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In LLPSI (CAP. XXV, line 111), Ørberg wrote the following:

multīs cum lacrimīs capillum et vestem scindēbat

I would have expected "vestem scidit", since the action of tearing clothes is brief. Why do we get an imperfect here?

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    If the action is concurrent with another, then the imperfect would be normal. Is there more to this sentence?
    – gaufridus
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 13:41
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    @gaufridus Can you elaborate? Here is roughly the context "Ariadna descendit et currens scindebat etc."
    – user13971
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 15:03
  • Ah, that's easy, then: currens scindebat can be translated as 'as she ran, she tore [at her hair and her clothes]'. The running takes time and the tearing takes the same time allotment; that is, each of them is a continuous event rather than a momentary action, and in context the meaning requires an imperfect.
    – gaufridus
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 0:00
  • I say 'in context' because someone, having seen the event, might report the action with a perfect verb, but he would do so in the assumption that, relative to the present, the action were complete (perfectum means 'finished'). But at the time of your quote, the action is both continuous and ongoing, and so it requires an imperfect verb.
    – gaufridus
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 0:08
  • You can think of the primitive (but not only) distinction between imperfective tenses (1. present, 2. imperfect, 3. future) and perfective tenses (1. perfect, 2. pluperfect, 3. future perfect) as being between ongoing action and completed action, relative to the temporal point of reference (1. = present, 2. = past, 3. = future). If it has 'perfect' in the name, then it (primitively, anyways) represents a completed action; if it doesn't, then an ongoing one. But this is a bit confounded by the perfect also being aoristic (that is, simple past) and the pluperfect also being a past in the past.
    – gaufridus
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 0:13

1 Answer 1

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The whole sentence is not particularly long and goes like this:

Ariadna igitur in litus descendit atque huc et illuc currens multis cum lacrimis capillum et vestem scindebat, ut homines qui maerent agere solent – ita maerebat virgo miserrima, quae a viro quem ante omnes amabat sola relicta erat inter feras insulae sicut agnus timidus inter saevos lupos.

And suddenly the answer is quite clear: She was running back and forth on the beach, tearing her hair and her clothes. Her distress was such that while she was pacing the beach, her desperate hands again and again gripped her hair and her clothes with such force that she lost some hair and damaged her attire. I haven't personally suffered anything like poor Ariadne's fate, but I certainly have torn my hair under great stress – it is a pretty natural behaviour, as the author also acknowledges.

If the writer had used the perfect tense here, it would have signaled a single event, which happened to happen while she was running to the shore: rip, there goes her hair, and rip, there go her clothes, she puts them to the side and arrives at the beach in the nude. (And bald?) Not an impossibility, but definitely less psychologically plausible.

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