Learn to Identify and Translate Latin Predicate Words
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 9/13/2013
Like English, Latin uses predicate words to describe or modify a sentence’s subject. By looking for a linking verb, Latin predicate words are easy to identify and translate.
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Predicate words are those that either modify or describe the subject of a sentence. A subject and its predicate are normally linked with a linking verb. Often, one can think of the linking verb as an equal sign equating the predicate to the subject. Both English and Latin use predicates in the same way. Unlike many other Latin sentences, the linking verb that connects the subject and the predicate word often does not appear at the end of the sentence but between the two words. This makes it that much simpler for the translator to identify and properly translate the sentence.
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English Predicate Words
By linking a subject and a predicate, writers and speakers can equate words and express a similarity between two ideas. The most common linking verbs used to equate a subject and a predicate are those verbs that express being, appearance, and change. For example:
Julia is a beautiful girl.
Those men are tall.
Caesar was powerful.
Notice that the subjects of the sentences (Julia, men, and Caesar) are being equated with the predicate words (girl, tall, powerful). In each of these cases, the linking verb could be replaced with an equal sign to express the same meaning. For example:
Julia = beautiful girl.
Those men = tall.
Caesar = powerful
This method of equating a subject with its predicate in English has important consequences when encountering Latin predicate words. Notice that the linking verb in each of the sentences appears between the subject and its predicate. Remember that in Latin, word order is far less important than in English.
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Latin Predicate Words
Predicate words perform the same function in Latin as they do in English; they modify or describe a subject. The key to recognizing and translating predicate words in Latin lies in equating the subject and the predicate. Recall that words that modify nouns in Latin must agree in case, number, and gender. The same is true for predicate words; they must agree with the subject they describe in case number and gender similar to adjectives that modifying nouns. However, with the case of predicate words, the predicate does not need to be near to the subject as with a noun-adjective combination. Like English, a linking verb often separates the subject and its predicate. For example:
Julia est puella pulchra. (Julia is a beautiful girl.)
Illi viri sunt alti. (Those men are tall.)
Caesar erat validus. (Caesar was powerful.)
Notice three concepts in these examples. First, every subject (Julia, viri, Caesar) agrees with its predicate (puella, alti, validus) in case, number and gender. Second, notice that linking verbs (est, sunt, erat) separate the predicates from the subjects. Third, in the first example, the adjective “pulchra" agrees with the predicate (puella) it modifies in case, number, and gender.
Seeing three words in the nominative case can confuse the elementary Latin student because he or she has been taught to use the nominative case for the subject of a sentence only. Remember that predicate words are often equated with the subject of a sentence and therefore must agree in case, number, and gender. In fact, it would be just as valid to translate the three sentences above as:
A beautiful girl is Julia.
Tall are those men.
Powerful was Caesar.
These translations do not follow proper English grammar but they still convey the same sentiments.
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Latin cases are used to indicate a word’s function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.). When multiple nominative cases are found near a linking verb, the Latin student should look for an equation of a person, place, object, or idea found when using a predicate word. As with noun-adjective pairings, a predicate word must agree with the subject it describes or modifies in case, number, and gender. Remember that this does not mean the subject and predicate will necessarily have the same form. For example:
Nauta est bonus. (The sailor is good.)
Since “nauta" is a masculine noun of the first declension, it has a form normally associated with a feminine noun. The word “bonus" rather than “bona" is appropriate to satisfy the case, number, and gender agreement rule of subject-predicate pairings.