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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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2.5 Word order

You have seen the first difficulty in relying entirely upon a translation and a dictionary. Some English words are not represented by Latin words at all. Now let us consider a second problem.

Activity 11

Look again at the verbs highlighted in Pliny’s letter to Tacitus. What do you observe about the position of verbs in Latin compared with English.

petis ut tibi auunculī meī exitum scrībam, quō uērius trādere posterīs possis.

You ask that I describe to you the death of my uncle, so that you can transmit it more truthfully to future generations.


The verb ‘ask’ (petis) in Latin appears at the start of the sentence, as in English. By contrast, the verbs ‘write’ (scrībam) and ‘can’ (possis) are delayed until end of their respective clauses. The placement of a verb at the end of its clause is typical of Latin, which can be classified as a ‘Subject – Object – Verb’ language, or ‘SOV’ language for short.

Activity 12

Examine the phrase āridā modo pūmice expolītum in Catullus. What would an English translation with the same word order look like? What would be wrong with such a translation?


The English would be ‘with dry recently pumice polished’. This is so odd that it is difficult to make a sensible comment about it! It certainly does not qualify as a translation or even as a piece of English.

Nevertheless, we can make one useful observation. In English, related words are usually close to each other, giving two natural ‘chunks’, ‘recently polished’ and ‘with dry pumice’. In Latin, by contrast, these chunks can be broken up.

ĀRIDĀ modo PŪMICE expolītum