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3 Tips to Avoiding Common Mistakes in Latin

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Latin is a language of exceptions, making memorization a key factor to success with the language. Learn about avoiding three more of the most common mistakes made by students of Latin.

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    In the previous article of this series, three common mistakes Latin students make were introduced. The three mistakes in this article are much more specific and deal with the intricacies of the language itself.

    Most Latin programs follow a similar paradigm. They introduce Latin one step at a time and progress from easy lessons to lessons that are more complex. Unfortunately, this pedagogy does not offer students of Latin an emphasis on what is important and what is not. Read on to learn about three mistakes Latin students make while learning the language.

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    Mistake No. 4: Failure to Memorize the Gender of Latin Words

    English speakers are not used to thinking of words in terms of gender. Occasionally, a word is given a gender such as when someone refers to a boat or car as “she." In general, English only places gender on words that are clearly masculine or feminine such as proper names. Words that refer to inanimate objects are all inherently neuter.

    Latin assigns gender to all of its nouns. For example, the word “via," which translates as “road" is a feminine noun. “Ager," a masculine noun, translates as “field" and “donum" is a neuter noun meaning “gift."

    Note that the assignment of gender to nouns referring to inanimate objects is purely a grammatical concept. Certainly, the Romans did not actually think that roads were women and that fields were men. Artificially assigning gender to inanimate objects is simply one method of ordering the grammatical rules of the language.

    The problem of gender begins with the first declension, one of the first lessons in most Latin programs. Students learn that most of the nouns of the first declension are feminine, having the distinctive “–a" ending in the nominative case and “–ae" in the genitive case. Students also learn that there are a few words of the first declension that are masculine such as “nauta" (sailor) and “agricola" (farmer). Other than memorizing these few masculine, first-declension nouns, most students do not place much emphasis on gender memorization.

    Since second declension nouns are masculine, most Latin programs reinforce the redundancy of memorizing the gender of nouns since students begin to see Latin as falling into quite regular patterns. Sure, there are the occasional exceptions, but overall the Latin student is safe in assuming the nouns that end in –a are feminine nouns of the first declension and nouns ending in –us belong to the second.

    However, a problem arises when the third declension is introduced. For the first time, masculine and feminine nouns have the same endings. The only way to distinguish masculine and feminine nouns of the third declension is memorization. The fact that third declension words decline differently within the same declension only complicates matters.

    Students not in the habit of memorizing the gender of Latin words by the time they learn the third declension often find themselves having to repeat previous lessons and must switch to a different learning paradigm mid-way through their Latin studies. One of the keys to successful completion of a Latin program of study is to memorize the gender of Latin words no matter how redundant it may seem at the time.

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    Mistake No. 5: Failure to Memorize the Principal Parts of Latin Verbs

    Latin verbs have many forms throughout the language’s four conjugations. Each conjugation has its own little quirks, proving once again that Latin is a language of exceptions. Also once again, memorization is a key to success in a Latin language program of study.

    Most English programs teach that English verbs have three principal parts. However, most Latin programs teach that Latin verbs have four. Really, they are the same as in English, but the infinitive form of the verb becomes the second principal part, the present perfect form becomes the third, and the past participle is the fourth. Here is a breakdown of the four principal parts for the verb “amo," a common word in Latin programs.

    amo (first-person singular present active indicative)

    amare (singular present active indicative infinitive)

    amavi (first-person singular (present) perfect active indicative)

    amatum (nominative perfect (past) passive participle)

    The problem for Latin students begins when the first conjugation is introduced. All of Latin’s first conjugation verbs follow the –o, –are, –avi, –atum principal part pattern giving students little incentive to memorize a verb’s principal parts. After all, every verb they have encountered up until now belongs to the first conjugation and all of them follow a very regular pattern.

    The situation becomes more complicated at the introduction of the second conjugation. Luckily, second conjugation verbs follow the regular pattern –o, -ere, -ui, -itum such as the common verb moneo, monere, monui, monitum. Still, most Latin students tend to memorize to which conjugation a verb belongs rather than the formation of principal parts.

    Disaster strikes at the third conjugation. You see, second and third conjugation verbs have nearly an identical second principal part form; they both have an –ere ending for the singular present active indicative infinitive. However, the first –e– is long in the second conjugation and short in the third. Many Latin programs make use of a macron over long vowels, but not all do.

    The result is many Latin students forming third conjugation verbs (the future active indicative in particular) as if they belong to the second conjugation such as:

    agabo (incorrect) agam (correct)

    agabis (incorrect) ages (correct)

    agabit (incorrect) aget (correct)

    agabimus (incorrect) agemus (correct)

    agabitis (incorrect) agetis (correct)

    agabunt (incorrect) agent (correct)

    Without an incentive to memorize the principal parts of a verb at the beginning of their Latin studies, many students find themselves having to revisit and rememorize earlier lessons. This is usually on top of the new material presented as the course moves on.

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    Mistake No. 6: Failure to Memorize Latin Vocabulary

    Akin to the two mistakes mentioned above, Latin vocabulary is a difficult part of any program for many Latin students. So many Latin words found their way into English that many Latin students think that they will simply recognize the English equivalent of a Latin word when the time comes. This is fine for words like “monumentum" (monument) or “poeta" (poet), but does nothing to help with words like “caelum" (sky) or igitur (therefore).

    Take for example the Latin word “servo." This word looks an awful lot like the English word “serve." In many Latin programs, this word creates a rude awakening to students that vocabulary must be memorized. Whereas many early Latin students often translate this word as “serve," it actually means “save" or “guard" in Classical Latin, the most popular form of Latin taught in High Schools and Universities.

    Once again, memorization is the key. Although many Latin words look like modern English words, students cannot rely on this paradigm to skip vocabulary memorization. Flash cards, computer programs, and other devices often aid students in learning vocabulary and should be a part of any Latin program.

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    As the three mistakes discussed above suggest, there is no substitute for memorization in a Latin language program. The Latin student must memorize all genders of nouns, principal parts of verbs, and Latin vocabulary for success with the language. The reasons are not always apparent early in a program but become monumentally important at the intermediate level.

The Top 10 Mistakes Made by Students of Latin

Latin is a difficult language for native speakers of English. Learn about the Top 10 Mistakes made by students while learning Latin.
  1. Avoid 3 Common Mistakes Made by Students of Latin: English Grammar, and Study
  2. 3 Tips to Avoiding Common Mistakes in Latin
  3. 10 Common Mistakes Made by Students of Latin: Part III