Basic Grammar

In learning Latin, or any language, you need a grasp of basic grammar. If you never learned grammar in your native language, you’ll fall into the holes in your basics as soon as you try to master a second language. I hope that the following definitions and explanations will be helpful to you.

This section is meant to help you get the basics down. You can use it as a review, to confirm what you know, or to clarify what you are not sure about. Please feel free to e-mail me if you have any questions or comments.

Years ago I was walking around a beautiful college campus when I overheard a passing undergrad say to her companion, “Me and her have been friends for years.” I was shocked almost, not quite, to the point of stopping her and correcting her. That a college student could make such an obvious and basic error was painful to me. Now, years later, I’m afraid that such grammatical goof-ups have lost their power to even surprise me. English grammar seems to have fallen out of the curriculum for basic education in this country. It is no longer taught in elementary levels as it once was, if it is taught at all. I am used to encountering college students who confess, sometimes with relief, that they’ve never been completely clear on the difference between an adjective and an adverb, or even what a noun or a verb is. I have also encountered adults who were cheerily confident about their grammar, their confidence matched by their wrong-headedness.

And as you surely knew at once, the offending undergrad should have said, “She and I have been friends for years.” Me and her are in the objective case, not used for the subject of a sentence.

A. Parts of Speech — What are these things anyway?

Once upon a time, these definitions were well taught and well learned early in American schools. That’s not true any longer. If you never learned these terms, or if you have only a dim and hazy memory of what they mean, you’re not alone.


A noun is a naming word, a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or abstract idea. In English, the name of a specific person or place–such as Jane Doe, Abraham Lincoln, New York, or England–is called a proper noun, and is capitalized. All other nouns are called “common nouns.”

A few common English nouns: house, boss, dogs, football, mother, kitchen, beauty, desks, crime, nation, boy, tempest, tea, coffee. (In english, if you can put “a”, “an”, or “the” in front of a word and have it mean something, it is a noun.)

Simple Latin nouns: puer (boy), puella (girl), femina (woman), aqua (water), filius (son).


A verb is a word that expresses action or state of being.

A few English verbs: is, are, am, was, were (all versions of the verb “to be”), jump, sing, kick, use, decide, resemble, play, explode, encounter, celebrate, hope, say, decide, leap, attack, announce, cook.

Some Latin verbs: parat (he/she prepares), ambulat (he/she walks), festinat (he/she hurries), est (he/she is).


An adjective describes, or modifies, a noun.

A few English adjectives: rich, fat, green, sixty thousand, amazing, purple, unidentified, happy, tired, asleep, four, Roman, modern, clear, uncertain.

Simple Latin adjectives: fessus or fessa — tired, laetus or laeta – happy, paratus or parata — ready, iratus or irata — angry.


First, an adverb describes, or modifies, a verb. It tells something about how or when the verb was done.

A few English adverbs: happily, well, later, tomorrow, soon, quickly, never, perfectly, slowly.

Second, an adverb can modify (tell about) an adjective: the perfectly clear sky, extremely good food, terribly loud noise, beautifully green eyes. (In English, adverbs are often formed with -ly at the end.)

Third, an adverb can modify another adverb: She sings well, very well. He jumped far, amazingly far. They left soon, too soon.

A few more English adverbs: badly, now, then, quietly, loudly, slowly, sadly.

Simple Latin adverbs: mox (soon), semper (always), non (not), subito (suddenly), diu (for a long time), lente (slowly).


A preposition comes before ( pre ) a noun or pronoun, and shows the relationship (- position ) of that person or thing to something else. If you imagine an ant next to a hollow tree, a preposition describes “anywhere the ant can go.” (This definition is clever but it leaves out a few prepositions, such as “of” and “for.”) A preposition is followed by a noun or a pronoun.

A few English prepositions: in, into, on, onto, over, under, through, to, up, down, by, with, from, of, out, between, across, without, for.

Simple Latin prepositions: in (= in, on, into, or against), cum (with), e or ex (out of)


Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. I, you, he, she, it, they, this, that, who, whose, which are all pronouns. To start with, the most common pronouns will be words like “them” (usually eos), him (eum), her (eam), he (ille), she (illa).


A conjunction is a joining word. The most common ones are: and, but, or

Latin conjunctions: et (and), sed (but), aut (or).

B. Parts of Sentences


the Subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun who does the verb, the person or thing that the sentence is mainly about. My friends and I went out to a party. The police were called. The neighbors kept complaining about the noise. The party broke up.

In most English sentences the Subject comes first. That often happens in Latin, too, but not necessarily. In Latin, the Subject is always in the nominative case.


The Direct Object (D.O.) receives the action of the verb. Some students have called the DO “the victim of the verb”. It is Direct because there is no preposition needed; the action goes directly to the object, with no intermediary phrases or words. My friends invited me and my room-mate. We accepted the invitation. We all drank beer and watched videos.

The usual word order pattern, or sequence, for English sentences is {Subject}, {Verb}, {DO}. A common (but not necessary, not always) pattern in Latin is {Subject}, {DO}, {Verb}. (In the Star Wars movies, Yoda used a Latin word order, with the verb at the end: “Tired I am”.) In English we depend on word order to convey meaning, but in Latin we use the cases, or the endings, to carry the meaning. (For instance, in English “Women pursue men” and “Men pursue women” have all the same words, and it is only the change in word order that changes the meaning. In Latin that couldn’t happen, because the Subject and Direct Object are identified by their cases, their endings, not by word order.)

In Latin, the DO is in the Accusative case.


A transitive verb takes a Direct Object. He kicked my cat. We drove his car. They ate their dinner. Caesar conquered Gaul. Police broke up the party and arrested everyone.


An intransitive verb has no “victim,” or no DO. “We talked for hours about our plans.” There is no direct object because the verb, “talked,” isn’t done directly TO anyone or anything. “I would walk all the way from from Boulder to Birmingham.” “A bomb exploded at noon.” “The bells ring in the morning and at night.” “I slept like a baby.” “They arrived early and stayed late.” None of these have direct objects, so they are intransitive.


A verb that states that one thing (the subject) equals another (the subject complement). “Caesar was Dictator for life.” “Quintus is a Roman boy.” “The children will be tired soon.” “We were the teacher’s favorites.” “The audience became restless.” “Miranda seemed unhappy.” The most common linking verb is the verb “to be”.


A noun, pronoun or adjective that completes the meaning following a linking verb. “Caesar was a great general.” “Quintus is a Roman boy.” “The children will be tired soon.” “We were the teacher’s favorites.” “The audience became restless. ” “Miranda seemed unhappy.

In Latin, the subject and the subject complement are both in the Nominative case.


A preposition is generally followed immediately by its object, the noun or pronoun that it affects. This is true in both English and Latin. “to the house”, “from the beginning”, “after the show”, “over the moon”, etc. Latin examples: ad agrum, ex casa, in Italia, in viam, cum amico. A prepositional phrase is never the subject, verb, direct object or subject complement of the sentence; it never includes a verb. It consists only of a preposition and its object, which is a noun or a pronoun, plus sometimes an adjective — as in magna cum laude, with great praise, or pro bono publico, for the public good.