Teaching Latin Verbs by the Numbers

Wilfred E. Major

A regular Latin verb can appear in over two hundred fifty different forms, not even counting the variations of different conjugations.  Students learning, reviewing, and developing their reading skills can understandably become lost in the sea of verb forms.  Among the challenges verbs pose to Latin students, and hence to teachers, is keeping track of the different stems a Latin verb uses in different tenses and voices.

Textbooks and charts often mask the patterns, and heighten the difficulty, of stem changes in Latin verbs.  Typically, for example, the stem change from the Present Active stem to the Perfect Active stem is taught alongside the introduction to the endings of the Perfect tenses.  Students conditioned to checking thematic vowels as conjugation and tense markers can easily miss how stable endings in the Perfect System are, while losing track of stems.  Reference charts often make the situation look far more complex than necessary.  Such charts normally list every single form of all tenses as if there were potential variations from conjugation to conjugation to be discerned in the Perfect tenses.

Every Latin teacher has seen students put personal endings on the wrong stem and produce a Perfect Active or Perfect Passive stem incorrectly.  Overall, however, the progression of stems in a Latin verb is a vocabulary item, although useful patterns can be taught to make memorizing principal parts easier.  Nevertheless, students may need help remembering when to employ the various stems.  Abstracting the stems with a little trick can help:

123o, 123ere, 456i, 789um

Drilling forms with this verb (and corresponding versions of 1st, 2nd, and 4th conjugations) has several advantages.  Students are not distracted by what a verb means in order to identify or produce the correct form.  With the Present stem 123, for example, they have only the thematic vowel to determine conjugation.  Working with verbs in this form, students can see real pattern of the Perfect Active system (456 + personal endings).  Similarly, students are more likely to put adjective endings on a Perfect Passive stem if they consistently link it with the 789- stem.  Clusters of numerals also make the changes of stem more evident and easier to study for patterns.  Filling in an entire synopsis with this type of verb clarifies the distribution of stems (including the reversal of active and passive stems in the future participles).  Indeed, students struggling with stems can fill out a synopsis consisting of nothing but the stems 123, 456, and 789 and learn these patterns independently.  When they become more comfortable with the stems, they can more easily match the principal parts in vocabulary entries (including drastic shifts like toloō, tollere, sustuli, sublatum or more subtle ones like lego, legere, legi, lectum).  Moreover, it can be easier for some students refer to these stems as "123," "456," and "789" than as the more cumbersome and easily confused terminology of "Present Stem," "Perfect Active Stem" and "Perfect Passive Stem."  Greater comfort in identifying stems will sharpen the precision and heighten comprehension when students turn to extended passages in Latin. 

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