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A Primer on Latin Descriptive Adjectives

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

Both English and Latin use descriptive adjectives to describe nouns. Latin’s inflections identify which noun is being modified. Read a comparison of Latin vs English descriptive adjectives.

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    Descriptive adjectives are used to characterize or modify a noun or pronoun. Recall that a noun is any person, place, thing, or idea. A pronoun is used in place of a noun and therefore represents a reference to any person, place, thing, or idea. Pronouns are often used to eliminate the need to repeat a noun.

    There are, generally, two types of descriptive adjectives. In English, attributive adjectives typically come before the noun or pronoun it modifies. This type represents the typical adjective and is more common than other types of adjectives. The second type of descriptive adjective is called a predicate adjective. This type of adjective modifies a subject by referring back to it.

    The difference between Latin and English descriptive adjectives is derived from the importance of word order in English. Recall that English requires a regimented word order for the meaning of a sentence to be understood by a reader or listener. Latin is far more forgiving when it comes to word order. In fact, Latin word order is often used to emphasize certain parts of a sentence rather than function as a means to convey meaning.

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    English Descriptive Adjectives

    One important feature to note of descriptive adjectives in English is that these adjectives do not change their form. This is true for any noun or pronoun they may modify. For example:

    Caesar has a large family.

    The large apple is on the table.

    The soft pillow is comfortable.

    The book is on the soft couch.

    Notice that the form of the adjective “large" and “soft" did not change regardless of the nouns they modified.

    English attributive adjectives normally precede the nouns they modify. For example:

    Caesar has a large family.

    The large apple is on the table.

    Notice that in both sentences, the attributive adjective “large" precedes the nouns “family" and “apple" which are the nouns it modifies. This is the most common type of adjective found in English.

    English predicate adjectives always follow a linking verb. For example:

    Caesar is good.

    Those men are evil.

    Notice that the predicate adjectives “good" and “evil" both follow a linking verb. This is what makes predicate adjectives easy to spot in English.

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    Latin Descriptive Adjectives

    You may have noticed that word order played an important role in identifying both attributive and predicate adjectives in English. Attributive adjectives precede their nouns or pronouns and predicate adjectives follow linking verbs. These facts are far less important in Latin and the distinction between these two types of adjectives is academic if not unnecessary, especially for the beginning Latin student.

    Recall that word order in Latin is not very important. This is because Latin is an inflected language meaning that the words themselves change to indicate their use in a sentence. So, the question is: does it really matter whether a Latin descriptive adjective is of the attributive or predicate kind?

    Take the following example:

    Domus magna est.

    For the Latin student, there are only two ways to translate this sentence. First:

    The house is large.

    and second:

    The large house is. (as in, the large house exists)

    In a way, these two translations mean the same thing. The first may seem more grammatically correct to an English speaker, but the second translation really expresses the same meaning. Perhaps this structure of the Latin sentence is more familiar to the native English speaker:

    Domus est magna.

    In this case, unnecessary word order is used to convey that “magna" is a predicate adjective and like English, follows the linking verb “est." The point is, it doesn’t really matter. It is only in translating from Latin and English that the student must make a choice whether to treat the descriptive adjective as an attributive or predicate adjective. Keep in mind that not all teachers of Latin share this conclusion. Some will require precise distinction among different types of adjectives. For the elementary Latin student, the conclusion above will suffice.

    One last note of interest is required here before wrapping up this treatment of Latin adjectives. Recall that Latin adjectives must agree with the noun they modify in case, number, and gender but not necessarily form. Notice that in the last Latin sentence above, “magna" is the nominative, singular, feminine form of the adjective “magnus." This is because as a feminine, fourth-declension noun, “Domus" must be modified by an adjective that agrees with it in case, number, and gender. In this case, the form does not agree because “magnus –a –um" is a second declension adjective. Many beginning Latin student see the –us ending in “Domus" and assume it is a second-declension, masculine noun. This is just one more example of why the gender of every Latin noun must be memorized; Fourth-declension nouns can be any of the three available genders.

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    Descriptive adjectives are simply words that modify or characterize a noun or pronoun. In English, both attributive and predicate adjectives are easily identified by their position in a sentence. Since word order in Latin is far less important than in English, the distinction between these two types of adjectives is not that important. Only in translating from Latin to English must the student make the distinction. This is even less important if the goal of the translator is to convey the meaning of a Latin sentence rather than translate the words literally. Keep in mind that this description, although convenient, is not shared by all teachers of Latin. For the beginning Latin student, it is sufficient.