The past tenses of all languages are used to indicate actions that took place sometime before the present time. Both Latin and English have three tenses that indicate actions of the past, each with its own quirks and subtle differences that complicate matters for learners of both languages.
Value of Historical Learning
There are times when expressing that something happened in the past is necessary to distinguish actions happening in the present. Any
one of three past tenses may be used to do this but use of the incorrect tense can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically whether it is spoken or written.
Most Latin texts were written centuries ago, and were themselves histories and accounts of things that happened even further into the past. Most Latin language programs make use of these ancient writings to teach classical Latin from a reality perspective rather than from an invented one like in other living-language courses. When relating an historical account, the time an action took place is an important consideration to make sure the reader or listener understands the sequence of events.
The English Past Tense
English’s simple past tense is called so because it requires only one word to express that something happened in the past. Other past tenses include verb phrases or compound tenses because they require at least two words to express the action of a sentence. These tenses are made up of the main verb with an auxiliary word in front. Examples of the simple past tense in English are:
- John worked on the project
- Sue walked to school
- Amy sang songs
Notice that the actions in each of these examples require only one word, the verb, to express not only the action but that the action took place sometime before the present.
The Latin Imperfect Tense
Latin is a bit more complicated than English. In most elementary Latin programs, Latin’s imperfect tense is likened to English’s simple past. However, there is one important difference. The imperfect tense is used to indicate an action that took place in the past but was an ongoing action rather than something that happened just once. Often, translation of the imperfect tense is coupled with the word “was” to indicate an ongoing action. Take the following example:
Caesar in agro ambulabat.
The verb ambulabat is in the imperfect tense and may be translated as English’s simple past:
Caesar walked in the field.
However, there is some ambiguity here as to whether Caesar walked once in the field or walked in the field as an ongoing action. Using the word “was” in the translation helps to indicate the ongoing action implied by use of the imperfect tense. Therefore, a better and clearer translation may be:
Caesar was walking in the field.
Of course, when the subject of an imperfect tense verb is plural, “were” is appropriate instead of “was”, as in:
Viri in agro ambulabant (The men were walking in the field)
Sometimes the phrase “used to” may be employed instead of “was” or “were” when a clearer translation is the result.
Summing It Up
The imperfect tense of Latin and the simple past tense of English are similar in that they both indicate actions of the past. However, a distinction is made in Latin to indicate that the action was ongoing rather than something that occurred just once or suddenly. Using the words “was” or “were” and the phrase “used to” helps the beginning Latin student distinguish this subtlety. Other past tenses are used for more specific purposes in both languages.
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.