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Tips on How to Look Up Latin Verbs in a Dictionary

By John Garger

As Latin is an inflected language, Latin verbs give the beginning student trouble in forming all the possible combinations of verb usage. The Latin dictionary is the student’s companion in deciphering the four conjugations.

Most Latin verbs follow a strict adherence to rules about their formation throughout the four conjugations. In fact, it is the similarity of rules that allow us to place a verb into its corresponding conjugation. The Latin dictionary is an invaluable tool in not only identifying a verb’s meaning, but understanding the formation of the four conjugations.

Take the following Latin dictionary entry below:

Amo –are, to love (passionately), to like, be fond of; amare se, to be selfish; amabo te, please; with infin., to like to do something.

The first part of the entry, amo, is the first person, singular, present, active, indicative form of the verb. The –are indicates that the verb belongs to the first conjugation of which the principal parts always follow the –are, –avi, –atum forms, such as:

amo, amare, amavi, amatum

The next part of the entry indicates the closest translations into English possible. In the case of amo, the word may be properly used to mean love, like, or be fond of. Notice that in English, the words love and like have two very different meanings. When encountering Amo in Latin text, you need to be sure to consider the context in determining which of these meanings is most appropriate.

The remainder of the entry indicates other uses of the word such as phrases, idioms, or sometimes even common, but purposeful, misuses of the word. In this case, amare se can be taken to mean to be selfish. Amare is the infinitive form of the verb and is usually translated to love and se is the 3rd-person reflexive pronoun meaning himself. So Amare se can be literally translated as to love himself (herself, itself).

Amabo is the first person, singular, future, active, indicative form of the verb and is translated as I will love. Coupled with te (you), the complete phrase can literally be translated as I will love you, a common way for Romans to say please. Either may be appropriate so context will dictate proper translation.

The entry also indicates that amo can be coupled with an infinitive to indicate a liking to do something. Examples include: amo ambulare (I like to walk) or amas currere (you like to run).

Learning how to look up verbs in a Latin dictionary can be difficult if the principal parts of a verb change its spelling. For example, the word capio has the following principal parts:

capio, capere, cepi, captum

Notice that the third principal part has replaced the a with an e. Many students when they encounter the word cepit (he captured), will look for a word in the dictionary with the spelling cepio. However, they will not find the root word capio unless they have memorized the principal parts of every verb. This illustrates that the Latin dictionary is a powerful asset to the student, but only if the student has put forth the effort to memorize the correct forms of every verb encountered.