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How do I use macrons? I understand what they do and how they do it, I just don't understand how you know when and where to place them.

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    Welcome to the site! I'll add to Joonas's answer that, though it's true that you have to learn them by word, there are certain patterns that recur. Any vowel before nf or ns, for example, is long, as is any vowel before the noun ending mentum. There are lots and lots of other patterns like this that you end up sort of gleaning as you go. – Joel Derfner Sep 18 '16 at 17:27
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    @JoelDerfner, there are indeed patterns. I should mention that at least the last one on your list has exceptions: consider alimentum. – Joonas Ilmavirta Oct 11 '16 at 19:19
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Macrons are mainly pronunciation guides, telling which vowels are pronounced long. In some cases they can resolve ambiguities, when two words only differ by the length a vowel. Using them is not necessary, and I would personally consider it better style not to use macrons when writing in Latin, unless there is a special reason.

Macrons were not used in classical Latin. See this separate question for the arrival of the macron.

I should also point out that there also a sign to indicate short vowels: the breve. Sometimes the absence of a macron does not make it sufficiently clear that a vowel is short. For example, we had recently a question about pōpulus and pŏpulus.

Your main question seems to be how to know when vowels are short and when they are long. The answer is simply that you have to learn the lengths when you learn the vowels. For example, "man" is vĭr, not vīr. The singular genitive ending of the first declension is -ī, not -ĭ. Therefore "man's" is vĭrī. To get the lengths right, it is not enough to know that the word is vir and the ending is -i, and there are no simple rules that would allow you to efficiently guess where to put macrons in a given Latin word.

As you progress in studying Latin, you will develop some intuition to the lengths. But it does not come without work, and I can offer no shortcut. This has the unfortunate consequence that if you have already learned many Latin words and endings without paying attention to lengths and you now want to learn where to put macrons, you have to relearn all vowels to get the lengths right.

In short: How do you know where to place macrons? You learn it case by case.

We have instructions for producing a breve or a macron on our meta.

  • Just to add: macrons were about as uninteresting to Latin readers as vowel-signs usually are to readers of Hebrew and Arabic. You will only find them in paedagogical contexts. In actual MSS, decorations such as lines (straight or wavy) and hooks are used as abbreviations - for instance u with ~ over it is a very standard way of writing “-um”. – Martin Kochanski Jun 8 at 8:47
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Long ago, on this site, someone gave a link to a short book, downloadable, on quantity and stress. I haven't found it.

While searching I found this
A: What is L&S not good for?

and this:
Vowel Quantity: Where your Dictionary is Wrong Johan Winge

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