A Latin and English Comparison of the Subjunctive Mood
By John Garger
The subjunctive mood is used more often in Latin than in English. Therefore, use of Latin’s subjunctive can give students a difficult time. Learn how to recognize and translate Latin's subjunctive mood.
Latin verbs can take three moods, each with its own purpose and function in a Latin sentence. The indicative mood (from Latin indicare, “to point out") literally indicates facts that have already happened, are happening, or will mostly likely happen in the future. The indicative also indicates facts that did not happen, are not happening, and will not happen in the future. For example:
Puer puellae rosam dedit (The boy gave a rose to the girl)
Puer puellae rosam dat (The boy is giving a rose to the girl)
Puer puellae rosam dabit (The boy will give a rose to the girl)
The imperative mood (from Latin imperare, “to command") issues a command to the recipient. Imperative verbs have only two forms, singular and plural, because a command can only be given to someone in the second person (you), never in the first (I, we) or third (he, she, it) person. For example:
Puellae rosam da (Give a rose to the girl) singular
Puellae rosam date (Give a rose to the girl) plural
The subjunctive mood indicates the potential, hypothetical, or ideal. It usually represents an action that may, would, or should take place. In English, the subjunctive is comparatively uncommon. English often employs the auxiliaries "were" and "would" to describe an action that is ideal. For example:
If I were president, I would lower taxes.
Notice that although "I" is singular, were indicates the subjunctive mood (rather than was). The word if also helps clue the English reader that the subjunctive mood is being used. However, this is not always the case. A rearrangement of the words in the sentence eliminates the need for if:
Were I president, I would lower taxes.
Latin's Subjunctive Mood
Latin uses the subjunctive is a variety of sentence clauses. Identification of the subjunctive can be difficult for elementary Latin students because the language does not employ auxiliary words as English does. Instead new verb conjugation forms indicate subjunctive use. For example, the present active subjunctive of amo is conjugated:
Notice that the typical vowel stem for the first conjugation verb amo changes from –a in the indicative to –e in the subjunctive. In the other conjugations, –a is the characteristic vowel of the present subjunctive. This fact often gives Latin students trouble in identifying the mood’s forms. This is just one more reason why being able to identify a verb’s conjugation in any of its forms is crucial to proper translation.
Only four Latin tenses have subjunctive forms: the present, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect. There are no subjunctive forms for the future and future perfect tenses, so the number of forms is fewer, making it easier to memorize the conjugations.
Proper translation of the subjunctive is dependent on the clause in which it is used. Sometimes the word may or let will suffice when the subjunctive is not being used for another purpose. The popular phrase caveat emptor employs this construction with a translation of 'let the buyer beware'. Had the phrase not been in the subjunctive, the phrase would be cavet emptor and would be translated with a present indicative verb, 'the buyer is bewaring'.
The subjunctive mood can be difficult for students of Latin because native English speakers use the mood far less than their Roman counterparts did. However, learning the subjunctive in Latin often gives students an appreciation for the complexity of English verbs and the use of auxiliary clues to identify the intention of a speaker or writer.