Characterizing Clauses in English

When we describe a person or thing, we may either define them or characterize them. The difference between these two modes of description is only that the "defining clauses" set forth details as particular ("The oak which is in my yard is 45 feet tall."), while "characterizing clauses" set forth details as characteristic, as elements that place the person or object in a class of people or objects ("The oak, a tree of great strength and size, is useful for building."). You can see that when we characterize a person, thing, or event, we indicate that it is being imagined or thought about as a type in terms of its characteristics. In Latin, we indicate that a person, thing or event is being thought about or imagined in terms of its potential or characteristics by using the subjunctive mood (a potential subjunctive). In English, there is an equally easy way to indicate such a characterizing or contemplative mode: we use the indefinite article ("a") to characterize (and the definite article ("the") to define).. Consider:  "Latisha, a woman of many accomplishments, had nothing to say." Here, "a woman of many accomplishments" means, essentially, that she is characterized by those accomplishments, that she belongs to the class of accomplished women, and that leads you, the reader, to imagine her in terms of her potential as an accomplished woman. When the sentence continues "had nothing to say," you realize that your expectations have been foiled. Under these circumstances, you could say that the phrase modifying Latisha, is a concessive phrase, that it really means "although she was a woman of many accomplishments, this time she had nothing to say." Similarly, "Latisha, a woman of many accomplishments, was quick to rise to the top." may imply, "since she was a woman of many accomplishments, she was quick to rise." This is particularly useful when translating Latin cum clauses with the subjunctive. This kind of Latin clause expresses the context ("when") in terms of its general characteristics or potential. Thus, the single most useful translation of this cum is to say "At a time when ...." Consider: "At a time when he was being attacked by his enemies, he still held his head high." Here, the temporal clause means "Although he was being attacked..." because the man's proud bearing seems not to follow from his vulnerability to attack. Contrast: "At a time when he was being attacked by his enemies, he retired from public life." Here, the temporal clause clearly implies a causal relationship. It is important to remember that such characterizing expressions in Latin as in English are not explicit about cause or concession; they only ask that you think about the person or event (as the writer did) in terms of its characteristics and potential.

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