Are you struggling with adjectives or simply trying to master them? Then this post on Latin adjectives for beginners is just the thing for you.
Once you have a handle on Latin nouns, it’s time to dive into adjectives. In this post, I will discuss the all the most important aspects in a beginner-friendly way.
This guide to Latin adjectives covers
- the role of adjectives in Latin
- types of adjectives in Latin
- adjective-noun agreement
- placement of adjectives
- positive, comparative, and superlative degrees
So let’s get started! You can read the whole post straight through, or you can jump to whatever interests you the most.
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Latin Adjectives: Basic Facts
An adjective is a word that modifies (or describes) a noun or a pronoun. Adjectives give us information about qualities and quantities.
Here are a few examples of adjectives in English: big, tall, red, pretty, interesting, messy, ancient, happy.
Latin adjectives work very much like English adjectives. But since Latin nouns have gender, number, and case, Latin adjectives also have these three properties.
The number one rule for Latin adjectives is that they must agree with their nouns in gender, number, and case.
This coordination of adjectives with their nouns is called agreement. When we say that an adjective agrees with its noun, we mean that its gender, number, and case match the gender, number, and case of the noun.
Further down in this post, we will explore adjective-noun agreement in more detail. But for now, I just want you to understand the basic principle.
So here’s the thing. If you are familiar with noun declensions, then you know that each noun has different forms based on its case and number. But any given Latin noun has only one gender.
Each adjective, on the other hand, can have three genders. This is a logical necessity, since adjectives have to be able to modify nouns of every gender.
What this means is that adjectives can have double or triple the number of endings as nouns. But before you get scared, here’s some good news: adjectives adopt many of the same endings as nouns.
Now that you know some basic facts, it’s time to take a closer look at the different types of Latin adjectives.
Types of Adjectives in Latin
This post focuses on Latin adjectives for beginners, so I will not cover every possible subtype or exception. Instead, I will discuss the two most important types of adjectives: 1st and 2nd declension adjectives and 3rd declension adjectives.
1st and 2nd Declension Adjectives
The first class of Latin adjective is 1st and 2nd declension adjectives. How can adjectives be both first and second declension? Simple.
The adjectives are 1st declension in the feminine and 2nd declension in the masculine and neuter. This makes sense if you consider how noun gender works. 1st declension nouns are usually feminine. 2nd declension nouns ending in –us are masculine, while 2nd declension nouns ending in –um are neuter.
Dictionaries and textbooks conventionally list the masculine, feminine, and neuter nominative singular forms of 1st and 2nd declension adjectives. These forms end in –us, –a, and –um respectively. Here are some examples:
- magnus, magna, magnum > magnus, a, um “large, great”
- bonus, bona, bonum > bonus, a, um “good”
- albus, alba, album > albus, a, um “white”
As you can see, adjectives often appear in short-hand: the feminine and neuter nominative singulars are abbreviated to –a and –um.
1st and 2nd declension adjectives are declined exactly like nouns of the 1st and 2nd declensions.
3rd Declension Adjectives
The second main class of adjectives is 3rd declension adjectives. Since 3rd declension nouns can be masculine, feminine, or neuter, there are 3rd declension endings for every gender.
Several subclasses of 3rd declension adjectives exist, but here I will focus on the main kind: two-termination 3rd declension adjectives.
Most 3rd declension adjectives have two sets of endings: the masculine/feminine endings and the neuter endings. The dictionary form of the adjective includes a) the masculine/feminine nominative singular and b) the neuter nominative singular.
For standard 3rd declension adjectives, the masculine/feminine ends in –is and the neuter ends in –e. These two forms appear in dictionary and textbook entries. Here are some examples:
- fortis, forte > fortis, e “strong, brave”
- gravis, grave > gravis, e “heavy, serious”
- facilis, facile > facilis, e “easy”
As you can see, the neuter nominative singular is often abbreviated to e.
3rd declension adjectives are declined exactly like 3rd declension i-stem nouns.
For more information about the various kinds of 3rd declension adjectives, you can read my post on finding the stem of any Latin adjective.
Adjective-Noun Agreement in Latin
Now you know about the two main types of Latin adjectives: 1st and 2nd declension adjectives and 3rd declension adjectives. You also know that Latin adjectives must agree with their nouns in gender, number, and case.
Sometimes, this means that the noun and adjective in question will have the exact same ending. This is convenient when it happens. Let’s look at a sample sentence.
Puellam laetam videō. = I see a happy girl.
In this sentence, puellam is the accusative singular of the 1st declension feminine noun puella “girl”. Laetam modifies puellam, so it also is accusative singular feminine.
Notice that both puellam and laetam end in –am. Helpful, right? It is easy to see that the two words go together.
The ending is exactly the same because puella is a 1st declension noun and laetus, a, um is a 1st and 2nd declension adjective. But what happens when a 1st and 2nd declension adjective modifies a 3rd declension noun?
Matrem laetam videō. = I see a happy mother.
Matrem is the accusative singular of the 3rd declension feminine noun māter “mother”. Laetam modifies matrem, so it is also accusative, singular, and feminine.
But wait! Why does matrem end in –em and laetam end in –am? Shouldn’t it be laetem?
No! Laetus, a, um is a 1st and 2nd declension adjective. It CANNOT have 3rd declension endings.
The important thing is that the adjective match the noun’s gender, number, and case. If the noun and adjective belong to different declensions, then the endings themselves may be different. But the endings must belong to the same gender, number, and case.
Whenever you see a noun and an adjective, check to see if the adjective agrees with the noun fully. The actual appearance of the ending doesn’t matter; its gender, number, and case do.
1st and 2nd declension adjectives can modify nouns of any declension (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th). 3rd declension adjectives can also modify nouns of any declension.
So remember: adjective-noun agreement does not mean that the two words will have the exact same ending.
Placement of Adjectives in Latin
Do adjectives go before or after the noun in Latin? Great question. The short answer is both. Latin word order is notoriously flexible, so an adjective may appear either before or after the noun it modifies.
Up above, we saw the sentence puellam laetam videō “I see a happy girl”. In English, we have to put the adjective “happy” in front of “girl”, but in Latin we can say either puellam laetam or laetam puellam.
So, why do adjectives sometimes come first, but sometimes go after? My favorite Latin grammar, Allen and Greenough’s, states: “In any phrase the determining and most significant word comes first.” (§598)
Basically, the word order depends on the precise meaning or emphasis that the writer or speaker is trying to convey. If the focus is on the girl herself, then puellam comes first. But if the speaker wishes to draw attention to the girl’s happiness, then laetam will precede its noun.
In practice, what usually happens is that adjectives expressing quality follow their nouns. Adjectives expressing quantity, on the other hand, tend to be more emphatic, so they tend to precede their nouns.
Numerals, demonstrative adjectives, and interrogative adjectives also tend to precede their nouns.
But rules are made to be broken, and you can certainly find all sorts of creative word orders in Latin literature. This is why it is so important for you to ignore the word order and to focus on the gender, number, and case of any given adjective.
The gender, number, and case will tell you which noun the adjective modifies. This, in turn, will allow you to determine the adjective’s role in the sentence.
How are you feeling? This may be a post on Latin adjectives for beginners, but I know I have thrown a lot of information at you. Just one more section, and you’re done!
Adjective Degrees in Latin
Are you familiar with adjective degrees? You may not know what they are called, but if you speak English, you definitely use them.
Adjectives in both English and Latin have three degrees:
The positive degree of an adjective is the basic, neutral form. Examples: tall, happy, brave.
The comparative expresses a greater degree of whatever quality or quantity the adjective describes. In English, we add “-er” to an adjective to form the comparative. Examples: taller, happier, braver.
The superlative expresses the greatest possible degree of whatever quality or quantity the adjective describes. In English, we add “-est” to an adjective to form the superlative. Examples: tallest, happiest, bravest.
Up above we have seen what the positive degree of Latin adjectives looks like. The comparative is, generally speaking, formed by adding –ior (masculine/feminine) and –ius (neuter) to the adjective stem. Comparatives are all 3rd declension adjectives.
- altus, a, um “tall” > altior, altius “taller”
- laetus, a, um “happy” > laetior, laetius “happier”
- fortis, e “brave” > fortior, fortius “braver”
The Latin superlative is typically formed by adding -issimus (masculine), –issima (feminine), and –issimum (neuter) to the adjective stem. As you may guess, superlatives are all 1st and 2nd declension adjectives.
- altus, a, um “tall” > altissimus, a, um “tallest”
- laetus, a, um “happy” > laetissimus, a, um “happiest”
- fortis, e “brave” > fortissimus, a, um “bravest”
And there you go. Now you have an idea of what Latin comparatives and superlatives look like.
Of course, things are a bit more complicated than I have presented here. There are exceptions and nuances that I can’t cover in this post on Latin adjectives for beginners. But don’t worry: I have a post coming soon all about Latin comparatives and superlatives.
Final Thoughts on Latin Adjectives for Beginners
I hope that you are now feeling a bit more confident about Latin adjectives! This post is for beginners, but there is a lot of material here. So take it slow and focus on mastering one thing at a time.
As I have said multiple times, the most important thing to remember about Latin adjectives is that they always, always, always agree with their nouns in gender, number, and case.
This should be your main takeaway from this post. If you remember one thing, let it be this iron-clad rule. It will guide you through confusing word orders and help you to understand ancient texts!
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