such as “Give the book to Mark.” The Subjunctive Mood indicates a hypothetical or potential action such as “If I were President, I would lower taxes.” The indicative and imperative moods function similarly in Latin and English. The subjunctive, however, is more common in Latin than in English. In addition, it functions a bit differently considering its wide-spread use. The best way to learn these differences is to have a firm grasp of all other aspects of verbs so that when the subjunctive is encountered, it is easily recognized and properly translated.

    You will find that in learning Latin there are some direct parallels with English. Take advantage of these parallels and strengthen your knowledge of English along side your learning Latin.