Latin Word Order

There are four main aspects affecting word order in Latin:

  • Clarity of understanding takes precedence
    e.g. a less usual word order to avoid ambiguity (e.g. what word a genitive, adjective, or relative clause goes with).
  • SOV (subject-object-verb) general clause pattern (and related word orders associated with SOV word order)
    • noun – adjective    (except: demonstrative/adjective of quantity/size – noun)
      • N.B.:  adjectives have “bungee cords” (endings) and can jump over other words (especially verbals) separating them from their nouns)
    • preposition – object
    • object – participal/infinitive
    • adverb – verb
      • N.B.: adverbs are “velcroed” to the word they modify; they can’t jump.
  • Sentences are also part of larger contexts.  Latin is composed in the order you need to understand it.  Thus, old information (and connections to the preceding) comes before new information. Latin does not change subjects as often as English, so make a note of the subject and assume that it will stay the subject until you are told otherwise (like posted speed limits).
  • Style (including considerations of sound, literary devices, emphasis, etc.).  Thus Latin can do emphasis with word order, while in English it must often be done by oral inflection (or bold face, etc.).
    • e.g. chiasmus: 
      • A       B
      • B       A
    • e.g. object – verb:
      • verb – object

    N.B. When reading Latin, it is important to remember that word order does not necessarily determine function, as it does in English.  Make sure you get off to the right start.  Don’t assume the first noun is the subject; more than likely it is not. Look at the ending to help you determine how it is functioning.  Then, make sure to be patient for the verb. Save a slot for it, and don’t turn something into a verb that isn’t a verb or add one because you think there should have been one. If you jump ahead to look for it, you may not have all the iinformation you need to determine which meaning fits best. As I said, Latin gives the information you need in the order you need it to understand the Latin; usually by the time you get to the verb, you can already predict what general meaning it will have.

Sentence

  • Basic: “unmarked” orders
    • subject :  direct object : verb
    • agricola rosam habet
      • DO :  V + S
      • rosam habet
  • Other:
    • (old) DO  : V  :  new subject
    • eum (= agricolam) iuvat puer  “A boy helps him.”
    • (as for him –  there is help – it is a boy doing the helping)
  • Questions: In yes/no questions, the verb usually comes first because the predicate is usually what is in question.  If a particular word is the point of the question, that comes first.
    • habetne agricola rosam?  “Does the farmer have a rose?”
    • agricolane habet rosam?  “Is it a/the farmer that has the rose?”
    • rosamne habet agricola?  “Is it a rose that the farmer has?”
  • Commands:  In commands, the verb also tends to come first because action is what the person commanding wants.
    • portā aquam ad casam.
    • ad casam aquam portā.  (emphasizing you want it carried to the house; in this case, carrying the water may already be understood)
    • aquam ad casam portā  (emphasizing it is the water you want someone else to carry)
    • N.B.  In Latin, the person addressed (vocative) does not usually come first.

Adjective

Adjectives have endings to indicate agreement (in case, #, and gender, but not necessarily the same declension); they can “bungee” jump and be separated from their noun, especially in poetry.

  • Demonstrative adjectives and adjectives indicating size or quantity usually come before the noun, as in English:
    • demonstrative adj. : noun
      • haec urbs
    • adj. of size/quantity:  noun
      • magna urbs
      • multās urbēs
  • Other descriptive adjectives (qualities that are more inherent) usually come after the noun:
      • noun : descriptive adj.
      • urbs pulchra
    • (cf. this big | beautiful | city)
    • predicate adjective/complement:  reverse the normal order:
      • urbs magna (est)
      • pulchra urbs (est)

Genitives

Genitives usually come immediately before or after the noun that they go with.  Since some genitive endings may be ambiguous and be interpreted as a different case, or since a genitive could go with more than one noun in a sentence, clarity often determines the order.  Put it in a place that helps the reader/listener understand that it is a genitive and that it goes with ___ noun.

Indirect Objects

Indirect objects usually come before or after the direct object.  Old vs. new and/or clarity often determine whether it is before or after.

Adverbs

Adverbs do not have endings to indicate agreement, so they are “velcroed” to the word they modify, usually coming directly before.

  • adverb : verb/adjective/adverb
    • nōn venit
    • tam pulchra
    • tam celeriter

Some adverbs (mox, tamen, etc.) are more sentence adverbs or logical conjunctive adverbs; these tend to come near the beginning of the clause.

The following adverbs or coordinating conjunctions are postpositive (usually second in the clause):  tamen, enim, igitur 

Nota: When non comes before something other than a verbal, it usually:

  1. sets up a comparison:  not A but B
    non pro amico sed pro hoste
  2. is used as a stylistic device (litotes), indicating a strong opposite (rather than a moderate/mediocre as in English):
    non magnum (= very small, little)

Prepositional Phrases

The noun object of the preposition comes after the preposition (except the genitive precedes causā andgratiā.  Genitives are often put between the preposition and the noun object to clarify that it is part of the phrase and goes with the noun object; the noun object in the required case then marks the end of the phrase.  Adjectives of quantity, however, usually come before the preposition; the adjective and matching noun thus “bracket” the phrase.

    • preposition (genitive) noun
    • cum (eius) amīcō
  • adj. of size/quantity :  preposition : noun
    • magnā cum laude

Prepositional phrases, as adverbial, usually come before the verb at the end of the sentence.  If they function as connectors (e.g. phrases indicating time or place) to the preceding sentence or are emphasized, they may come at the beginning.

Infinitives

Usually come before the verb that they go with.  Any object or modifiers of the infinitive come before the infinitive.

  • eum iuvāre dēbēs

Putting it all together, a typical Latin sentence would be:

  • (connector)  DO  adjective  prepositional phrase/adverb  Verb + subject