What Do the Latin Tenses Mean?

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What Do the Latin Tenses Mean?. Sam Edwards / Getty Images

A reader trying to teach himself Latin asked:

What I am trying to find are the meanings for all the other tenses [beyond the Present]. I am new at this and I am tying to make it a little easier for me to understand.

He had designed a chart for the paradigms and was trying to insert English translations for all the forms. This might be a good exercise for other Latin students. In my explanation below I mostly use the 1st person singular (the "I"). In English, generally there is a difference between the 1st singular (I) and the 3rd singular (he), as in "I love" but "he loves". Aside from this, it should be a straightforward project.

Latin has 6 tenses.

  1. Present
  2. Imperfect
  3. Future
  4. Perfect
  5. Pluperfect
  6. Future Perfect

Here is an example (using the active voice of the 1st conjugation verb amare 'to love'):

  1. Present: amo I love, I do love, I am loving
  2. Imperfect: amabam I loved, I did love, I was loving, I used to love
  3. Future:* amabo I shall love, I am going to love, I am about to love
  4. Perfect: amavi I loved, I have loved
  5. Pluperfect: amaveram I had loved
  6. Future Perfect:* amavero I shall have loved

*The "shall" is a bit old-fashioned -- in the U.S., at least. Here we usually replace "shall" with "will".

Latin Tenses - Overview

In Latin, there are one present tense, three past tenses, and two future tenses. To understand the differences among the tenses, we need to pay attention to when the action takes place (present), took place (past), or will take place (future).

  • In the present tense, the action is taking place in the present. It is happening now.
    I am reading. Lego.
  • In the past tenses, it happened in the past, but it may still be going on or it may be finished.
  • If it is finished, it is referred to as perfect, since perfect = completed. You use one of the perfect tenses for such actions. [N.B.: There are 3 perfect tenses. To make matters confusing, one of these tenses is referred to as "the" perfect. It is the most common of the perfects, but be alert.]

    For the Perfect - think of the English -ed ending

    What the master ORDERED, you NEGLECTED to follow. erus quod imperavit, neglexisti persequi.

    For the Pluperfect - think "had" + the -ed ending

    We had extended our feet. Protuleramus pedes.
  • An imperfect or incomplete past action is repetitive, ongoing or habitual. It may have finished, but that isn't specified. The imperfect tense is used for such actions.

    For the Imperfect - think "was" + the -ing ending

    The teacher praised the boys. Magister pueros laudabat. Note, this could be a one time occurrence and properly take the perfect tense.
  • In the future tenses, an event has yet to occur. If you want to say something will happen, you use a future tense.

    For the Future - think "will" or "shall" + the verb

    I will depart tomorrow. Cras proficiscar.
    You also use a future tense if you want to say something will be completed in the future. Since it's finished, this also requires a perfect tense. So combining future and perfect, you use the future perfect.

    For the Future Perfect - think "will have" or "shall have" + the verb + the -ed ending

    I shall have loved. Amavero.
    See: Endings and Tenses of Latin Verbs

Latin FAQ Index

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Gill, N.S. "What Do the Latin Tenses Mean?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-do-the-latin-tenses-mean-121413. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). What Do the Latin Tenses Mean? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-the-latin-tenses-mean-121413 Gill, N.S. "What Do the Latin Tenses Mean?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-the-latin-tenses-mean-121413 (accessed June 1, 2023).