How To Parse Latin Verbs (Step by Step)
Parsing Latin verbs is easy once you get the hang of it. Read this quick post to learn how to parse Latin verbs (and how parsing can help you out).
First of all, what does it mean to parse a verb, anyway?
When you parse a verb, you identify all its verbal properties. You describe the verb from a grammatical perspective.
Finite verbs (i.e. conjugated verbs) have five properties: person, number, tense, voice, and mood. Parsing a verb means listing the properties of that verb.
The first time I ask my students to parse verbs, they often freak out. If you feel a bit stressed about it yourself, don’t worry.
Verb parsing is a very logical process, and in this post we will go through it step by step. It sounds much more complicated than it is.
Why parse Latin verbs?
Before we dive into the actual parsing, let’s talk about why parsing is worthwhile. Your Latin teachers don’t ask you to parse verbs just to be mean (I promise).
Latin is a highly inflected language and there is a lot of information included in each verb ending. In order to translate a verb properly and determine how it fits into its sentence, you need to be able to identify all that information.
In other words, you need to be able to parse the verb.
Ancient Romans looked at verbs and instinctively knew what they meant. You can’t do that – yet. So in the beginning, parsing offers a reliable process that helps you to unlock meaning.
My students often tell me that parsing helps them – even if it can be a pain at first. So learning how to parse Latin verbs is in your best interest.
How to parse a Latin verb
A full parsing of a Latin verb includes five properties:
If you are a beginning student, then you probably only need to pay attention to the first three. We will go through them one by one, so just read however far is relevant for you.
Note that verbal properties are conventionally listed in the order given above. That is, if you are parsing a verb, you list first its person, then its number, then its tense, and so forth.
In the following sections of this post, I will give you all the possible options for each verbal property.
Step 1: Find the Verb’s Person & Number
Your first step when parsing a verb is to decide what person and what number the verb is.
In Latin there are three persons and two numbers. These verbal properties are most easily explained in terms of the subject of the verb.
- First (I, we = refers to the speaker)
- Second (you, y’all = refers to the person spoken to)
- Third (he, she, it, they = refers to the person/thing spoken about)
- Singular (I, you, he, she, it = only one person or thing)
- Plural (we, y’all, they = two or more persons or things)
Each finite verb will have some combination of these persons and numbers. For instance, clāmāmus (“we shout”) is first person plural.
Person and number are fortunately easy to identify, since there are predictable endings that apply across all tenses (with a few exceptions in the perfect tense).
If you aren’t sure how to determine a verb’s person and number, then be sure to read my ultimate guide to Latin person and number.
Step 2: Find the Verb’s Tense
Next comes tense. Verb tense refers to the time at which an action occurs. In Latin, there are 6 possible tenses to choose from.
- Future perfect
If you don’t know all these tenses yet, just focus on the ones that you do know.
If you aren’t sure what tense a verb belongs to, look at it carefully. Pay attention a) to the stem and b) to the ending.
Does the verb have its present stem or its perfect stem? (You can tell by looking at the verb’s principal parts.)
If the verb has the present stem, it must be in the present, future, or imperfect. If the verb has the perfect stem, it must be in the perfect, pluperfect, or future perfect.
Is there anything distinctive in the verb’s ending? The last letter or so gives information about the person and number, but before that there is often tense information.
Quick tips for identifying Latin tense:
- If you see –ba– in the ending, you are most likely dealing with the imperfect tense.
- If you see –bi– in the ending, you probably have a verb in the future.
- Finally, if you see –era– in the ending, chances are the verb is in the pluperfect.
Don’t panic. Just study the verb closely and use your textbook for comparison. You can do this!
Once you have identified the tense, add that to your list of verbal properties. In the case of clāmāmus (“we shout”) the tense is present, so this is a first person plural present verb.
Step 3: Find the Verb’s Voice
Latin has two voices: active and passive. A verb is active if its subject performs the action of the verb, while a verb is passive if its subject receives the action of the verb.
Fortunately for Latin students, voice is one of the easiest properties to identify.
For verbs in the present, imperfect, and future you can simply look at the personal ending (also called the final personal sign). It will tell you not only the person and number, but also whether the verb is active or passive.
Read more about verb personal endings in my ultimate guide to person and number.
For verbs in the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect passive, the verb will consist of two parts: 1) the perfect passive participle and 2) a form of the verb sum.
This is quite easy to spot. So now you add the verb’s voice to the list. In the case of clāmāmus (“we shout”), the verb has the active ending -mus. So we know the verb is first person plural present active.
NOTE: If you are dealing with a deponent verb, then just put “deponent” for the voice. Deponent verbs are passive in form but active in meaning, so listing either “active” or “passive” would be misleading.
Step 4: Find the Verb’s Mood
The final verbal property to add to your parsing list is mood. Latin has three moods
The indicative is the default mood, used to express statements and declarations. It is the mood that you are probably most familiar with. If you are a beginning student, you most likely are dealing with only the indicative.
The indicative can have all the possible persons, numbers, tenses, and voices that we have seen so far.
The subjunctive is used in a variety of situations (such as purpose clauses, result clauses, and some conditionals). Among other things, the subjunctive expresses intent, volition, uncertainty, and possibility.
One thing to note is that there are only four tenses of the subjunctive:
The imperative is used for commands. It technically has two tenses (present and future), but future imperatives are extremely rare. Furthermore, imperatives in Latin are only second person.
What this means is that 99% of the imperatives you see will be second person (singular or plural) present.
Our example verb, clāmāmus (“we shout”), is a simple statement. So it is indicative, and consequently a full parsing of the verb is first person plural present active indicative.
Quick tips for identifying a Latin verb’s mood
- You can easily recognize the imperfect subjunctive because of its distinctive -re- element. You will see –re– and then a personal ending (active or passive).
- For the pluperfect subjunctive active, you will see -isse– and then an active personal ending.
- Singular (regular) imperatives end in a vowel (-ā, -ē, -e, or -ī). Plural imperatives end in -te.
As you can see from these tips, mood is very entangled with tense and other verbal properties. As you continue with Latin, you will get better at identifying verbal forms.
For the time being, the important thing to remember is that a full parsing includes a mood. Your three options are indicative, subjunctive, and imperative.
Abbreviations Used in Parsing Latin Verbs
Here are some abbreviations commonly used to parse Latin verbs.
- sing / sg = singular
- plur / pl = plural
- 1st / 1 = first person
- 2nd / 2 = second person
- 3rd / 3 = third person
- pres = present
- fut = future
- imperf / imp = imperfect
- perf / pf = perfect
- plupf = pluperfect
- fut perf / fut pf = future perfect
- act = active
- pass = passive
- indic / ind = indicative
- subj = subjunctive
- imper / imp = imperative
There is a little ambiguity with “imp” because people use it to stand for both “imperfect” and “imperative”. But fortunately this isn’t that confusing because from the context you can tell which is meant.
If you are writing an abbreviated parsing of our example verb, clāmāmus (“we shout”), you would say 1 pl pres act indic.
Be Aware of Different Parsing Styles
What I have outlined above is the standard way of parsing Latin verbs. Give the person, number, tense, voice, and mood and boom! you are done.
However, if you are taking a Latin class, always check with your teacher to determine what additional information they may wish you to include.
A common request is that you list the principal parts and definition of the verb along with its parsing. Or you may be asked to explain why the verb is in a certain tense or mood.
It’s always best to seek clarification so there are no surprises.
I hope you now feel more confident about how to parse Latin verbs! It really is not so scary once you get the hang of it. Just go through the steps I outlined above and make sure you have all the verbal properties listed.
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As a mnemonic for remembering this:
Perhaps use “pentum” (which looks Latin even if it isn’t) and has the nice property of alluding to the five properties.
Hi Patrick, thank you for this suggestion – mnemonics can be so helpful!