I received this question:

Dear Mr. Thomas,

I have been studying hard on the different tenses of verbs. These days, my Latin lessons have been filled with present tense, imperfect tense, perfect tense, future tense, the three participles, the supine… it’s enough to make one’s head spin!

However, for the most part, I feel I’ve been getting along well with it all; but it’s a bit frustrating when things seemingly change their meaning. Up until now, the only verb forms I have learned that refer to things in the past are:

  • The perfect tense ( always ends in -i )
  • The imperfect tense ( -bam, -bas, -bat, etc. )
  • The past participles ( 1st & 2nd declension endings )

Yet, in Lesson 43, I noticed the most basic verbs–the active present tense–suddenly start to refer to things in the past! As an example, take the word narraverunt, found in Lesson 43C. Normally, given the present tense -unt ending, I would expect this word to translate as “they tell“. However, in the answers, this word is translated as told.

I noticed other occurrences like this in Lesson 43C. Could you explain why these seemingly familiar present tense verbs have gone rouge and entered the past tense? 


Here is my reply:


I know the feeling.  I just finished taking a group of students through the orations of Cicero.  Even though he was one of Rome’s most famous orators (perhaps the most famous) I think his Latin teacher would have failed him.  He seems to ignore verb tenses all the time.

I am now taking students through Third Year Latin by Robert Henle.  Same thing.  More often than I would like, we are looking at a perfect tense verb, only to find out it requires a present tense translation. 

In particular, the line between the imperfect tense and the perfect tense seems to be a very thin line.  Half the time, Cicero doesn’t seem to care that there is a line.

It took me a long time… but, I finally learned not to try to squeeze any language into a box that math would enjoy being in.  Languages just don’t behave nearly as much as they are supposed to. 

Thank goodness Latin doesn’t misbehave as much as English does.  Check this out: https://www.merriam-webster.com/video/ismo-comedy-trunk-boot-booty

Hope you are having a great day!

Dwane Thomas