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Learning How to Conjugate Verbs in All Four of Latin’s Conjugations

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

Latin’s four conjugations are normally taught through a one-drop-in-the-bucket technique. However, not all students learn best this way. Learn how to conjugate Latin verbs properly by taking a different approach.

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    Many native English speakers find Latin difficult to learn because Latin is much more an inflected language, meaning that the endings of words change to indicate their use in a sentence. Many studies have shown that English speakers pay much more attention to the beginning of a word and assume what will come near the end of the word. Hence, Latin is generally difficult for English speakers.

    Most Latin programs of study teach conjugation of verbs a little bit at a time. Conjugations are introduced in succession from first to fourth with each tense, mood, and voice tackled separately. This pedagogical device is sometimes referred to as the drop-in-the-bucket approach.

    Presumably, this device is employed to avoid overwhelming the student with too much information at one time. However, some students actually learn better when the bucket is dumped over their heads rather than filling the bucket of learning one drop at a time.

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    An Alternative to Learning Latin’s Four Conjugations

    501 Latin Verbs by Prior and Wohlberg In a recent review of 501 Latin Verbs by Richard E. Prior and Joseph Wohlberg, it was mentioned that the book presents the full conjugation of a verb on each page. This way, the student can see the full conjugation at one time, an uncommon occurrence in most Latin texts.

    However, this approach allows the Latin student to see all of the intricacies, anomalies, and exceptions to the rules all in one place. Rather than having to construct such a table themselves, students with the need can finally see that there is an alternative to learning Latin conjugations.

    For example, the future form of the verb “sum" which is the verb “to be" in Latin, is used to form the future perfect tense of both the active and passive voices of the indicative mood. However, there is one anomaly.

    The third-person plural active voice indicative mood future perfect form of the verb is, for example, “amaverint" rather than the expected “amaverunt" which is, in fact the third-person plural active voice indicative mood (present) perfect form of the verb.

    Oddly, in the passive voice when the future form of “sum" is used to form the third-person plural passive voice indicative mood future perfect tense, the –u– returns as in “amatus erunt." This is the kind of anomaly that can be frustrating to the Latin student in the drop-in-the-bucket approach.

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    Exercises to Learn the Four Conjugations of Latin

    Although rote memorization is often criticized as a pedagogical tool in favor of more progressive learning, this is one area where English speakers benefit from raw memorization. One exercise that can help Latin students learn the four conjugations is to become adept at reproducing the tables of the 501 Latin Verbs book.

    Certainly, students need not reproduce the entire book. Instead, they should take four model words, one from each conjugation, and learn to reproduce the corresponding page of the book in its entirety and with no mistakes. Starting with the first and moving from conjugation to conjugation, students can see the anomalies not only within a conjugation but also between them. This is especially useful when encountering the third conjugation because the present and future tenses of both the active and passive voices deviate significantly from the rules of forming these tenses in the previous two conjugations.

    Choosing good model words can be the key between success and frustration. Since a lot of writing is involved in reproducing the tables, it is wise to choose Latin verbs that are short but represent the conjugation well. The following verbs are recommended.

    1st conjugation: amo, amare, amavi, amatum

    2nd conjugation: debeo, debere, debui, debitum

    3rd conjugation: ago, agere, egi, actum

    4th conjugation: audio, audire, audivi, auditum

    These verbs are short and follow the rules of their respective conjugations with no surprises other than anomalies shared by all normal verbs belonging to each conjugation. Of course, model verbs should also be chosen for other verb forms such as third-declension –io verbs and irregular verbs such as “sum, esse, fui, futurus."

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    See Latin from a New Perspective

    Not every student does well with the drop-in-the-bucket technique employed by most Latin language programs. Being able to see the all of a verb’s conjugation in one place is helpful but learning to reproduce the entire table is one of the best techniques for exploring and learning the intricacies and anomalies of each conjugation. In addition, students can practice pronunciation while they write out each table expanding further the usefulness of this technique. Take a lesson from 501 Latin Verbs by Prior and Wohlberg and see Latin from a new pedagogical perspective.