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Spoiler alert!! This question gives away a plot point from late in the story of Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata. If you're working your way through that book and haven't yet gotten to Chapter XXXI, you should probably stop reading this question right now.


In Chapter XXXI, p. 251, Cornelius says:

Quid? Herī quendam servum tuum vīdī in viā Latīnā. Faciem recognōvī, saepe eum hīc vīdī.

Why not vidēbam? Is it optional to use the imperfect here? Or does the perfect tense convey a distinction here, like "I saw him here several times in the past" vs. "I used to see him here often"?

  • There's a specific feature for spoilers, and I implemented it here to test. If you dislike it, feel free to rollback or edit further. You get a spoiler quote by >! instead of plain >, and the text is revealed by hovering the mouse over the box. – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 16 '18 at 22:53
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Thanks—but I think I'm going to roll it back. I'd like the text to be easily readable to people who know the answer, and I'm thinking that most people for whom the line would be an unwanted spoiler probably don't know the answer. I figure that a beginner would have to struggle to understand the line even without blanking it. I'll remember >! for future posts, though! – Ben Kovitz Mar 16 '18 at 23:07
  • No worries! I had been looking forward for an opportunity to finally use that feature here so I couldn't resist testing, but it might indeed be better to use the standard quote here. – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 16 '18 at 23:29
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To answer to your question directly:

Why not vidēbam? Is it optional to use the imperfect here? Or does the perfect tense convey a distinction here, like "I saw him here several times in the past" vs. "I used to see him here often"?

Just as you thought, imperfect is not compulsory because there is a distinction that may be made. You could actually use a different tense (e.g. pluperfect.)

Both perfect and imperfect may have different translations in English:

  • vīdīI have seen (also, I saw.)
  • vidēbamI used to see (also, I was seeing.)

The first translation given for each tense is the one I think is more relevant in the example you give. Both tenses are compatible with seeing someone often.

Perfect means that the action being talked about has been completed, as if clear boundaries in time were being given. It also may refer to something that has ended recently.

Imperfect, in turn, does not necessarily mean the action hasn't been completed, but that the boundaries aren't clear. Information about when the action did start or end (or whether it actually ended) is not available. The lack of clarity (in my opinion) makes the tense suitable for actions somehow more remote in time.

The sentence could also have been Faciem recognōvī, saepe eum hīc vīderam (with pluperfect.) Pluperfect involves an action that was already completed when another action in the past took place: I recognized his face [because,] I had seen him here several times [before that.]

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    Hmm, the idea that the imperfect is more remote in time, and your suggestion of "I have seen him here many times", make me wonder if the Latin perfect is actually not so different from the English present perfect, with its suggestion of a time interval extending to the present (explained here and here). Does Cornelius's choice of the perfect tense suggest that the times when he saw the slave are not remote in time, hence making his claim to have recognized his face yesterday more credible? – Ben Kovitz Mar 18 '18 at 12:00
  • Perfect tense does suggest the times are not remote, more or less like in English. Whether it makes the claim more credible is subjective though, hahaha. I think names of tenses are given for a reason (no irony intended), and I was taught "perfect" as "presente perfecto" – Rafael Mar 18 '18 at 12:25
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This answer is based on my intuition, so it is to be taken cum grano salis.

The seeing is stated as a fact from the point of view of an action in the present, or so it seems to me. (I have never seen LLPSI!) This relation to present is a reason to prefer perfect over imperfect in my opinion. Using the imperfect often describes circumstances of the past ("I used to see him every day" as opposed to "I saw him every day").

Also the act being completed makes a good case for the perfect tense. It was repeated, yes, but repetition typically requires imperfect when the point of view is in the past. The perfect gives an impression of change, as the old action (described by the second vidi) is over: the slave was often seen here, but the last time I saw him someplace else.

The repetition is a good reason to pick the imperfect. The two tenses emphasize different sides and both are possible. I would consider this particular tense choice to be a matter of nuance. I would have probably chosen the imperfect, but my point was to argue that there are reasons to do otherwise.

  • Ah, so maybe I've stumbled across a grammatical "false friend". I had taken the Latin imperfect to include English "used to" and (past) "would", which denote repetitive or habitual actions (but not incomplete or past-continuous actions, distinguished in English as "The ship was sailing"). Wait a minute, this page says that the imperfect does cover all of those. Does it? I'll have to hit Allen&Greenough when I get home… – Ben Kovitz Mar 17 '18 at 3:30
  • @BenKovitz I clarified the answer. The imperfect covers all that, but there are also reasons for the perfect. I might have actually chosen imperfect myself, but I understand the perfect too. – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 17 '18 at 10:36

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