Beginners' Guide to Latin Verb Tenses

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Latin is an inflected language in which the verbs include a lot of information about the sentence. Sometimes the verb is the only word in the sentence. Even without a noun or pronoun, a Latin verb can tell you who/what the subject is. It can also tell you the time frame, including interval and tense. When you parse a Latin verb as an exercise, you deconstruct these and other facets of the Latin.

When you parse a Latin verb, you list the following:

  1. Meaning/translation
  2. Person
  3. Number
  4. Mood
  5. Voice (active/passive)
  6. Tense/aspect

Tense, as mentioned, refers to time. In Latin, there are three simple and three perfect tenses, a total of six, and they come in both active and passive forms.

Moods in Different Tenses

  • The Indicative Mood is the most common. You need to make note of the mood when parsing a verb. Most statement sentences use the indicative. In English, we generally contrast indicative with conditional sentences, although English has the Latin moods (Indicative, Subjunctive—with four moods, Present, Imperfect, Perfect, and Pluperfect, and Imperative—with active and passive forms.)

Present Tense

The first of the simple tenses in the Indicative Mood is the present tense. The present tense in the Indicative Mood has both Active and Passive voices. The present tense shows action that is happening now.

  • I walk - ambulo

Latin Imperfect Tense

The next tense is the imperfect, which conveys uncompleted action in the past. Imperfect means incomplete or unfinished. When translating an imperfect verb, the simple past tense sometimes works. Other times, "was" plus an "-ing" ending on the verb or "used to" plus the verb will convey the uncompleted past action.

  • I was walking - ambulabam

The imperfect tense in Latin is used for both continuous and habitual actions in the past.

Latin Future Tense

The third tense is the future tense. A verb in the future tense conveys an action that will happen in the future. The customary auxiliary verb denoting the future tense is "will."

  • He will walk - ambulabit

The first person singular future ambulabo is translated "I shall walk"—technically. Most people in the U.S., if not in the rest of the anglophone world, would say "I will walk." The same is true of the first person plural ambulabimus: technically, it's "we shall walk," but in custom, it's "we will walk." In the second and third person, it's just "will" without qualification.

Latin Verb Endings

Active Singular

  • -o, -m
  • -s
  • -t

Active Plural

  • -mus
  • -tis
  • -nt

Passive Singular

  • -or, -r
  • -ris
  • -tur

Passive Plural

  • -mur
  • -mini
  • -ntur

Perfect Active Endings

Singular 

  • -i
  • -isti
  • -it

Plural

  • -imus
  • -istis
  • -erunt (sometimes -ere)

Past Tenses

Past or perfected tenses are used for completed actions. There are 3 such tenses:

  • Perfect
  • Pluperfect
  • Future perfect

Latin (Past) Perfect Tense

Generally simply called the perfect tense, this tense refers to an action that has been completed. Either a simple past tense ending (e.g., "-ed") or the auxiliary verb "have" conveys the perfect tense.

  • I walked - ambulavi

You may also translate it: "I have walked."

Latin Pluperfect Tense

A verb is in the pluperfect tense if it was completed prior to another. Usually the auxiliary verb "had" signifies a pluperfect verb.

  • I had walked - ambulaveram

Latin Future Perfect Tense

Future perfect is used to convey an action that will have been completed prior to something else. "Will have" are the customary auxiliary verbs.

  • I will have walked - ambulavero

Sources and Further Reading

  • Moreland, Floyd L., and Fleischer, Rita M. "Latin: An Intensive Course." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Traupman, John C. "The Bantam New College Latin & English Dictionary." Third Edition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2007.