Latin writers use more complicated sentences than English writers do, but
there are certain conventions and patterns that they generally follow. Because
the word order in Latin does not convey grammatical information the way it does
in English, Latin writers can re-arrange words to put the important ideas first,
to emphasize puns and other word play, to fit poetic meter, or to put a surprise
at the end of the sentence. Sentences in Latin prose can be long, but the best
writers construct them carefully so the listener or reader does not get lost.
The usual order of words in a Latin sentence is subject, direct object, verb. AG 596
The order subject, verb, direct object is also common.
Adjectives usually come near the nouns they modify. AG 598
- “Helvetii iam per angustias et fines Sequanorum suas copias traduxerant.” Caesar, BG 1.11 “Suas” must modify “copias”, not “angustias”, because of the word order as well as the sense.
- “Etenim quid est, Catilina, quod iam amplius exspectes, si neque nox tenebris obscurare coetus nefarios nec privata domus parietibus continere voces coniurationis tuae potest, si inlustrantur, si erumpunt omnia?” Cicero, Catil. 1.6
- “Aurum sumptum a Clodia, venenum quaesitum quod Clodiae daretur, ut dicitur.” Cicero, Cael. 30 It is the gold which is taken, the poison which is sought, not the other way around.
Adverbs usually come near the verbs (or adjectives) they modify. AG 598
- “Helvetii repentino eius adventu commoti, cum id quod ipsi diebus viginti aegerrime confecerant, ut flumen transirent, illum uno die fecisse intellegerent, legatos ad eum mittunt.” Caesar, BG 1.13 Here “uno die” modifies “fecisse”, not “intellegerent”: Caesar was able to do in one day what took the Helvetians twenty. The sentence does not say the Helvetians understood in one day what Caesar had done, but that he did it in one day.
- “Illa nimis antiqua praetereo.” Cicero, Catil. 1.3
- “Aliud est male dicere, aliud accusare.” Cicero, Cael. 6 “Male dicere” go so closely together that they end up becoming one word.
Latin word order is free
but not arbitrary
. When a
word is not in its expected place, there is usually a reason. AG 597
- “Divico ita cum Caesare egit: si pacem populus Romanus cum Helvetiis faceret, in eam partem ituros atque ibi futuros Helvetios ubi eos Caesar constituisset atque esse voluisset.” Caesar, BG 1.13 Here in the protasis of the conditional in the indirect discourse, the base word order is direct object, subject, verb. Caesar could have written “Si populus Romanus pacem cum Helvetiis faceret...”, but put the direct object first for emphasis. Divico is stressing a trade-off: if you Romans make peace, we Helvetians will go wherever you want to put us. There's no stress on “populus Romanus” because it is not the Roman people who will really be concluding the peace, it's Caesar.
- “Hos ego video consul et de re publica sententiam rogo, et quos ferro trucidari oportebat, eos nondum voce volnero!” Cicero, Catil. 1.9 The direct object appears first partly to emphasize it and partly to allow Cicero to delay the word “consul”, making it emphatic; a more ordinary order might be “Ego consul hos video”.
- “Quae lex ad imperium, ad maiestatem, ad statum patriae, ad salutem omnium pertinet, quam legem Q. Catulus armata dissensione civium rei publicae paene extremis temporibus tulit, quaeque lex sedata illa flamma consulatus mei fumantis reliquias coniurationis exstinxit, hac nunc lege Caeli adulescentia non ad rei publicae poenas sed ad mulieris libidines et delicias deposcitur.” Cicero, Cael. 70 Here the phrases with “lex” are all placed at the front of their clauses, even though the second is a direct object and the fourth, in the main clause, an ablative of means; this is a form of the rhetorical figure of anaphora, used here to emphasize the discongruity between Caelio's actions and the grave crimes for which the law was originally intended.
A periodic sentence (sometimes just called a period) is a highly structured sentence, usually
rather long and including several subordinate clauses. Formal writing uses periodic
sentences; informal writing generally does not. AG 600-601
- “Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit.” Caesar, BG 1.1 This sentence makes a nice example because it is not too long, but nonetheless has the characteristic features of a periodic sentence. The two clauses are parallel: object, prepositional phrase, subject, verb. This parallelism lets Caesar get away with only mentioning the object and the verb once. He could have written something more like this: “Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen dividit, et Gallos a Belgis Matrona et Sequana flumina dividunt”, but that would be flat and boring.
- “Fuisti igitur apud Laecam illa nocte, Catilina, distribuisti partis Italiae, statuisti quo quemque proficisci placeret, delegisti quos Romae relinqueres, quos tecum educeres, discripsisti urbis partis ad incendia, confirmasti te ipsum iam esse exiturum, dixisti paulum tibi esse etiam nunc morae, quod ego viverem.” Cicero, Catil. 1.9 Most of the main clauses in this series of parallel clauses (the second-person verbs) are augmented by subordinate clauses.
- “Quem si nobis, si suis, si rei publicae conservatis, addictum, deditum, obstrictum vobis ac liberis vestris habebitis omniumque huius nervorum ac laborum vos potissimum, iudices, fructus uberes diuturnosque capietis.” Cicero, Cael. 80 The parallel phrases with homoeoteleuton (matching word endings) lend weight to a very simple idea: “si Caelium non condemnabitis, vobis omnibus per totam viam suam bene faciet.”
In a true periodic sentence, often neither the meaning nor the grammar is complete until
the very last word.
- “Interea, ea legione quam secum habebat militibusque qui ex provincia convenerant, a lacu Lemanno, qui in flumen Rhodanum influit, ad montem Iuram, qui finis Sequanorum ab Helvetiis dividit, milia passuum decem novem murum in altitudinem pedum sedecim fossamque perducit.” Caesar, BG 1.8 The skeleton of this sentence is: “Interea legione militibusque murum fossamque perducit.” Everything else, including the four subordinate clauses, simply qualifies either the legion and soldiers or the wall and ditch. The main verb is the last word, and the sentence is not complete until you get there.
- “Tu, Iuppiter, qui isdem quibus haec urbs auspiciis a Romulo es constitutus, quem Statorem huius urbis atque imperi vere nominamus, hunc et huius socios a tuis ceterisque templis, a tectis urbis ac moenibus, a vita fortunisque civium omnium arcebis et homines bonorum inimicos, hostes patriae, latrones Italiae scelerum foedere inter se ac nefaria societate coniunctos aeternis suppliciis vivos mortuosque mactabis.” Cicero, Catil. 1.33 Here the skeleton is “Tu hunc [= Catilinam] a nobis arcebis, et inimicos suppliciis mactabis.” Jupiter's name is qualified by the two relative clauses. Cicero expands the simple idea “a nobis” into three phrases, getting progressively longer and more complicated. The “et” joins the two main verbs “arcebis” and “mactabis”; the latter verb has a threefold direct object, once again in increasingly long phrases.
- “Conservate parenti filium, parentem filio, ne aut senectutem iam prope desperatam contempsisse aut adulescentiam plenam spei maximae non modo non aluisse vos verum etiam perculisse atque adflixisse videamini.” Cicero, Cael. 80 Although the main verb is the first word of the sentence, the verb of the purpose clause is the last word. The main clause has two parallel phrases, with the nouns in parallel order and the construction in chiastic order. The purpose clause is in two parts joined by “aut … aut”; the construction of each part is an infinitive, which we will ultimately find out is complementary to “videamini”, with a direct object. The second disjunct part is itself in two parts, joined by “non modo … verum etiam”, and the second part of that disjunction is also in two parts, joined by “atque”.
Information is often supplied in the order in which you need it, or in an order that makes logical or rhetorical sense.
- “Cum esset Caesar in citeriore Gallia, ita ut supra demonstravimus, crebri ad eum rumores adferebantur, litterisque item Labieni certior fiebat omnis Belgas, quam tertiam esse Galliae partem dixeramus, contra populum Romanum coniurare obsidesque inter se dare.” Caesar, BG 1.2 Here Caesar opens his second book with references back to the first: while Caesar was in Hither Gaul (as we explained above), rumors came to him thick and fast, and he also found out from a letter from Labienus that all the Belgians (one-third of Gaul, as we said above) were conspiring against the Roman people and cementing their alliance with hostages. Caesar tells you first when these new events were going on, then how he found out about them, first by rumors and then from a reliable source, then what they were.
- “De te autem, Catilina, cum quiescunt, probant, cum patiuntur, decernunt, cum tacent, clamant, neque hi solum quorum tibi auctoritas est videlicet cara, vita vilissima, sed etiam illi equites Romani, honestissimi atque optimi viri, ceterique fortissimi cives qui circumstant senatum, quorum tu et frequentiam videre et studia perspicere et voces paulo ante exaudire potuisti.” Cicero, Catil. 1.21 Cicero begins with the Senate, then adds the knights (“neque hi solum … sed etiam illi”), then the rest of Rome (“ceterique”). The classes are in this order because of their presumed importance to Catiline.
- “Si quis, iudices, forte nunc adsit ignarus legum iudiciorum consuetudinisque nostrae, miretur profecto quae sit tanta atrocitas huiusce causae, quod diebus festis ludisque publicis, omnibus forensibus negotiis intermissis, unum hoc iudicium exerceatur, nec dubitet quin tanti facinoris reus arguatur ut eo neglecto civitas stare non possit.” Cicero, Cael. 1 Cicero draws a picture for the jurors: a foreigner arrives; he wonders what could be so important that a court is in session on a holiday; clearly this case is so important that it cannot wait.
Conjunctions and adverbs make the structure clear.
- “Id hoc facilius eis persuasit, quod undique loci natura Helvetii continentur: una ex parte flumine Rheno latissimo atque altissimo, qui agrum Helvetium a Germanis dividit; alter ex parte monte Iura altissimo, qui est inter Sequanos et Helvetios; tertia lacu Lemanno et flumine Rhodano, qui provinciam nostram ab Helvetiis dividit” Caesar, BG 1.2 Here the main structure is a statement (Orgetorix easily persuaded the Helvetians), a reason introduced by “quod” (because they were hemmed in by natural obstacles), and three details in support of that reason, introduced by numerals (on one side, on the second side, and on the third side — note that Caesar does not need to say “tertia ex parte”, and it would be monotonous if he did). The three reasons, moreover, are fleshed out by relative clauses: the structure of the end of the sentence is entirely symmetrical.
- “Ut saepe homines aegri morbo gravi, cum aestu febrique iactantur, si aquam gelidam biberunt, primo relevari videntur, deinde multo gravius vehementiusque adflictantur, sic hic morbus qui est in re publica relevatus istius poena vehementius reliquis vivis ingravescet.” Cicero, Catil. 1.31 Here we have a comparison: the sickness that now afflicts the republic is like a person's fever. The fever is described first: in certain circumstances (“cum”), if people do certain things (“si”), first they seem better and then they get worse (“primo, deinde”). Similarly (“sic”), the Republic now seems to be getting sicker.
- “Illud tamen te esse admonitum volo, primum ut qualis es talem te omnes esse existiment, ut quantum a rerum turpitudine abes tantum te a verborum libertate seiungas; deinde ut ea in alterum ne dicas quae, cum tibi falso responsa sint, erubescas.” Cicero, Cael. 8 Here “primum” and “deinde” mark off the two parts of the warning, so the listener does not get confused by the various “ut”-clauses.
Poetic word order
Normal word order in a poem is the same as in prose.
Words may be displaced to fit the meter.
Often the last word before the principal caesura of a dactylic hexameter, or the first word after that caesura, belongs with
the last word of the line. Similarly, the last word of the first half of the
"pentameter" of an elegiac couplet often belongs with the last word of the line.
Poets like to construct golden lines. A golden line is a dactylic hexameter made up of two nouns, each modified by an adjective, symmetrically arranged around a verb.
Poets may arrange words to emphasize puns and word play, or for sound effects.