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Latin Tense


All verbs in English and Latin have "tense"; that is, they place their statement about action or being in time. We usually think of tense in terms of the speakers time: "I am flying" is called a present tense because my flying is presented as occuring at the very same time as my speaking about it. Compare "You were flying": in this sentence your flying is presented as being in the past with regard to my speaking. Similarly "They will fly" presents the action of their flying in the future. As you may guess from these examples, there are only three temporal orientation available to speakers of English and Latin: a verb may refer either to time present ("I am", "he runs"), time past ("we were", "you didn't!"), or time future ("they will", "you won't"). There are, however, more than three tenses. This is because when we refer to tense we include both the temporal orientation (present, past, future) and what is called "aspect". Aspect refers to certain ways in which an action may be represented by the verb system. In Latin there are three different aspects. An action may be presented simply, without any explicit aspectual modification: "she sat", "you run", "we will stay." An action may also be explicitly presented as a completed action: "we will have finished the job"—the time is future, and the action will be in the future completed; "I have finished the job"—now the time is present, and the action is completed in terms of the present; "you had completed the job yesterday"—the time is past and already in the past the action was completed. Together these tenses (or combinations of time and aspect) are called the perfect system and individually they are called the future perfect, the present perfect, and the pluperfect (or past perfect). If the verb system is designed to present an action or statement about being as explicitly completed, it follows that the same system might also be able to make an statement in which the action or being was explicitly incomplete or "in process". This aspect is called the "imperfect" and can be applied to all three times: the future imperfect tells you that in the future something will be happening—"you will be crying in your beer and cursing your fate some day"; the present imperfect tells you that some action or state of being is going-on in the present—"he is running down the street"; the past imperfect (usually just called "the imperfect") tells you that something was going on in the past—"she was coming into town when they stopped her."

The complete tense system for Latin consists of the following combinations of time and aspect which are called the tenses. The boxes below give the full designation but the names in BOLD are the common names:

 Past TimePresent TimeFuture Time
Imperfective Aspect(Past) Imperfect(Imperfect) Present(Imperfect) Future
Simple AspectSimple PastPresentFuture
Perfective AspectPluperfect(Present) PerfectFuture Perfect


You can see from this table that the designation "Imperfect Present" is an inference made from the context, since the form, usually called "Present", is the same for both the Imperfective Aspect and the Simple Aspect. The same is true of the Future Time: the Future form of the verb may imply either a "Simple" aspect or an "Imperfective" aspect, depending on context. In other words: Only the Past Time explicitly distinguishes the three aspects: "She fought" (simple past); "She was fighting" (past imperfect); "She had fought" (pluperfect). There is, alas, yet another complication, however: The form used for the Simple Past ("she fought") is the same as the form used for the Present Perfect ("she has fought"). This is not hard to understand, because an action that is completed from the point of view of the present ("he has conquered the Gauls" = Gallos vicit) is typically an action that actually did take place in the past ("he conquered them three days ago" = abhinc tres dies eos vicit). Nevertheless, as a careful reader of Latin you will need to make an intelligent decision about the aspect of the form known as the Perfect. The following table gives name, example and sample translation. I have used color to call your attention to the forms that are the same.




 Past TimePresent TimeFuture Time
Imperfective Aspect(Past) Imperfect
"I was singing"
(Imperfect) Present
"I am singing"
(Imperfect) Future
"I will be singing"
Simple AspectSimple Past
"I sang"
"I sing"
"I will sing"
Perfective AspectPluperfect
"I had sung"
(Present) Perfect
"I have sung"
Future Perfect
"I will have sung"