I was thrown off by a recent question that talked about the "conjunctive" mood, which I had never heard of. A few searches of William Whitaker's Words reveals that both coniunctivus (or conjunctivus) and subiunctivus (or subjunctivus) are Latin translations for the English "subjunctive."

Is there a difference between these two Latin words? I'd like to understand if there is a basis for preference for one or the other. So:

  • Is there a difference in meaning? Is one more specific than the other, perhaps more often used to identify a particular subset of usages of the subjunctive?
  • Are both attested in Classical Latin? If so, which is more commonly used? If not, which is older?
  • Did the terms originally refer to two different things that ultimately merged into the now unified subjunctive mood?

1 Answer 1


There's no „classical Latin“ when it comes to grammar, as Latin grammarians flourished during Late antiquity. The most famous of them all (and synonymous with „grammar“ through the Middle Ages), Aelius Donatus, wrote his Ars Maior and Ars Minor during 4th century.

Donati Ars minor, de verbo:

modi qui sunt? indicatiuus, | ut lego; imperatiuus, ut lege; optatiuus, ut utinam legerem; coniunctiuus, ut cum legam; | infinitiuus, ut legere; inpersonalis, ut legitur. <..> optatiuo modo tempore praesenti et praeterito inperfecto utinam legerem legeres | legeret, et pluraliter utinam legeremus legeretis legerent <..> coniunctiuo modo tempore praesenti cum legam legas legat, et pluraliter cum legamus legatis legant;

Prisciani Institutiones, liber VIII de verbo:

de modis |modi sunt diuersae inclinationes animi, uarios eius affectus |demonstrantes. sunt autem quinque: indicatiuus siue definitiuus, imperatiuus, |optatiuus, subiunctiuus, infinitus. <..> subiunctiuus uero, quem quidam dubitatiuum |appellauerunt, manifestam habet indicatiui cognitionem. ipsa enim dubitatio |ante se esse indicatiuum confitetur; nam si tollas dubitationem, non opus |est subiunctiuo in re certa, sed indicatiuo.

One can see that Prisciani subiunctivus prima specie is the same as Donati coniunctivus.

Martianus Capella, §310:

Verborum autem modi sunt quinque; sed alii sex, alii septem, alii octo, alii novem, pauci decem esse dixerunt. Qui vero quinque dicunt, hos ajunt: indicativum, imperativum, optativum, conjunctivum, infinitivum, quem et perpetuum dicimus. Qui sex memorant, addunt promissivum; qui septem, impersonalem; qui octo, percunctativum; qui novem, subjectivum (= subjunctivum? Diomedes suggerit, vide scholium), et a conjunctivo eum separant; qui decem, hortativum adscribunt; sed hos superflue adjectos ratio non admittit.

Diomedis Ars has a parallel passage and settles with subjunctive, which gets a section of its own:

nam qui sex |uoluerunt, uario iudicio alii promissiuum, quidam inpersonalem coniungunt; qui |septem, utrumque prioribus adiciunt; qui amplius, percontatiuum |adsumunt; qui nouem, subiunctiuum a coniunctiuo separant; qui decem, etiam |adhortatiuum adscribunt. <..> aut enim finitiuus est modus aut imperatiuus aut optatiuus aut |subiunctiuus aut infinitiuus.

de subiunctiuo modo |subiunctiuus siue adiunctiuus ideo dictus, quod per se non exprimat |sensum, nisi insuper alius addatur sermo quo superior patefiat. subiungit |enim sibi uel subiungitur necessario alii sermoni hoc modo, cum dixero |audies, cum fecero aspicies, et similia; quod in declinatione finitiua non |desideratur: et nihil differt ab optatiua nisi tempore tantum futuro.

However, modus coniunctivus also makes an appearance, even though it is not defined:

modo coniunctiuo tempore praesenti cum |amem ames amet, pluraliter cum amemus ametis ament: eodem modo |tempore praeterito inperfecto specie inchoatiua cum amarem amares |amaret, pluraliter cum amaremus amaretis amarent:

But the forms seem to be identical for subjunctive and conjunctive (compared to above) and subiunctivus/coniunctivus are used for in successive sentences as complete synonyms:

omnium uerborum quae o littera terminantur coniugatio etiam ab |optatiuo modo et coniunctiuo tempore praesenti dumtaxat colligitur. nam |si prima est coniugatio, optatiuum et subiunctiuum in em syllabam |terminatum debet habere, sicut est utinam amem uel cum amem

So I think that a Roman grammarian chooses his preferred term from the two and only a negligible minority makes a point of separating subjunctive from conjunctive.

(modus subiunctivus comes from Greek ὑποτακτικὴ ἔγκλισις. Maybe the term coniunctivus is a Roman variation?)

  • Thanks! It might be helpful to translate the distinctions that Martianus and Diomedes make: I think I get it, that the horatory subjunctive is distinguished from the conjunctive, but the details are fuzzy. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 19:23
  • I think you mean the so called optativus rather than conjunctive/subjunctive distinction. Diomedes: sequitur optatiuus modus, quem tum demum usurpamus, cum |precibus exposcimus a dis. <..> utinam legam. I don't see where this „hortative subjunctive“ appears.
    – kmlyvens
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 19:37
  • I mean "qui decem, hortativum adscribunt" and "qui decem, etiam |adhortatiuum adscribunt" and the surrounding context. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting these. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 19:40
  • You're right. But it is a separation from both subjunctive/conjunctive, so it doesn't distinguish between conjunctive/subjunctive. But I see why it was invented by some grammarians. It seems that the problem for the grammarians was the definition of conjunctive/subjunctive – the term itself implies that it is used only in clauses and not as a principal verb (this is elaborated in cited works), so they had to invent such optatives and adhortatives, etc. for different usage cases.
    – kmlyvens
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 19:58
  • 1
    That's identical for subiunctive too: si prima est coniugatio, optatiuum et subiunctiuum in em syllabam |terminatum debet habere, sicut est utinam amem (opt.) uel cum amem (subi.).
    – kmlyvens
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 9:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.