What about Subjunctives?

salvēte iterum, amīcī et sodālēs! I hope it’s been a good, happy, and productive week in your part of the world. Today, as promised, I have a question about subjunctives: how and when to introduce them?

As with passives, I had originally thought we should wait until Cursus Secundus, mostly because that’s where they are “usually” introduced in both grammar-translation and reading-method approaches to teaching Latin. Again, though I’m not really sure why they’re kept until so late in either system. Subjunctives (or, as Donatus calls them, modus coniunctīvus – the dependent ones – and modus optātīvus – the independent ones) are such an intrinsic feature of the Latin language! They are, of course, very different from English, which has essentially lost any subjunctive mood features (would that it were not so! But so be it! :-)).

Does it make more sense to go ahead and introduce them early, just so that learners have a full picture of what is to come, or to wait until later, as the “traditional” methods would have us do? In either case, does it make more sense to you to introduce the optātīvus (wishes, polite requests, etc.) or the coniunctīvus (the various dependent clauses) first?  And should we start with the primary sequence (present and perfect subjunctives) or the secondary (imperfects and pluperfects)?

A typical grammar-translation approach would “work down the chart,” starting with present subjunctives, then imperfects, then perfects, then pluperfects.  A typical reading-method approach would start with “something common” (for example, temporal cum clauses in secondary sequence) and work out to “less common” things.  In both cases, though, I’m afraid that learners can easily fail to develop a “big picture” sense of how subjunctives work in Latin, and of how integral they are to the language.  I see that every time my own face-to-face students begin reading unadapted texts (whether classical or post-classical), as they struggle with things they found “easy” when they were first introduced.

My preliminary thought – but it’s certainly open to change depending on what you, the community, think is best here – is to begin with “deeply subjunctive” subjunctive uses, the ones that “traditional” Latin grammar books call volitive, jussive, and hortatory.  I also think it makes sense to introduce them pretty early – certainly when learners are familiar with present tense indicative forms, but perhaps before they run into other tenses.  That way, as each new tense is introduced, the indicatives and subjunctives could be learned in parallel.

But this is a very different approach from either of the main “traditional” ones.  quid putātis, amīcī?

If we did introduce subjunctives in Cursus Prīmus, I suppose a logical place would be in that “gap” in the middle, from Lectiōnēs XXIII to XVII or so, where there’s “not much new grammar.” Perhaps the travels to the chariot race would be a good time for people to wish that … or hope that … or exclaim, “If only!” or “Let him” or “Let them not!”  If you don’t remember all the details, please feel free to check out this link to the (rather poorly formatted, I’m afraid!) list of “what might be taught when” in Cursus Prīmus of the Tres Columnae system.

But my concern, as always, is that we not overwhelm learners with “too much, too soon.” So again I turn to you, the community, for your thoughts. I would anticipate only present subjunctives at that point (especially for wishes and hopes … plus the fact that we only know present indicative forms), with imperfects and pluperfects introduced at some point after the past indicative tenses have been learned.

quid mihi suādētis, amīcī? I eagerly await your comments, questions, and concerns.

Tune in next time for an overview of your responses, and a story we might use if we do, in fact, use subjunctives (or optātīvī) at this point in Cursus Prīmus. I hope you’ll enjoy it more than some of its main characters did! 🙂 Then, over the weekend, we’ll begin a series of posts about the concept of verbal aspect. And in the meantime, grātiās maximās iterum, and please keep those comments and emails coming.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. When I first started learning Latin, I would have been mortified at the thought of learning the subjunctives early on, but looking back, with as integral and potentially confusing the subjunctives can be, the more time spent with them the better. Another aspect of waiting which can be harmful is the potential for the subjunctive to feel tacked on, when it a profuse part of the language. I would suggest introducing them as soon as possible, immediately after the present indicative, past, and future.


    • I’m glad you agree with the early introduction of subjunctives. Hope you’ll enjoy the upcoming stories in which they’re introduced! 🙂

  2. My concern with introducing the subjunctive too early lies in distinguishing the subjunctive from the indicative. I have found that my students understand the present subjunctive well because they have such a solid grasp on the present indicative. To repeat “generally” what my students say: “That form, discēdat, isn’t present because that would be “discēdit.” They are able to distinguish because they have such good mastery of the indicative *before* they encounter the subjunctive.

    How could we address this issue?

  3. Randy,
    Glad you found an answer in that other post!

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