In the Mood...for the Subjunctive


Permalink 09:27:55 am, by Chris Jones Email , 413 words, 1661 views   English (US)
Categories: Vocabulary and Grammar

In the Mood...for the Subjunctive

One of the problems with the current conversational approach to Latin IMO is that it glosses over (sometimes completely ignores) a critical aspect of Latin grammar: The subjunctive mood. Contrary to English (which barely acknowledges the subjunctive, confining it mostly to archaic phrases or contrary-to-fact conditionals), the subjunctive is everywhere in Latin once you get beyond the simple subject-object-verb sentences of Latin I.


Translations of subjunctive verbs correspond to a host of auxiliary verbs in English; Amem, the subjunctive form of amo - “I love” could be translated in English as “I may love, I might love, I ought to love, let me love, I could love.” ANd the best translation is often determined by how clauses are subordinated; Ut amem - “so that I may love", si amen - “if I should love", qui amem - “who would/might love".

Most students IMO learn the mood mechanically. That’s OK for memorizing the forms, but it’s an obstacle for fluid reading. For example, in learning the contrary-to-fact conditional, students learn the imperfect/pluperfect subjunctive is used in both clauses when referring to a present/past CTF condition: Si adesset, scirem. - “If he were here, I would know"; Si adfuisset, scivissem. - “If he had been here, I would have known.” But what about a sentence like “If he were here, what kind of guard would I be?” Some students might be surprised to learn the rhetorical question that forms the second part of the sentence (the apodosis for you grammarians) is commonly indicative, not subjunctive.

This example of course demonstrates the value of reading and conversation: Studying grammars for the “right” answer to unusual Latin questions is a bit like the baseball player who spends all his time in the batting cage. But it also shows the educational danger of relying on a single approach. There are other ways to view the subjunctive beyond just memorizing rubrics like “a purpose clause takes the subjunctive; tense is determined by sequence". Different students will naturally find different value in these alternate interpretations, and some of course will be quite happy and successful memorizing the rubrics. And there is always value in examining a problem/issue/idea from several different vantage points–even if you know (or think you know) the answer already.

This week I’ll offer my own observations about the subjunctive, things I’ve picked up from my reading, comparison with use in other languages (e.g. ancient Greek), and a few grammatical notes I’ve found useful over the years.


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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