Tenses of the subjunctive; sequence of tenses
The tense of a verb in the subjunctive in a subordinate clause depends on its relationship to the
time of the main clause. When the main verb refers to the present or the future (a "primary" tense), the
subjunctive is a present tense. When the main verb refers to the past (a "secondary" tense), the subjunctive
is in a past tehse. If the action described by the subjunctive verb comes before the action of the main
verb (that is, it is completed action at the time of the main verb), the subjunctive comes from the perfect
system. If the subjunctive desribes an action at the same time as that of the main verb, or an action that comes
after that of the main verb (that is, action that is not completed), the subjunctive comes from the present system. So:
|Main verb primary||Main verb secondary|
|Subjunctive happens before (complete)||Perfect subjunctive||Pluperfect subjunctive|
|Subjunctive happens after (incomplete)||Present subjunctive||Imperfect subjunctive|
- “His rebus fiebat ut minus facile finitimis bellum inferre possent.” Caesar, BG 1.2. The Gauls' difficulty in making war is contemporary with the reasons the main clause refers to; contemporary action in secondary sequence calls for the imperfect subjunctive.
The sufficiency of kisses would come after the question; subsequent action in primary sequence calls for the present subjunctive.
“Quaeris quot mihi basiationes
tuae, Lesbia, sint satis superque.
- “Multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem.” Virgil, Aen. 1.5 The main verbs in this sentence (which extents over the first seven lines of the Aeneid) are all in the past, including “passus [est]” here. The founding of the city is subsequent to Aeneas's sufferings. Subsequent action in secondary sequence calls for the imperfect subjunctive.
- “Accusatio crimen desiderat rem ut definiat, hominem notet, argumento probet, teste confirmet.” Cicero, Cael. 6 This general description of the legal system is in the present tense. The purpose clauses describe actions subsequent to the main verb, as purpose clauses often do. Subsequent action in primary sequence calls for the present subjunctive.