The present tense is used more than any other tense in most languages. In most programs of study, the present tense is the standard by which the remaining tenses are taught. Latin, as an inflected language, introduces the native-English speaker to a whole new realm of conceptualizing when and how an action of a sentence takes place. Learning the present tense is, indeed, just the beginning of learning the remaining five inflected tenses found in Latin.
The present tense is used to indicate that an action is taking place currently. The other tenses indicate the action in other times, both past and future. For example, in each of these sentences, the action is taking place now:
John walks down the street.
Sandy attends the local college.
The dog runs away.
However, this form of the present tense is only one of three found in English.
The English Present Tense
English present-tense verbs can take three forms which most English speakers do not conscientiously employ; they simply say what “sounds right” at the moment. One form called the simple present simply indicates the action is taking place now:
Sue sees the beautiful tree.
Mark listens to music.
Sally writes a story.
The present progressive uses the word “is” (or “are” in the plural) to indicate that the action is taking place now:
Sue is seeing the beautiful tree.
Mark is listening to music.
Sally is writing a story.
The present emphatic uses the word “does” (or “do” in the plural) to indicate that the action is happening now:
Sue does see the beautiful tree.
Mark does listen to music.
Sally does write a story.
This may seem insignificant to the English speaker because as stated above, most English speakers just say what sounds right. However, present tense sentences that ask questions can only use the present progressive and present emphatic tense form. For example:
Is Sue seeing the beautiful tree? (Does Sue see the beautiful tree?)
Is Mark listening to music? (Does Mark listen to music?)
Is Sally writing a story? (Does Sally write a story?)
Notice that in each of the six example questions above, the tone of the question changes from the progressive to emphatic form. Each would be used under different circumstances depending on the intention of the speaker and, yes, what “sounds right” as a result.
The Latin Present Tense
Only one form is needed to express the present tense in Latin, but of course there is a different form for each number, person, voice, and mood, depending on the meaning of the sentence. Without any more information about the context of the doer of the action (the subject) or the subject itself, Latin present tense verbs may be properly translated in either the simple present, present progressive, or present emphatic. For example, the Latin sentence:
Puella arborem bellam videt
may be translated into English as any of the following:
The girl sees the beautiful tree (simple present)
The girl is seeing the beautiful tree (present progressive)
The girl does see the beautiful tree (present emphatic)
Once again, it is left up to translator to choose the most correct form intended by the author. Translating questions into English requires use of the present progressive or present emphatic form. For example, this question:
Videtne puella arborem bellam?
can be translated as either:
Is the girl seeing the beautiful tree? (present progressive)
Does the girl see the beautiful tree? (present emphatic)
Which is more appropriate depends on the intention of the author and the interpretation of the translator. Without more information, either form is correct.
The English present tense is surprisingly complicated for the first tense taught to students. The other tenses are much less complicated but can be difficult because the action of the verb takes place at another time other than the present. The Latin present tense functions identically to the English but has only one form. It is up to the translator to decide which translation, the simple present, the present progressive, or the present emphatic, is most appropriate and most likely to mean what the author intended.
This post is part of the series: A Comparison of Latin and English Verb Tenses
Both English and Latin have six verb tenses. However, their employment in each language differs slightly. These differences must be understood by Latin students to properly translate from one language to the other.