Maximum grammar geekery, or What on earth is a gerund, anyway?!

Has it ever occurred to you that lots of the terminology for Latin grammar is what it does? It’s really helpful when trying to explain it.

Consider the Present Participle. The word ‘present’ is itself formed from a present participle in Latin, praesens, meaning present, at hand, prompt etc. And the present participle means something that is happening now, in the present, promptly if you will. Brilliant! But what I really like is that it looks like the Latin form – it’s last three letters, at least. The -ent of ‘present’ resembles the -ens of the Latin form, which corresponds in turn to the -ing of the English form, eg doing – they all have ‘n’ in the middle of the three letters! Am I taking this a bit far? I usually draw my students a little memorial diagram to highlight the ‘n’ thing, like this:



The present participle: does what it is! (Also, one of the more dull images of all time, but this is a post about Latin grammatical terminology. There’s a funny image further down.)

Let us consider next the Perfect tense. The word ‘perfect’ is itself formed from a perfect participle, perfectus, which means finished, ie the meaning of the perfect tense, an action finished, by definition, in the past. Genius!

And the Imperfect tense? Well, that means ‘not perfect’, an action that was ongoing in the past, not finished  – she was doing her homework (imperfect tense; as yet unfinished) when the dog ate it (perfect tense; it’s finished now, isn’t it?).

How about tricksier stuff, like the Gerund. ‘The whaaaaa?’ I hear you cry. Don’t panic! It’s a verbal noun — a noun formed from a verb, like the words running or swimming and so on when used in sentences like ‘running is my passion’, ‘swimming makes me happy’. The word gerund comes from the Latin verb gero (in its gerund form, of course) which  is essentially a verb of doing stuff, getting on with things. One of its meanings is to wage war. That’s getting on with stuff if ever anything was. And what does the gerund mean? Well, it generally expresses the idea of getting on with something. There are some eminent examples of gerunds in mottos, such as the Pope’s own motto, miserando atque eligendo, but also the commonly used phrase modus operandi, meaning a method of doing something, getting something done, if you will.


Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth’s imagining of the Gerund and Gerundive; image from here

Its partner in grammar crimes against student comprehension is the much maligned Gerundive. I always feel quite sorry for the gerundive. A colleague once made a matching fluffy gerund and gerundive pair of little creatures for her classroom to cheer her pupils up. Now I think of it, the gerundive always looked by far the more mischievous of the two. It essentially means the same thing as the gerund but is more adjectival and passive, bless it – though only in a grammatical sense, as it usually has an even stronger sense of something needing to be got on with. Take one of my favourite examples, nunc est bibendum. This means ‘now is the time for drinking needing to be done‘. See how this cheeky little adjective is not actually describing anything, and despite being passive, translates better here as active. In fact, it usually translates better into English as active, so much so that teachers and students alike often ignore its passivity altogether, or confuse it with its fluffy gerund sibling. So many reasons for students to feel aggrieved towards it, now I come to think of it…. To explain its form, ‘gerundive’ has the Latin adjectival ending -ivum (which you can also see in the word ‘adjective’. I love this stuff!), so it is an adjective itself. Like I say, I love this stuff!

Here are some more of my favourite gerundives from everyday life:

  1. My own middle name, Amanda, she who ought to be loved;
  2. The marvellous Miranda, she who ought to be marvelled at (not to be confused with verandah, something which ought to be sat on when it’s sunny. I used to confuse these words when I was little);
  3. Agenda, (usually boring) things which ought to be done.

As usual, I could go on and on with all this — I haven’t even touched on the cases! — but I will leave it there for now. Happy grammaring!



Caroliola et amici sunt in taberna. linguam Latinam loquuntur.

When I look back through the archives of this site, I’m frankly astounded that I’ve written anything on it. You see, I have two small children. The older one started school last term, in reception class. Somehow this is much more exhausting for everyone concerned than when she was at pre-school, even though she only does half days still. The necessity of getting her there, the necessity to provide clean uniform, remember her school bag, remember to put the right books in it, remember to take the right things out of it – none of these things mattered at pre-school. I haven’t even considered the element of encouraging reading and writing skills… So, it’s all quite hard work, and subsequently I haven’t published anything for months. My apologies are offered sincerely to any reader who cares/ exists.

What I have been doing, however, (on top of school runs and infinite laundry etc) is teaching. Teaching A Level Latin, GCSE Latin and A Level Classical Civilisations (and some German). I have also been having conversations with teachers, and students, about teaching, and learning, Latin.

I am a big fan of David Carter’s Classical Workbooks which provide study resources for GCSE and A Level Latin and Greek set texts. I have been talking to him about some of the ideas expressed both in his workbooks and more explicitly on his website, namely immersive learning techniques. He advocates in his books reading the Latin or Greek text ‘many times ALOUD and FAST’. He also advocates knowing what the text means before attempting translation and provides a very literal interlinear translation as an aid. I must confess that although I think this is a great idea and have indeed suggested to A Level pupils that they look up translations in case of really struggling with a piece of homework in order to figure out on their own how it fits together, I still struggle with it as a face to face teaching approach — mainly because I haven’t fully and consciously considered it as an approach until this week. Another of his projects currently under construction is spoken versions of set texts for students to listen to alongside written and interactive texts. His approach to teaching and learning set texts for GCSE and A Level is totally immersive.

Talking to another teacher recently we discussed the Cambridge Latin Course and its potential short comings. Personally, I love Book I, I love Caecillius and all his household, but I really struggle with Book II partly on account of how the characters become less likeable but mainly because the stories become impossibly long. On the grammar front, I feel it is the teacher’s responsibility to fill in any gaps or correct any lies that the books might present (currit does not mean runs!!!) so I don’t hold a grudge on that front. I also recognise, however, that not all Latin teachers these days are subject specialists and perhaps don’t have the skills to fill in those gaps. The person I was chatting with, however, is another advocate for a more immersive learning style and a fan of prose composition in beginner classrooms, a subject I have written about here.

In short, and not least because my children are now fighting each other and it’s bedtime, I feel it is time that Latinists got together and considered new approaches to teaching Latin in schools, and by new I probably don’t mean anything new at all. A glance at American Twitter users’ profiles shows that in the US quite a different approach is taken already – American Latin teachers’ Twitter handles are Magistra or Magister and meet ups in cafés are advertised at which Latin will be spoken. We Brits do not do this. Why not? Like I say, I think it’s time for teachers, academics, teacher trainers and even students to get together and talk about how we teach and learn Latin in Britain today. Caroliola et amici sunt in taberna. linguam Latinam loquuntur.

If I were in Boston, Mass. I would definitely go to this.

I’d love to know readers’ thoughts – please do comment!


Why Latin? You’re asking the wrong question

I have noticed the question Why Latin? being asked a lot on social media lately and there are plenty of good answers out there. However, I put it to you that the wrong question is being asked. Since the people asking it are usually already engaged with Latin in some way or another, either as pupils, parents of pupils, school employees, politicians, people who were forced to study it and hated it, people who didn’t have the opportunity of studying it and hate that, they have an agenda in asking the question. The agenda may be to wind up the teacher, sound precocious to the rest of the class, squeeze more diversity into the busy school timetable, find funding for other worthy causes, just to be contrary. Occasionally the asker may even be asking with a sincere desire to know the thoughts of the person they are asking. It should be noted, in any case, that most of those askers already have a fair idea of the sorts of things their interlocutor might say.

This is why I am about to propose a radical new approach based on my experiences of chatting to people. Now, I like to chat to people — all sorts of people — and being a teacher I regularly get asked what I teach. I do not shy away from saying that I teach Latin and Classical Civilisations and I am not surprised when the reaction is a puzzled face. The follow up question is often, What’s that then? And I have to say, I far prefer this reaction to either of the other frequently reported reactions — ‘Urgh! I hated Latin’ and the rather happier exclamation of ‘Caecilius est in horto!’.

The reason I far prefer this question is because the answer comes easily. Latin is the language spoken by the ancient Romans, and in which they wrote poetry, history, love letters, shopping lists, graffiti, business letters, plays, death sentences, school lessons; it became the European language of religion, politics, science, law, medicine, philosophy, everything in any way academic — as well as plenty of things mundane; its literary output informed a huge amount of what we today consider important literature; in its spoken form it became French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. I could go on, but I have some self awareness and I don’t like to be too dull to friendly strangers who have consented to chat to me. I might sometimes pad my answer out, for the sake of sounding a little more down with the kids, with interesting facts about films like Gladiator or Harry Potter.

In any case, the next question is never Why study that then? Now, I hope this is not because they would prefer that I stop talking. In fact, I like to think it’s because that answer is obvious. All the other points about it being helpful in learning grammar, syntax, and so on become less immediately significant, though of course still entirely valid and appropriate. Depending on whom I am burbling on to I sometimes even add these points in myself, though if the person has never heard of Latin, I would probably leave out the word syntax.

And so to my conclusion! The next time you get asked Why Latin? change the question and answer instead What is Latin? I’d love to know how this goes down. Perhaps you have even tried this already — please let me know in the comments below.

Like a knife through Cicero’s wordy butter, or How to remember more stuff

I have spent several lessons this week with sixth formers getting old school on our grammar. In the first instance, we had started off by going through some unseen Cicero, and to be frank it was like putting a plastic picnic knife through a block of butter straight from the fridge. We made hard work of it, nearly snapped the metaphorical knife of Latin enthusiasm. It was no good. We needed to warm the butter a little, or perhaps find a sturdier knife to get though our cold, hard, unyielding butter of Ciceronian oratory.

‘Shall we chant?’ I asked. Now, I love a bit of rhythmic recitation of linguistic paradigms, but unfortunately I’m no musician so I am not about to post a video of me dancing around my kitchen table to ‘hic, haec, hoc’ or beating out a rhythm to ‘ego, me, mei, mihi, me’ with my wooden spoons, but hopefully you get the picture. We worked through nouns of every declension, recognised patterns, memorised patterns, my student grinned, I grinned, my baby (annoyingly awake during this lesson) also grinned.

At last we returned to the Cicero and it was obvious that our chanting had paid off. Our knife of enthusiasm, whetted with knowledge, slid easily through Cicero’s wordy butter as it warmed to its rhetorical theme. Nominative plurals were abandoned in favour of dative singulars, genitives were given their rightful status, equilibrium was restored to Cicero’s speech. Everyone was happy. Hurrah!

So, if working through a translation feels like a putting plastic knife through cold, hard butter, then maybe it’s time to get old school with your Latin and restart the chanting.

Also, remember that chanting and singing can work as a revision tool in all your subjects, not just Latin. Try making lists of key facts and putting them to a beat, or to music, maybe to the tune of a favourite song. It will definitely be more fun than just writing it out over and over, or reading and re-reading and I bet you will remember more of it. Happy revising!

Swimming against the tide — adventures in prose composition

One year I had a particularly enthusiastic Year 8 Latin class. Not top set, but definitely a talented bunch. As a treat at the end of lessons we would sometimes spend a few minutes adding to their Latin story about a fish. The story didn’t make much sense and I can’t quite remember the antics of the fish. The grammar was good though. Naive latinists do not think within their capabilities but plot mighty tricky sentences as the whim takes them, so we would spend several minutes figuring how to put that thought into Latin. Out of necessity we would often have to look way beyond our Year 8 capabilities. I would explain more intricate grammar points than most of them would ever need to know, just so our fish could leap further, swim deeper, have more exotic adventures by far than any other Year 8 fish.

I left the school before members of that class reached Sixth Form, but I hear from some of them occasionally and they always speak fondly of those lessons. A few went on to do classics degrees. I wonder if they did prose composition at A Level, a discipline which I re-established in that school, and I wonder if they ever think of that brave little fish having wonderful adventures in grammar back in Year 8.

Did you do pro-co at school? When did you start? How did you find it? Please tell all in the comments below.

Stop sniggering at the back! Rude words in the classroom

Every child loves a rude word. ‘Banana pants!’ This is my three year old daughter’s current favourite joke. She has us in fits of giggles with this exclamation every time. It is little different with Year 7, or 8, 9 or 10, for that matter. Here are some words which crop up in pre-GCSE Latin which never fail to amuse.


‘anus’ This is a feminine noun meaning old woman. No really. It crops up in Book II of the Cambridge Latin Course. What were they thinking?!  “I know! Let’s use ‘Marcia anus erat’ in the first line of a translation to be used commonly by Year 8 and 9 pupils.” Genius!

Kinky sex

In my first school Villa! Villa! was a favourite end of term game — Latin bingo! And to play bingo you need to know numbers. This is a fantastic opportunity to teach your earnest young students about kinky sex. Watch their faces as you recite ‘unus, duo, tres, quattuor, kinky sex, septem, octo, novem, decem’. Okay, so it is a slight mispronunciation (‘quinque’, in reality) but they will never forget it, and Latin instantly became more fun.  Oh, and don’t forget that a good Latinist never declines sex. Good to know for those prose composition lessons.

More bottoms

It seems unfashionable to teach principal parts these days, but they are so helpful, part of the rigour which increases confidence. Before I start sounding dull, I should just say ‘rectum’. It means ‘having been ruled’. Stop sniggering at the back!

Front bottoms

There is a translation which I have used every year I have taught — and remember doing as a student — which involves a duplicitous inn-keeper murdering a guest with another guest’s sword, ‘gladium’. I quote from Cicero, ‘gladium prope appositum e vagina eduxit et illum alterum occidit, nummos abstulit, gladium cruentum in vaginam recondidit’*. Thankfully, ‘vagina’ is a feminine noun meaning a sheath for a sword. It should be pleasing that students generally know ‘cruentum’ to be ‘bloody’, though some better application of adjectival agreements would make for less disturbing marking.

Have you got any other stories of rude words in Latin? Please share below.

* He took the sword that was lying nearby from its sheath and killed the other man, stole the coins and returned the bloody sword to its sheath.

A Murmuration of Latinists, or Where Was Caecilius?

Scansion is one of my most favourite things to teach. It is a lesson which simply has to involve every member of the class speaking out loud at some point. A murmuration of latinists is positively necessary. I noticed recently a headline about whether or not learning of macrons should be enforced. Macrons are those little flat lines above some vowels in Latin. Needless to say, I couldn’t bring myself to read the article. However, macrons are vital as the building blocks of scansion. Some of them any Latin student will already know without realising it – where was Caecilius? In the hortō, of course*. Others can be looked up in such marvellously learned tomes as William Ramsay’s 1806 A Manual of Latin Prosody (also available on JSTOR).

There are many beauties in Latin, but reading a properly scanned verse out loud is certainly one of them. The process of scanning a line is daunting to the uninitiated or poorly taught but there is no secret. Once you have positioned your strawberry jam pot, figured out your longs and shorts, checked for elision, added up your feet, found your caesura, patted yourself on the back, then the pleasure of reading aloud can begin.  The knack is to over emphasise each syllable, to take it slowly at first, as if pronouncing something utterly alien as carefully as you can.  Once you have done this a couple of times, you can speed it up to a normal speaking pace. By this time you will be grinning. Start scanning several lines and before you know it time will have moved on unimaginably. You have been having fun! I once bumped into a student several hours after a scansion lesson and he was still grinning. It had been his best lesson ever!

Unfortunately, this joy is reserved only for A-Level students in the UK. Why is it that the most fun and rewarding aspects of education so often have to wait until only the dedicated or privileged few can have a bash at it? Happy scanning!

* In fact Caecilius wasn’t in the hortō, but most of the rest of his household were.