Moods of Latin Verbs: Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive

Latin verbs can state facts, give commands and express doubt

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The Latin language uses three moods by changing the form of the infinitive: indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The most common is indicative, which is used to make a simple statement of fact; the others are more expressive.

  1. The indicative mood is for stating facts, as in: "He is sleepy."
  2. The imperative mood is for issuing commands, as in: "Go to sleep."
  3. The subjunctive mood is for uncertainty, often expressing as a wish, desire, doubt or hope as in: "I wish I were sleepy."

To use mood correctly, review Latin verb conjugations and endings to help you navigate them. You could also refer to conjugation tables as a quick reference to make sure you have the correct ending.

Indicative Mood

The indicative mood "indicates" a fact. The "fact" can be a belief and need not be true. Dormit. > "He sleeps." This is in the indicative mood. 

Imperative Mood

Normally, the Latin imperative mood expresses direct commands (orders) like "Go to sleep!" English rearranges the word order and sometimes adds an exclamation point. The Latin imperative is formed by removing the -re ending of the present infinitive. When ordering two or more people, add -te, as in Dormite > Sleep! 

There are some irregular or irregular-seeming imperatives, especially in the case of irregular verbs. The imperative of ferre 'to carry' is ferre minus the -re ending, as in the singular Fer > Carry! and the plural Ferte > Carry!

To form negative commands in Latin, use the imperative form of the verb nolo with the infinitive of the action verb, as in Noli me tangere. > Don't touch me!

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is tricky and worth some discussion. Part of this is because in English we are rarely aware that we're using the subjunctive, but when we do, it expresses uncertainty, often a wish, desire, doubt, or hope.

Modern Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian have retained verb form changes to express the subjunctive mood; those changes are less frequently seen in modern English.

A common example of the Latin subjunctive is found on old tombstones: Requiescat in pace. > May (s)he rest in peace.

The Latin subjunctive exists in four tenses: the present, imperfect, perfect and pluperfect. It is used in the active and passive voice, and it can change according to the conjugation. Two common irregular verbs in the subjunctive are esse ("to be") and posse ("to be able").

Additional Uses of the Latin Subjunctive

In English, chances are that when the auxiliary verbs "may" ("He may be sleeping"), "can, must, might, could" and "would" appear in a sentence, the verb is in the subjunctive. Latin uses ​the subjunctive in other instances as well. These are some notable instances: 

Hortatory and Iussive Subjunctive (Independent Clause)

The hortatory and iussive (or jussive) subjunctives are for encouraging or inciting actions.

  • In an independent Latin clause, the hortatory subjunctive is used when there is no ut or ne and an action is being urged (exhorted). Usually, the hortatory subjunctive is in the first person plural present.
  • In the second or the third person, the iussive subjunctive is usually used. "Let" is generally the key element in translating into English. "Let's go" would be hortatory. "Let him play" would be iussive.

Purpose (Final) Clause in the Subjunctive (Dependent Clause)

  • Introduced by ut or ne in a dependent clause.
  • The relative clause of purpose is introduced by a relative pronoun (qui, quae, quod).
  • Horatius stabant ut pontem protegeret. > "Horatius stood in order to protect the bridge."

Result (Consecutive) Clause in the Subjunctive (Dependent Clause)

  • Introduced by ut or ut non: The main clause should have a tam, ita, sic, or tantus, -a, -um.
  • Leo tam saevus erat ut omnes eum timerent. "The lion was so fierce that everyone feared him."

Indirect Question in the Subjunctive

Indirect questions introduced by interrogative words are in the subjunctive: Rogat quid facias. > "He asks what you are doing." The questioning word rogat ("he asks") is in the indicative, while facias ("you do") is in the subjunctive. The direct question would be: Quid facis? > "What are you doing?"

'Cum' Circumstantial and Causal

  • Cum circumstantial is a dependent clause where the word cum is translated as "when" or "while" and explains the circumstances of the main clause.
  • When cum is causal, it is translated as "since" or "because" and explains the reason for the action in the main clause.

Recommended 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. 
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Moods of Latin Verbs: Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 25). Moods of Latin Verbs: Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Moods of Latin Verbs: Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).