The tense of a verb indicates when the action took place. Each of the six Latin and English tenses has its own use in a sentence. Luckily, each English tense can be paired up with each Latin tense because the pair share similarities in how they function. The perfect tense in both Latin and English function identically, reprieving the student from having to make translation adjustments.
The perfect tense is formed with the third principal part of a Latin verb. It usually marks the first shift in having to learn new personal endings for a tense as the present, imperfect, and future share most of the same inflections. The perfect tense in Latin is likened to the present perfect tense of English. The name difference, however, does not imply a different function; Latin and English perfect tense verbs are identical.
The English Present Perfect Tense
Like the simple past tense, the present perfect tense is used to indicate an action that took place in the past. However, the present perfect tense uses a verb phrase since it is a compound tense. Using an auxiliary word, the present perfect tense distinguishes itself from the simple past tense, which requires only one word to indicate the past action. For example, the sentence:
I have worked in the field implies that the subject (I) once worked in the field. The word “have” is an auxiliary word that helps indicate that the action took place once in the past. Typically, the simple past is used to indicate what was happening in the past and the present perfect tense is used to simply indicate what happened. The difference is whether the action was something that happened more than once as an ongoing event or just once. Also, things that happened suddenly are usually indicated with the present perfect tense.
The Latin Perfect Tense
The perfect tense is used to indicate an event that happened once or suddenly in the past. This is different from the imperfect tense which indicates something that happened in the past but was an ongoing occurrence. For example, the imperfect-verb sentence:
In agro ambulabat
would best be translated as:
I was walking in the field
to imply that the event was ongoing. In contrast the perfect-verb sentence:
In agro ambulavit
would best be translated as:
I walked in the field
To imply that the action took place just once or suddenly in the past. The difference may be subtle but remember that Latin does not have auxiliary words such as “have” or “had” to help the reader or listener understand the meaning of actions that happened in the past. The meaning of Latin verbs must often be transmitted to the reader or listener with only one word. The exception to this is some passive voice verbs but these multi-word, verb phrases are used to indicate an inflection, not act as an auxiliary word plus verb combination.
The Romans had a sophisticated method for getting their meaning across with few words. One method was to use inflections and different forms of the same word to indicate not only when an action took place, but how often. Actions of the past that were ongoing use the imperfect tense while actions that took place once or suddenly use the perfect. Again, the distinction is subtle, but without the luxury of auxiliary words, the Latin language’s efficiency becomes apparent to students who stick with the language.
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.