Another Six Tricks to Fix Your Latin

Mike Fontaine |

Hack your Latin, part 4



The immortal Reginald Foster once quipped, “Some say I’m a hard teacher. I’m not. Latin is hard. I’m trying to make it easy!” He had a point. Latin grammar is not a democracy. It’s an absolute dictatorship. Learn its rules, tweak your English, and you will read Latin better.

1. Master iam. Iam means “already” (= French déjà) but did you know it has two other idiomatic meanings? (1) iam with a negative is how you say “no longer” in Latin. Example: Tacitusnulla iam publica arma means “There were no longer any public armies.” (2) iam with a future verb means “soon.” Example from Plautus: At iam bibes, “But you’ll be drinking soon.”

2. Realize you can translate the imperfect as “would.” Don’t hear “would” and assume the corresponding Latin verb is subjunctive. “Would” is common for the imperfect tense in English. For example, “Every day I’d get up, wash my face, and go for a run,” in Latin is Quōque ego die expergiscebar, faciem lavabam, et currebam. There’s nothing potential or subjunctive about it.

3. Use the future to translate fear clauses. My last set of hacks sparked a Reddit debate about how to handle fear clauses. The answer’s simple. Don’t say “lest” or “may” or “might.” Use the future tense instead. Timeo ne hoc facias means “I’m afraid you’ll do this” and metuebat ut advenirem means “He was afraid I wouldn’t show up.” And the hack for remembering to switch the meanings of ut and ne in fear clauses is to remember this: you get so scared, you mix them up.

4. Use the future to translate purposes clauses, too. If you learned to translate purposes clauses “may” and “might,” forget it. In the English of 2016, Hoc facio ut me ames means “I’m doing this so you’ll love me” and Id feci ut me amares means “I did it so you’d love me.” Anything weaker than that — may, might, could — is wrong.

5. Embrace quippe. A reader asked about this, and if you are a millennial you are going to love it. At the start of a sentence quippe means “Of course!” or “Obvi!,” and you can use it sincerely or sarcastically. Horace says a bunch of dimwits were upset when Tigellius died — quippe benignus erat: “Obvi! He paid for all their fun.” Usually there’s no punctuation after quippe, but you can still translate it “Of course!” and then start a new sentence.

6. Translate quin clauses as “from …xing.” Last time I discussed quin as the first word of a question. This is different. When you have a clause of prohibition, don’t translate quin as “but that.” Say “from” and turn the subjunctive into an …ing verb. Example from Plautus: Numquam edepol quisquam me exorabit, quin tuae uxori…eloquar, “By Pollux! No one’ll ever keep me from telling your wife!”

And there you have it: six simple, quick fixes to bring your Latin more in line with the English of today. As they sink in, Latin should stop looking like a code to decipher, and should start looking like a language as real as any other on planet Earth.

By the way… A reader wrote to offer me a little donation to keep this series of hacks going. I’m flattered and appreciate the gesture, but it’s not necessary. If you like these posts and feel moved to contribute, please consider the Reginald Foster Scholarship Fund. It sends deserving students to Paideia’s nonprofit Living Latin programs, and it’s a wonderful cause.


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Mike Fontaine

Cornell University professor of classics; former LLiR professor; author of Funny Words in Plautine Comedy; Advisory Board member


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