Subordination as Style

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)


We now proceed to a variety of clauses, actually subordinate or dependent clauses, which function as capsules within the overall structure of the sentence. These are common, varied, and essential to the very nature of Latin prose style. As noted above English tends to string together subordinate ideas with the democratic glue of "and".... "and"...."and"... "and". Latin puts things in ranking, heirarchical order:

"When he had done this, which he mentioned to you before, although he considered it contrary to his interests, noting those who would oppose him severely, he called plans into action."

This sounds terrible in English, it is unthinkable; but in Latin it is less a travesty than an example. Socially, it denotes the Roman's preferences for ranked, orderly society, everyone in his place in a great variety of places. (Gaius' unique treatise on the legal positioning of all persons within the Roman Empire is witness to the Roman's love of this kind of order.... we have it on an erased "palimpsest" which was later written over, preserving underneath this legal treasure by pure accident).

 Under the general category of "subordinate statements" in clauses, we have a quick list including:

     quod                    that, the fact that
     qul quae quod           one who, a person who...../who would
     ut                      as/that, so that
     cum                     when/since (although)
     tum                     then
     Cum...tum               when/ then    (not only, but also)
     quando                  when
     Si                      if ("then"is implied in following clause)
There are many introductory words of this sort, with special grammatical structure which works with them, but the above will serve as a guide indicating the manner in which these clauses tend to operate. After developing a basic reading skill, it will be enlightening to go back to a detailed grammar exposition, such as the major work by Allen and Greenough, and the somewhat better Lane with its wonderful examples of usage, both not in print for many years now.

 There is a vast body of minute detail associated with the uses of the subordinate clauses in the grammar treatises, perhaps in some cases more than the Romans actually intended. But best leave that until you have picked up a reasonable reading speed, since the manual interpretations must be connected with actual examples to be meaningful.

* * *

Now let us go back for some detail on Subordinate Clauses, first a clause of Fact:

Praetereo quod non est verum "I pass over the fact that it is not true".
     The clause is clear factual, hence grammatically Indicative, the first verbal form in our above outline.

The pronouns qui quae quod can operate in the same way:
    "Ille est qui ad te venit heri"
He is the one who came up to you yesterday.

But with a conditional/subjunctive we shift into the realm of the un-factual:
    "Ille est qui frangeret patris cervicem"...... with the Imperfect Subj., " He is a man who would break his father's neck."

In a slightly different but related vein, we find:
     "Ille fortis est qui in hostes curreret " ....." he is the brave sort who would rush upon the enemy", which Is English might come out as a statement of purpose:
"He is brave enough to rush upon the enemy." A minor difference, same distinguishing word-order in Latin, but quite different in English translation.

The introductory "ut" can also be used factually, so:
     "Narravit acta ut erant"
"He retold the facts as they were."

But if we have a conditional/subjunctive, as in : "Hoc fecit ut te occideret"
    He did this so that he might kill you.." ...the whole meaning changes with the use of the conditional.

At this point we poise on the edge of the complex world of Latin Syntax, a complex web of ways of putting sentences together in order to express a wide range of conditions and ideas. A detailed grammar treatise will have as detailed a treatment of the Syntax as of the Morphology or forms of the Latin language. But since this material is the deduction from a distillation of written texts, I suggest deferring detailed study of Syntax until a reasonable reading speed has been achieved. Syntax is NOT a set of prescriptions indicating how Latin was originally written, it is a post facto set of very detailed observations about how it WAS written.

In the time of John Donne and John Milton in the l7 th c. Latin was still written with care and art as a literary mode, and the observations of good ancient Latin provided an exemplar for writing it then. This largely disappeared by l800, but writing Latin Composition (as it was called) continued as a rather cumbersome school exercise well into the 20 th c. It does provide excellent practice and drill in Latin grammar and syntax, but is as articial and ultimately pointless as the exercises of the Music Conservatories which require scores to be constructed in four part canon. These are neither good examples of creative writing, or good music, and they have been quietly removed to the academic trash can.

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