I asked a question earlier.

For some time now, it's occured to me that a pattern is forming: All my questions about the Latin language are basically the same. The subjects change, but the underlying theme - what I really want to know, persists. It's just, I find to difficult to articulate the question.

I like etymology. It's probably the reason for my fascination with Latin in the first place. I'm good at identifying and recalling the roots and key elements of words, so when I hear/read Latin phrases, I can often understand/interpret/translate/make some sense of it relatively easily.

But when I try to reverse translate English→Latin... I kind of just smash root words together and hope they fit. I feel like I'm constantly trying new recipes, putting all the correct, raw ingredients together in a blender, then wondering why I keep getting soup.

The main thing is, there are so many different variants and modifiers for each word: tempus, tempore, temporis, temporali, temporalis; proxima, proximus, proximitas, proximitatus, and so on. But what's the difference? Is there a rule or a formula, or some way to figure it out which variant or prefix/suffix applies in which circumstances?

2 Answers 2


The only way to learn which form to pick and when and to fully understand their differences is to learn Latin. However, one can give summaries on such differences that are understandable with less prerequisite information, and I will attempt to do so. If you want to learn to pick the right form on your own, I see no other way than to learn the basics of Latin grammar. Smashing roots together is unlikely to succeed; your idea might be intelligible, but changes are that it won't quite work grammatically.

The words you list are different and every single one means a different thing. The first lesson is that they are not interchangeable. There are different kinds of differences, and I will try to classify some of them:

  • Cases: Many Latin words have different cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, and two rarer ones. For the word tempus, "time", the five most common cases are tempus, tempus, temporis, tempori, tempore. In English the only words with cases are some pronouns; for example, "I" and "me" can be seen as two cases of the same word. In Latin many more words have cases and there are more cases than two.

    What is expressed by cases in Latin is often expressed by prepositions or word order in English. Conceptually the easiest case is the genitive which means pretty much the same as in English. For example, the genitive of vir, "man", is viri, so "the man's dog" would be canis viri.

  • Number: Like in English, there are singular and plural forms. In Latin, also the plural has different cases. The plural forms of tempus, for example, are tempora, tempora, temporum, temporibus, temporibus.

  • Derivation: You can derive new words from old. For example, tempus means roughly "time", and from it you can build the new word temporalis, meaning roughly "time-related". This was a derivation of an adjective from a noun. It can also work in the other direction, like in the situation where you get the noun proximitas, "closeness", from the adjective proximus, "close, nearby".

  • Gender: Adjectives have different forms depending on the gender of what they refer to. Proximus is a masculine form, and the corresponding feminine one is proxima and the neuter one is proximum.

    For a fuller example, the adjective form proximarum is in the genitive case, plural number, and feminine gender.

All of this can seem a little overwhelming at first, depending on what kinds of languages you are familiar with. English is, unfortunately, not that helpful of a point of comparison.

If you are unsure how to combine some elements to mean what you want to, one of the best choices is to ask a question on this site. It is great that you have looked up words that mean just what you want, so that those who help can get right to the business of composing a coherent Latin phrase.

Is there a rule or a formula, or some way to figure it out which variant or prefix/suffix applies in which circumstances?

Yes, there is a rule. The rule is called Latin grammar, and tends to come in relatively thick books. Unfortunately there is no simple rule that applies to everything.

However, if you want to construct phrases like "the X of Y for the purpose of Z", ask a question and we can suggest a general formula with some examples. Then you can go and form phrases of this form on your own.

  • How can a gender-neutral word like "proximity" be feminine or masculine?
    – voices
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 7:37
  • You have repeated some versions of certain plurals. Is that intentional? Also they seem different for the two examples, so I can't really isolate a pattern.
    – voices
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 7:40
  • @tjt263 Unfortunately grammatical gender and semantic gender are quite independent in Latin. One would expect a neutral thing like "proximity" to be neuter, but proximitas is feminine. I don't know a simple explanation, other than "that's how it ended up after a long development process". There are some rules of thumb, some having to do with meaning and some with form.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 7:40
  • So, how do you decide when to use the feminine or masculine form?
    – voices
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 7:42
  • @tjt263 I have repeated some forms intentionally so as to keep the order nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative. Sometimes different cases look alike. For neuters nominative and accusative look the same, and in plural dative and ablative do so for all genders.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Nov 20, 2018 at 7:42

I think the only way to choose well is to echo some Latin usage that you already know from some other context. Of course this is how all language works. You choose your words to awaken common experience with those words and grammar and their meanings in your listener. There's an excellent self-teaching book for Latin, Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata (The Latin Language Illustrated by Itself) which does a nice job of cultivating a feeling for Latin usage and grammar.

Another fundamental of translation is to think of the meaning of the whole sentence or phrase and then think how someone would point out the same thing using the resources of Latin—not to go word by word or even concept by concept. A different language isn't just a different mapping of words to concepts, it's a different way of thinking, a different set of habits for conceptualizing the world. A simple example, also found in the Romance languages, is that you don't "like" something; rather, it "pleases" you—tibi placet.

I just found this translation of a sentence from Tac. Ann. 15.36, which might illustrate several deep differences between how you think and say things in Latin and in English:

Nec multo post omissa in praesens Achaia (causae in incerto fuere) urbem revisit, provincias Orientis, maxime Aegyptum, secretis imaginationibus agitans.

Soon afterwards, giving up Achaia for the present (his reasons were not certainly known), he returned to Rome, there dwelling in his secret imaginations on the provinces of the east, especially Egypt.

If we translate very literally, we can see a variety of illustrative differences:

Nor much afterward, Achaia omitted into the present (the causes were in the uncertain), he (Nero) revisited the city, driving the provinces of the East, Egypt the most, in secret mental images.

You can see here:

  • Latin makes more use of clauses anchored on participles: omissa (omitted), agitans (driving). In this sentence, most of the action occurs in these subordinate clauses, not in urbem revisit.

  • The ablative case situates the action of main verb: the ablative absolute omissa... establishes the occasion of Nero's return to Rome; secretis imaginationibus is "where" Nero thinks about the provinces. This way of framing a sentence is very common and familiar in Latin.

  • A more common idiom for mental deliberation is in animo agere. I think Tacitus substitutes the unusual phrase secretis imaginationibus first to evoke the familiar in animo and, by the variation, to suggest that Nero is embarrassed and/or scheming.

  • Substantive use of adjectives in fixed phrases: in praesens, in incerto. I think the accusative praesens rather than the ablative praesenti suggests a certain way of thinking about time.

  • "Bracketing", where a verb or participle stands at the beginning or end of the clause that it governs. Omissa starts the ablative absolute, ending with Achaia, which agrees with it grammatically. The sentence satisfyingly ends on agitans, all the words going back to its object provincias having set it up.

There are more differences that could be pointed out, of course. The main thing to notice for your question is that the various grammatical endings are chosen to evoke and link familiar phrases and patterns, many of which don't exist in English. They make the sentence easy to follow and very expressive for a person familiar with those phrases and patterns. And of course that's how to choose your words and grammar in Latin.

(I'm not an expert on Latin, so please don't give too much weight to the above examples without checking them out yourself.)

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.