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Latin Verb Moods: Learn to Correctly Identify to Ensure Intended Meaning is Translated

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

Both Latin and English Verbs can be any of three moods. Latin students must be able to identify mood by the ending of the verb. Learn about the subjunctive, indicative, and imperative moods in both Latin and English.

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    The five characteristics of any verb (person, number, tense, voice, and mood) are found in both English and Latin. Mood refers to the attitude intended by a writer or speaker and greatly changes the meaning of a verb. Two of the available moods function similarly in English and Latin but one is used in Latin to convey many different meanings.

    The word “mood” is derived from the Latin word “modus” which means “manner” or “method.” The popular phrase “modus operandi” (method of operation) is familiar to many English speakers. A verb’s mood refers to the attitude a writer or speaker intended to convey to a reader or listener.

    The indicative mood simply indicates facts or ideas. It is the most common mood of English comprising the great majority of English sentences both written and spoken. The imperative mood is used to give a command although it does not always imply a forceful request. The subjunctive mood functions somewhat differently in English and Latin. Both languages use the subjunctive to express a theoretical, ideal, or wishful situation. A verb of the subjunctive mood conveys an action that has not happened but might, should, or could happen.

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    The English Moods

    The indicative mood indicates facts or ideas. For example:

    John is walking down the street.

    Mary is a good student.

    The book that Bill was seeking is on the table.

    Notice that these sentences are simply stating facts. Each of these verbs is in the indicative mood.

    The imperative mood gives commands. For example:

    Hand me that book.

    Go to the store.

    Stand up.

    Notice that each of these sentences is making a request. Without more contextual information, it is impossible to tell the strength with which these commands are given. Not all verbs in the imperative mood are forceful commands, although they can be. Without more information, some writers use an exclamation point to imply the forcefulness of a command. For example:

    Hand me that book!

    Go to the store!

    Stand up!

    The exclamation point only implies that the command is desired immediately, not that there is any anger intended in the command.

    The subjunctive conveys a theoretical, ideal, or wishful situation. For example:

    Were I your husband, I would love you.

    Let the buyer beware.

    The teacher insisted that we all pass the exam.

    Notice that in each case, the action conveyed by the verb has not actually happened but is one that is wished for or implies a theoretical or ideal situation. Notice that in the first sentence, the verb “were” is used although it refers to the singular pronoun “I.” This is a telltale sign of the subjunctive in English. The sentence:

    Was I your husband, I would love you.

    is grammatically incorrect.

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    The Latin Moods

    The three verb moods of Latin can function similarly to English. However, their frequency is differently proportioned. Luckily, Latin mood is indicated though inflection making the three moods easy to identify and translate.

    Just like English, the indicative mood indicates facts and ideas. For example:

    Caesar in via ambulat.

    Caesar is walking in the road.

    Femina virum amat.

    The woman loves the man.

    Veritatem dico.

    I speak the truth.

    The Latin imperative mood gives commands. For example:

    Da illum librum.

    Give that book.

    Ama me.

    Love me.

    Doce me modum gladii.

    Teach me the way of the sword.

    The Latin subjunctive is far more common that its English counterpart. It is beyond the scope of this introduction to discuss each of the uses of the Latin subjunctive mood. Suffice it to say that the Romans were a poetic people who often spoke of theoretical or ideal situations to get their points across. English, a Germanic language, is much more straightforward in its approach to conveying information. This is what gives rise to the prevalent use of the indicative mood in English. However, the most basic use of the subjunctive in Latin is similar to the subjunctive of English. For example:

    Caveat emptor.

    Let the buyer beware.

    Caesar inimicum superet.

    Caesar may defeat the enemy.

    Femina librum sumat.

    The woman may take the book.

    It is important to note that there are no subjunctive forms for the future or future perfect tenses. Only the remaining four tenses (present, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect) have subjunctive forms. This is because the subjunctive implies a situation that has not yet happened. The situation may still happen so there is no point in discussing something theoretical or ideal in the future where the situation still has a chance to happen. This is a simplistic explanation for the lack of forms for these two future tenses, but it will suffice for the elementary Latin student.

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    Conclusion

    A verb’s mood indicates the attitude intended by a speaker or writer. The indicative and imperative moods function similarly in English and Latin by indicating facts or giving commands. The subjunctive mood can function differently in English and Latin. Generally, it indicates a theoretical or ideal condition that has not yet happened or is unknown to have happened in the past. As with all Latin verbs, inflection is used to convey the mood of a verb with new verb endings to memorize for each person, number, tense, and voice of Latin verbs. Careful study of a Latin sentence is necessary to identify a Latin verb’s mood so the intended meaning is properly translated into English.