In the teacher's letter in cap. XXIII of Orberg's Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata Pars I Familia Romana, it says,

Scribebam Tusculi Kalendis Iuniis. Hic dies me monet de pecunia quam mihi debes.

Why is the imperfect 'scribebam' used here? I would translate this as, 'I wrote (this letter) in Tusculum on the first of July.' In my opinion, the imperfect does not make much sense here since it is a statement of fact and a completed action at a definite point in time and it is not contrasted with another clause as in an ongoing action that was interrupted by another or something continuous or habitual.

But maybe I am led astray by the usage of the imperfect in Spanish and French and do not yet fully understand the Latin imperfect. Or maybe this case is special because it is a letter?

1 Answer 1


This is called the epistolary imperfect, and it's used not in place of the perfect, but of the present. See Allen and Greenough on the topic.

  1. In letters, the Historical Perfect or the imperfect may be used for the present tense, and the pluperfect for any past tense, as if the letter were dated at the time it is supposed to be received.

Neque tamen, haec cum scrībēbam, eram nescius quantīs oneribus premerēre. (Fam. 5.12.2)
Nor while I write this am I ignorant under what burdens you are weighed down.

Ad tuās omnīs [epistulās] rescrīpseram prīdiē. (Att. 9.10.1)
I answered all your letters yesterday.

Cum quod scrīberem ad tē nihil habērem, tamen hās dedī litterās. (Att. 9.16)
though I have nothing to write to you, still I write this letter.

  • 2
    I'd already suspected this would be a special case. So basically, in Latin the present tense is not the norm when writing a letter but the author writes it from the perspective of the reader receiving the letter in the future? But then, why is the imperfect used here and not the perfect? Or is 'historical perfect' another word for imperfect in this particular situation? Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 16:31
  • 2
    @ThomasWening Because it describes ongoing action. As the author is writing it, it isn't finished yet. If it were not a letter, the force would be a present progressive: "I am writing you." Even though the letter is finished, continuous action in the past can still go into the imperfect, even if it is completely finished. I'm not familiar with the intricacies of Spanish imperfect, but the Latin imperfect is quite versatile.
    – cmw
    Commented Mar 24, 2023 at 16:48

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