3.1 Sequence of Tenses

Sequence of Tenses
We put which subjunctives where?????
Four tenses. Why?
The most important thing to remember is that, for
subjunctive verbs, “tense” is a much more wobbly
concept than for indicative verbs.
Subjunctive verbs in subordinate clauses (which
is most of them) don’t have an ABSOLUTE point
in time like indicative verbs. They have
What is relative tense?
Not “relative” like “cousin”; “relative” as in
“relative to something else, not absolute”.
You can compare the way the tenses of
participles work. Remember that present
participles take place at the same time as the
main verb, and perfect participles took place
before it?
Uhh, so why four?
That. . .is a very good question. Participles get
along just fine with only two relative tenses (since
the future participle is so rarely used as a pure
This issue of four relative tenses is the heart of
Latin sequence of tenses, and, I’m afraid, it is a
bit of a complication without much rational
justification. OWN IT anyway!
The rules!!!!
The rules for when to use which tense are, in
If your main verb is present (or future), you are
only allowed to use PRESENT or PERFECT
If your main verb is past, you are only allowed
And how they work
Once you have these pairings down, then each
pair works just like the two relative tenses from
Present subjunctive is simultaneous with the
main verb, perfect subjunctive is before it.
Imperfect subjunctive is simultaneous with the
main verb, pluperfect subjunctive is before it.
Primary Sequence
The two kinds of main verbs are called primary
sequence and secondary sequence.
For the majority of situations, primary sequence
just means “present or future tense”.
secondary sequence
It stands to reason, then, that secondary sequence is largely a fancy way of
saying “past tense”, taking in all the past tenses Latin is capable of.
So, after all this time, “past tense” is STILL not a valid answer for any Latin
grammar question! We say “secondary sequence”. Sorry. :(
Still, it can be a helpful mnemonic that the pair of subjunctives that both
have “past”-sounding names (imperfect and pluperfect) belong in
Examples: Primary
Consider these sentence pairs:
cum Catullus carmina scribat, puella alteros
viros amat. (When Catullus writes poems, his
girlfriend likes other guys.)
cum Catullus carmina scripserit, puella alteros
viros amat. (When Catullus has already written
poems, his girlfriend likes other guys.)
Examples: Secondary
cum Catullus carmina scriberet, puella alteros viros
amabat. (While Catullus was writing poems, his
girlfriend liked other guys.)
cum Catullus carmina scripsisset, puella alteros
viros amabat. (When Catullus had written his
poems, his girlfriend liked [started liking] other
NB: Though I wrote both these sentences with imperfect main verbs
because it was more natural with the vocabulary, they would still be
secondary sequence with perfect or pluperfect main verbs.
you can’t write that!!
Examples like this, however, are ungrammatical:
cum Catullus carmina scripsisset, puella
alteros viros amat.
cum Catullus carmina scribat, puella alteros
viros amaverat.
Look at the tenses and figure out why!
Honors notes
In case you are wondering why there were so many “most of the times” in
there, here are a few wrinkles that do occur in literary Latin. This may not be
relevant if you’re not planning on AP Latin.
I avoided writing example sentences with perfect tense main verbs for a
reason. Most of the time, perfect tense verbs are considered primary
sequence. However, if the author intends the “has done” sense, not the
“did” sense, of the perfect tense to be the point, then sometimes they can
be primary sequence. This is not as illogical as it sounds: if you think
about it, a “has done” verb is really talking about the present
consequences of a past action.
There are also rare cases when an author uses a bizarre tense of the
subjunctive to get across a special point, such as emphasizing that
something is over and done. This happens most in historical writing and
hopefully will not even be on the AP syllabus. Consult a Latin grammar if
you’re really curious.
Logical implications
If you think about your types of subjunctive
clauses, you may realize that not all of them
actually need both of their allowable tenses.
How would a tense earlier than the main verb
make any sense in a purpose or result
Wait a sec. . .
Now that you’ve got purpose and result clauses
on the brain, you may be thinking--aren’t those
subjunctive actions arguably in the FUTURE
relative to the main verb?
This is a valid point. A quick way to answer is
that the Romans saw the subjunctive and the
future tense as very similar to each other. This
also helps explain why there is no future or future
perfect subjunctive!
And another sec. . .
You might also be wondering--why doesn’t this have
any bearing on indirect statements? You don’t have to
use two totally different systems of tenses of the
infinitive in those!!!!
Well. . .you’re right, you don’t. The way sequence of
tenses works in accusative-and-infinitive is arguably a
lot more logical. You just have three tenses and they
all work relative to the main verb.
Unfortunately, languages aren’t designed by
committee. So sometimes they aren’t totally internally
consistent. :/