In a fear clause, we'd write something like this:

Timeo ne angue necer

I fear I will be killed by a dragon

As usual, my Latin writing is bad, and I only barely remember passive subjunctive. Please correct as needed.

But that doesn't make sense. In other uses, "ne" is negative, not positive. How did it change to be the other way around in fear clauses, and why isn't it opposite anywhere else?

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    It’s generally assumed that the subordinate clause in this type of sentences developed from independent optative clauses, where the negation does make sense: May I not be killed by a dragon! I’m not sure if there is direct historical evidence for this change.
    – chirlu
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 18:47
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    For what it's worth, it becomes a lot easier if in situations like these you go back into the past a couple hundred years and translate "ne" as "lest": "I fear lest I be killed by a dragon." Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 22:03

4 Answers 4


It is most natural (to me at least) to see ut/ne clauses corresponding to wishes as independent. A couple of examples should make this idea clear:

  • Timeo, ne veniat. > Timeo. Ne veniat! > I fear. May he not come! > I fear that he comes.
  • Spero, ut veniat. > Spero. Ut veniat! > I hope. May he come! > I hope that he comes.

I have seen this explanation in Latin grammars and it makes sense, but I don't know if there is historical evidence for these clauses developing from independent clauses. If nothing else, it is a good rule for deciding which one of ut and ne to pick.

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    This is the explanation I've heard bounced around, but it sounds like something that someone thought up, rather than discovered through examination of evidence. Do you know of any paper, book, whatever that supports this claim?
    – anon
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 19:26
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    @QPaysTaxes, I don't have any solid references. I have seen this mentioned in several sources, but never with justification. I fear that ancient writers might not have commented on this because the construction was so natural to them. Latin subordinate clauses of fear have an opposite convention to many modern languages, but I don't know the origin of either choice.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 20:15
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    @QPaysTaxes: ancient Latin writers didn't comment on this because the English fear/hope sentence structure wasn't invented then. See my answer for details.
    – Pavel V.
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 22:07

This was intended as a comment to Joonas' answer, but it was too long and somewhat different.

I'll explain it using my native Czech, which has both variants, similar to Latin and English fear sentence structure. These are synonyms: "Bojím se, že přijde." (lit. "I fear that he comes/will come.") = "Bojím se, aby nepřišel." (lit. "I fear so that he won't come.", or "I fear, so I wish he won't come."). They can't be used both as synonyms in a sentence expressing positive emotion, but both structures are used for different, similar verbs. In the "English" structure: "Doufám, že přijde." ("I hope he will come.") or in the "Latin" one: "Chci, aby přišel." (lit. "I want that he comes/will come", or "I want him to come").

Czech "aby" corresponds to Latin "ut" and English "so that" and "aby ne" (the negation "ne" is usually used as a verb's prefix in Czech: "nepřišel") to Latin "ne" and English "so that" + negation. So:

Czech "Bojím se, aby nepřišel." = Latin "Timeo, ne veniat." = literal English "I fear so that he won't come." = natural English "I fear he comes."


Czech "Chci, aby nepřišel." = Latin "Spero, ut veniat." = English "I hope he comes."

Sometimes I feel sorry about you poor native English speakers. So many things in other lanuages are easy and logical, but your language complicates it all by devolving too much from Latin where other European languages keep stay closer to the Latin original.

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    Yeah, I feel bad for English speakers, too. That's why I'm glad my first language isn't English! Technically. It's the only language I've spoken a lot in the past few years.
    – anon
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 22:05
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    Well, for what it's worth, we didn't come from Latin . . . English is a Germanic language. It just seems like we came from Latin because when the Normans took over England in 1166 they brought all their Latinate vocabulary with them. :) Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 2:01
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    Nor did Czech descend from Latin... Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 23:40

Greek also uses μή after verbs of fearing. I think it is IE inheritance. For example, see the entry for δείδω in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (1940).


The simple answer is that they don't.

Here ut and ne introduce something akin to a purpose clause:

timeo ut veniat!

Literal: 'I fear so that he may come!'

Idiomatic: 'I fear that he may not come!'

timeo ne veniat!

Literal: 'I fear so that he may not come!'

Idiomatic: 'I fear that he may come!'

Both the Latin and the literal English contain a purpose clause, introduced variously by ut, ne and so that. By contrast, the idiomatic English contains indirect speech, introduced by that (mark the absence of so).

So really, it's a different construction altogether. It also exists in English - we just don't happen to use it after verbs of fearing.

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