Monthly Archives: May 2013

-ism and -ist: helpful suffixes

A suffix is an ending we can attach to a word to express grammatical relationships (inflectional suffix) or to create a new word (derivational suffix).

Inflectional suffixes

Inflectional suffixes can be used to mark:

  • a plural noun e.g. house → houses (-s, -es or -ies suffix)
  • a past tense verb e.g. walk → walked (-ed suffix)
  • a possessive noun e.g.  dog → dog’s (-‘s or -s’ suffix)
  • a 3rd person singular present tense verb e.g.  jump → jumps (-s suffix)
  • a present (-ing) participle e.g. fly → flying (-ing suffix)

These endings carry grammatical information. They usually change the form of a word rather than its class – although the -ly suffix is added to an adjective to create an adverb e.g. slow → slowly.

Derivational suffixes

We use derivational suffixes to create new words which often have a different word class to the original word or base.

  • kind (Adj) + -ness → kindness (N) [-ness is a Latin suffix denoting ‘quality of’]
  • defence (N) + -less → defenceless (Adj)  [-less is a Latin suffix denoting ‘without’)
  • able (Adj) + -ity → ability (N) [-ity is a Latin suffix denoting ‘state’, ‘condition’]
  • dedicate (V) + ion → dedication (N) [-tion is a Latin suffix denoting ‘act of’]
  • pac (N, peace; from the Latin pax) + ify → pacify (V) [-ify is a Latin suffix denoting ‘to make’]

-ism and -ist

But enough about the general cases, the source of this post was a radio discussion about the lack of older women on television news. The presenter used the word lookist to describe our society and it seemed a great place to start … 

The OED cites its use as an adjective in the phrase ‘an unrepentant lookist pig’ (i.e. relating to discrimination on the pig-cartoon-mdgrounds of appearance’), and as the noun lookism (i.e. prejudice or discrimination on the basis of appearance) as early as 1978 In 1990, the noun lookist  (i.e. a person who discriminates on the grounds of appearance) is recorded.

This word formation follows a well-worn pattern using the Greek suffixes -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’) and -ist (i.e. ‘one who believes in’).


Many of our traditional -ism nouns use a Greek base, often loans which have entered English through Latin and French borrowings.

aestheticism: belief in or pursuit of what is beautiful or attractive to the senses, rather than appealing to the ethical or rational (first use 1840)
From the ancient Greek αισθητικòς (= aesthetic i.e. ‘of or relating to the senses’) + -ism (i.e. ‘belief in’)

amateurism: belief in or pursuit of the amateur (first use 1868)
From the French amateur and the Latin amator (‘lover’), amare (‘to love’) – from the 18th century, a person who does anything as a pastime rather than as a profession (now often disparaging)

714px-Cannibals.23232 cannibalism: the practice of eating flesh of one’s own species (first use 1796)

From the 16th century Spanish Canibales, originally one of the names for the Carib tribe of the West Indies, who are recorded as being ‘anthropohagi’ (Latin plural of anthropophagus, from the Greek ανθρωποφαγος, ‘man-eating’)

The -ism suffix can be used to denote a range of meanings:

1. ‘the practice of …’

Noun of action (often linked to –ise/-ize verbs)



baptism – the act or ceremony of being baptised (first use 1377; from ME bapteme from Old French baptesme, Latin baptismus and Greek βαπτισμος)

plagiarism – the act or practice of taking someone else’s work without acknowledgement and using it as one’s own (first use 1621; from Latin plagiarus = ‘person who abducts the child or slave of another’, also ‘literary thief’)

bicyclism – the activity of riding a bicycle (first use 1870, but now rare; from French noun bicycle)

Noun describing the action of a group of people

heroismaction and qualities of a hero (first use 1667; from French héroïsme)

hooliganismaction and behaviour of a hooligan (first use 1898; eytmology uncertain – the name ‘Hooligan’ HappyHooliganappeared in an 1890s music-hall song about a rowdy Irish family, and as an Irish character in a series of stories)

patriotism – quality of being a patriot (first use 1716; from Middle French patriote, Latin patriota and Greek πατριωτης)

2. ‘the condition of …’


albinism – condition of being an albino (first use 1827; probably from French albinisme 1806)

autism – condition marked by difficulties engaging with other people and abstract concepts, often accompanied by impaired speech development or unusual speech patterns (first use 1912; from Latin autismus and Greek αúτòς ‘self’)


colloquialism – informal, conversational language (first use 1834; from Latin colloquium, ‘speaking together, conversation’)

Latinism – language using a distinctively Latin idiom or expression (first use 1570; from Latinus, area of Italy containing Rome, adopted into Old English as læden, reflecting Celtic pronunciation of ‘Latin’)

neologism – words that are newly created (first use 1772; from French néologisme, 1734)

malapropismwords that are used mistakenly in place of another similar word e.g. ‘punctuation’ for ‘punctuality’, or ‘distressing’ for ‘de-stressing’ (first use 1830; from the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character in The Rivals, a play by Sheridan in 1775)

Proper nouns

Pollyannaism behaviour characteristic of Pollyanna, i.e. persistent and often irrational optimism 377px-Pollyanna_Grows_Up_illustration(first use 1924; from the name of Pollyanna Whittier, a character in Pollyanna, a children’s novel by Eleanor H. Porter written in 1913)

Whiteboyism – the principles and practices of the Irish Whiteboys (first use 1777, now historical; from the name  for members of a secret agrarian association in Ireland, who wore white shirts over their clothes so they could see each other at night)

Blairism political policies and principles advocated by Tony Blair, Prime Minister 1997-2007 (first use 1994; from the name)

3. ‘the belief in …’

A system or theory

Conservatism believing in the political principles of the Conservative Party (first use 1832; from French conservateur 1795 i.e. focus on maintaining traditional institutions and promoting individual enterprise)

Humanism – believing in human rationality and capacity for free thought, secular rather than religious/spiritual (first use 1853; from Anglo-Norman humeigne and Latin humanus)

Chartism – believing in the democratic principles of the Chartists (first use 1839; from Latin charta)

A particular doctrine or principle

The_American_War-Dog_by_Oscar_Cesare_1916feminismpromotion of equal rights for women in political, social and economic terms (first use 1895; from Latin femina, ‘woman’, and the French adjective féministe, 1872)

jingoismbragging about a country’s readiness to fight or to behave aggressively towards foreign powers, an extreme form of patriotism (first use 1878; from the expression ‘by Jingo’ in a music-hall song which became the theme of the supporters of Lord Beaconsfield who wished to send the British fleet to fight Russia in 1878)

opportunism – exploiting circumstances and opportunities for personal/political advantage (first use 1870; from Italian oppportunismo and French opportunisme 1869)

The superiority of one group over another

racism – prejudice against people of other races (first use 1926; from French race and Italian razza)

sexism – prejudice typically against women based on stereotyping (first use 1934; from Middle French sexe, ‘the genitals’, and Latin sexus, ‘the state of being male or female’)

4. ‘discrimination against …’

ageismdiscrimination on the grounds of age (first use 1969; from Anglo-Norman aege and Old French and Latin aetat-, ‘the length of time a person has lived’)

lookism – discrimination against people because of their appearance (first use 1978; from Old English lócian)

A historical perspective

Following the Latin and Greek models, this helpful little suffix has been used to form the names of religious and philosophical systems, and to describe distinctive ways of looking at the world. We can trace its use over centuries: 

paganism (1425)Luddite
Christianism (1576, now obsolete)
martialism (1608)
Stoicism (1626)
latitudinarianism (1676)
Islamism (1696)
Predestinarianism (1722)
Buddhism (1801)
Luddism (1812)
imperialism (1858)
reincarnationism (1907)
Rachmanism (1963)
Orwellianism (1976)
bioterrorism (1987)
cyberterrorism (1994)
prepperism (i.e. the belief that we need to make advance preparations in order to be able to cope with any disaster, or the end of the society as we know it – not yet in dictionaries, but being used on the internet 2012)

-ism words chart changes in our scientific and technological capabilities, in our attitudes, and in our broadening experiences of other cultures and belief systems.

Evidence that the -ism suffix continues to be linguistically central to our ever-growing word stock can be seen in words like obeseism and gingerism. These are recorded in Wiktionary, are used in the media and can be found in all kinds of contexts online, but have not yet made it into an up-dated entry in the OED.  The suffix even became a noun in its own right as early as 1680: ism, any distinctive doctrine, theory or practice (often used disparagingly). 


Our -ist nouns correspond to the French -iste, Latin –ista, Greek ιστης.  Initially, these were endings attached to ize/ -ise verb stems to form an agent noun (e.g. antagonize → antagonist; ), but in English the suffix is now used more widely. It can be used with -ism nouns (e.g. pacifism → pacifist), with adjectives (e.g. fatal → fatalist), and by analogy (psychiatry → psychiatrist). These -ist nouns can name the followers of a particular group or principle, or the practitioners of a particular process, art or skill. As a noun in its own right, ist was first used in 1811. 

chemistry-professor-mdbaptist: a person who baptizes (first use 1200); member of the religious body that practises baptism by total immersion for believers (first use 1654)
From the Old French baptiste, the Latin baptista (‘lover’) and the Greek βαπτιστης 

chemist: a person who practices or studies chemistry (first use 1559)
From Middle French chimiste and Latin chimista  + -ist

Marxist: a person who believes in the theories and principles of Karl Marx (first use 1873)
From the name of the revolutionary thinker and philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883)

The -ist suffix can be used to denote the following meanings:

1. ‘one who believes in …’

Methodist (first use 1593; from Latin methodus, ‘mode of proceeding’, and Greek μεθοδος, ‘pursuit of knowledge’)

royalist (first use 1605; from Anglo-Norman roial and Middle French royaliste) by Julia Margaret Cameron

Darwinist (first use 1864; from the name of Charles Darwin)

 victimologist (first use 1971; from French victimologie, 1956)

2. ‘one who engages in …’

Often a word of Greek origin

ophthalmologist – someone who diagnoses and treats diseases associated with the eyes and defects of vision (first use 1826; from Greek οφθαλμος, ‘eye’)

archaeologist – someone who studies archaeology (first use 1824; from the Greek αρχαιος, ‘ancient’, and λογια, ‘discourse’)

Later words are from Latin sourcesTolman_&_Einstein

theorist – someone who is skilled in the theory of a subject (first use 1594; from Latin theoria and Greek θεωρια)

journalist – someone who earns a living from editing or writing for a journal, magazine or newspaper (first use 1693; from Old French jurnal and Latin diurnal, ‘of or belonging to a day’)

Now widely used to denote people in professions, businesses and other activities


environmentalist (first use 1903)

escapologist (first use 1926)

consumerist (first use 1944)

hypnotherapist (first use 1958)

ergonomist (first use 1959)

bioethicist (first use 1973)

3. ‘one who displays prejudiced views’

racist (first use 1926)

sexist (first use 1949)

Watch out for additions to the language – like Ecopreneurist (a blog about sustainable business) and WebUrbanist (a website focusing on global art and design)

Leave a comment

Filed under History of language, Uncategorized, Words

A historical perspective 1: Latin (Vulgate Bible)

Linguists can trace changes in the English language by studying texts and noting distinctive features of the words and the grammar at specific points in time. Focusing on language in this way as a sequence of snapshots in time is called a synchronic study of English.


The Bible offers us the perfect opportunity to look at how language changes because it has existed in so many versions and continues to be up-dated. Each time the language, grammar and style is changed, it tells us something about the English language and its users.

Using a sequence of extracts from Genesis 8 (the story of Noah and the flood), it is possible to see what kind of changes take place in language. The extracts come from versions written over a period of fifteen centuries, but this first post will begin with the Latin Bible to demonstrate the links between Latin and the English language.

St Jerome’s  Vulgate Bible (382-405 AD)

St Jerome was mainly responsible for this translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew into Latin. This was the definitive edition NoahsSacrificeused in Britain throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period. Its name comes from the Latin vulgatus meaning ‘common’ or ‘popular’ – it was a translation written using the everyday style of fourth century Latin.

Although you may not be able to understand Latin, look at the extract below and see if you can find out anything about the language that is being used to tell the story of Noah.

This extract describes how Noah sends out first a raven and then a dove from his ark so that he can find out whether the land has begun to emerge from the flood waters. After the dove has returned, God speaks to Noah and tells him to leave the ark. Noah, his family and all the animals return to the land and Noah builds an altar to thank God.

(6)  cumque transissent quadraginta dies aperiens Noe fenestram arcae quam fecerat dimisit corvum
(7)  qui egrediebatur et revertebatur donec siccarentur aquae super terram
(8)  emisit quoque columbam post eum ut videret si iam cessassent aquae super faciem terrae
(9)  quae cum non invenisset ubi requiesceret pes eius reversa est ad eum in arcam aquae enim erant super universam terram extenditque manum et adprehensam intulit in arcam
(10) expectatis autem ultra septem diebus aliis rursum dimisit columbam ex arca
(11) at illa venit ad eum ad vesperam portans ramum olivae virentibus foliis in ore suo intellexit ergo Noe quod cessassent aquae super terram
                (omitted text)
(15) locutus est autem Deus ad Noe dicens
(16) egredere de arca tu et uxor tua filii tui et uxores filiorum tuorum tecum
                (omitted text)
(20) aedificavit autem Noe altare Domino et tollens de cunctis pecoribus et volucribus mundis obtulit holocausta super altare

Genesis 8 verses 6-11, 15-16, 20

The language here will look very strange unless you have studied Latin, but there are distinctive features to comment on even if we can’t read the language itself.


  1. the preposition in is the same as in contemporary English (although our usage has come from Old English)
  2. some words look familiar
    • quadraginta (L. forty) – contemporary English quadbike (N), quadruple (Adj, V) [meaning linked to ‘four’]
    •  aquae (L. waters) –  contemporary English aqua (N), a light greenish-blue; aquatic (Adj), of the water; aquashow (N) [meaning linked to ‘water’]
    • super (L. over/above) – contemporary English prefix: supermarket (N), supersonic (Adj), superimpose (V) [meaning linked to ‘above’, ‘beyond’, ‘in excess’]
    • universam (L. whole, entire, all) – contemporary English universal credit, universal film rating
    • terram (L. earth, land) – contemporary English terracotta (N, Adj), terrestrial (Adj) [meaning linked to’ earth’]
    • ultra (L. beyond, more than) – contemporary English prefix: ultrasound (N), ultraviolet (Adj) [meaning linked to‘beyond’]
    • olivae (L. olive, olive tree) – contemporary English olive (N)
    • altare (L. altar) – contemporary English altar (N)
  3. there are some words which are still used in English in subject specific contexts
    • corvum (L. raven) – contemporary English Corvus (a scientific classification of birds in the crow genus)
    • columbam (L. dove) – contemporary English Columba (a scientific classification of birds in the pigeon genus); columbary (dovecot)
    • vesperam (L. evening, even-tide) – contemporary English vespers (in the Christian Church – evensong, evening service)
    • ergo (L. therefore, well, then) – contemporary English therefore (used in formal contexts to mark the logical conclusion of an argument)
  4. the word holocausta (L. burnt offering, sacrifice wholly consumed by fire) now has more negative connotations
    • from the late seventeenth century: complete destruction, especially of a large number of people; a great slaughter or massacre
    • from 1942, capitalised: the mass murder of Jews in the Second World War
    • from 1954, in the expression nuclear holocaust (to describe the potential scale of the destruction which a nuclear war would cause)
  5. if you have any knowledge of French (one of the Romance languages derived from vulgar Latin), you may have seen other words that are familiarArarat_Ms._11639_521a
    • fenestram (L. opening for light) – French fenêtre (window)
    • est (L. 3rd person singular present tense verb ‘to be’) – French est (is) from être 
    • non (L. no, not, by no means) – French non (no)
    • et (L. and, and even, also) – French et (and)
    • venit (L. 3rd person singular past tense verb ‘to come’) – French venir (to come)
    • qui (L. who) – French qui (who)
    • si (L. if, whether) – French si (if)
    • septem (L. seven) – French sept (seven)
    • tu (L. you, thee) – French tu (you, singular familiar form)
    • filii (L. son) – French fils (son)

The effect of Latin words on contemporary English

The word stock of the English language is a rich melting pot which is a result of all kinds of different linguistic influences (e.g. invasion, trade, cultural exchange, exploration) – and Latin is a significant part of this process. In this early period before the Germanic invasions, Latin was a spoken language which co-existed alongside the Celtic languages. 

There was no direct contact between the first form of the English language (Old English) and Latin. The first Latin loan words in English therefore come either from borrowing Latin words adopted in the Celtic languages, or from borrowing Latin words in the Germanic languages.

Latin words in Germanic languages

The first Latin words entering the English lexicon are Anglo-Saxon words which had been adopted from Latin as a result of interaction with the Roman Empire. These borrowed words tend to be in lexical fields of trade, agriculture, administration and the military. Around 170 words were adopted before the 5th century invasions of the British Isles. For example, we can see words linked to food

  • butter (Latin buturum; Old English butere)
  • cheese (Latin caseus; Old English ciese)


to household goods

  • dish (Latin discus; Old English disc)
  • fork (Latin furca; Old English forca)
  • table (Latin tabula; Old English tabul)

and building materials

  • tile (Latin tegula; Old English tigule)
  • pitch (Latin pix; Old English pic)

Other borrowed Latin words include:                 

  • inch (Latin uncia; Old English ynce)
  • pound i.e. weight (Latin pondo; Old English pund)
  • mule (Latin mulus; Old English mul)
  • cat (Latin cattus; Old English catte)
  • toll (Latin teolonium; Old English toll)

Latin words in Celtic languages

The Celts lived under Roman occupation for more than three centuries, but Latin did not replace their native languages as had happened in Gaul under the Roman occupation.  Before the Romans left in 410AD, a number of borrowed Latin words had been adopted by the Celts. After the invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries, as the Germanic tribes began to settle in England, some of these words of Latin origin were adopted by the Anglo-Saxons. This linguistic exchange was limited, however, because the Celtic peoples were driven to the edges of the country, with their languages effectively isolated from Old English.  Those who were Romanized and used Latin tended to be of a higher social class, or to live in cities. English, we find evidence of this early linguistic borrowing from Latin in place names like Chester and Winchester which had originally been Roman encapments (Latin castra, camp; Old English ceaster) and in traded goods like wine (Latin vinum; Welsh gwin; Irish fín; Old English win).

Latin words linked to the introduction of Christianity

The final early period of Latin borrowing is linked directly to the adoption of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth 340px-Simone_Martini_003century. The impact of this cultural change was felt for several centuries afterwards with Latin loan words appearing in Old English into the 11th century. It becomes easier for us to identify borrowings in this period because of the survival of written texts.  Many of the words borrowed are related to religion and religious practices. 

  • candle (Latin candela; Old English candel)
  • disciple (Latin discipulus; Old English discipul)
  • martyr (Latin martyr; Old English martyr)
  • organ (Latin organum; Old English organe)

The monasteries were important centres of scholarship and many words linked to learning were also adopted at this time.

  • school (Latin schola; Old English scol)
  • verse (Latin versus; Old English fers)
  • epistle – now archaic, replaced by ‘letter’ (Latin epistula; Old English epistole)

Other words reflect changes in domestic life.

  • pear (Latin pera; Old English peru)
  • ginger (Latin gingiber; Old English gingiber)
  • mussel (Latin muscula; Old English mucxle)
  • plant (Old Latin planta; Old English planta)

The examples above are all nouns, but verbs were also borrowed

  • to turn (Latin tornare; Old English tyrnan)
  • to temper (Latin temperare; Old English temprian)
  • to spend (Latin expendere; Old English spendan)

The Latin words adopted from this early period reflect changes in the lives of the Britons as their experiences were broadened by new customs and practices. The borrowed words were blended completely with the native vocabulary and it is only the polysyllabic structure that suggests their Latinate origin to a speaker of contemporary English.                        



Latin grammar is very different to contemporary English because Latin is an inflected language and English is a word order language. This means that Latin depends on word endings (inflections) to tell us what job each word is doing in a sentence, while in contemporary English we can look at the position of a word in a sentence. Old English, on the other hand, like Latin, is an inflected language and when we look at the next example of the Noah story, you will see similarities in the way that grammatical relationships are sign-posted.


Latin uses a wide range of prefixes to change the meaning of verbs. In the Noah extract, we can see dimisit (from dimittere, to send away) and emisit (from emittere, to send out). Other variations include amisit (from amittere, to lose/send away), demisit (from demittere, to send down/lower), remisit (from remittere, to send back) and omisit (from omittere, to lay aside/omit). All these verbs are formed from the addition of prefixes to the verb mittere (to send).

We also form verbs like this in contemporary English using some of the same Latin prefixes:

debrief (reversal of process)
dislike (not)
replant (again)
transplant (across)


You may have noticed that some words appear several times with different endings (e.g. terram, terrae). The seven grammatical cases in Latin dictate what endings nouns, pronouns, determiners and adjectives should have.

  • nominative – subject of a sentence
  • accusative – direct object of a sentence
  • genitive – marks possession (in English ‘of’ or possessive apostrophe)
  • dative – indirect object in a sentence (in English ‘to’ or ‘for’)
  • ablative – follows some prepositions and verbs (in English ‘from’, ‘by’ or ‘with’)
  • locative – marks location  (in English ‘at’)

Nouns  are classified as feminine, masculine or neuter and each case has distinctive endings to show this.

The nominative case (subject) of ark is ‘arca  (feminine noun). In the Noah extract, we see it in the following forms:


  • fenestram arcae – genitive inflection [i.e. the window of the ark]
  • in arcam – accusative inflection: the preposition in is always followed by the accusative case where the meaning is ‘into’ [i.e. into the ark]
  • ex arca – ablative inflection: the preposition ex is always followed by the ablative case [i.e. out of the ark]
  • de arca – ablative inflection: the preposition de is always followed by the ablative case [i.e. down from the ark]

The accusative case (object) inflections can be seen to change according to the classification of the nouns:

  • corvum – accusative masculine inflection (nominative form corvus)
  • columbam – accusative feminine ending (nominative form columba)

Because words that are linked in meaning do not always appear next to each other, inflections help us to recognise linguistic units – for example, adjective + noun, possessive determiner + noun.

  • super universam terram – the preposition super takes the accusative case so the adjective universus and the feminine noun terra need a feminine singular accusative inflection [i.e. over the whole earth]300px-Dove_with_olive_branch.svg
  • virentibus foliis – the translation is ‘with’ so the neuter noun folium (leaf) and the present participle of the verb vivere (to be green) functioning as an adjective need  ablative neuter plural inflections  [i.e. with green leaves]
  • cunctis pecoribus et volucribus mundis – the co-0ordinated nouns (the cattle and the birds), the pre-determiner (cunctis, all) and the adjective (mundis, clean) must all have ablative plural inflections

Determiners and pronouns

If you look at the nouns in the Noah extract, you will see that there are no definite articles preceding them. In Latin, they are understood as part of the noun – in translating into English we would add a definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an) according to the context. This is an example of English as a periphrastic language – it needs to use several words where Latin can use one.

  • altare = the altar, an altar [in the Noah extract, an indefinite article is more appropriate]

Similarly, verbs can be used without a pronoun.

  • aedificavit = he built


Possessive determiners are used to make relationships clear.

  • filii tui –  your sons

You can see evidence in this example of the difference between English as a word order language and Latin as an inflected language. The noun (sons) precedes the possessive determiner (your), but their linguistic relationship is clear because both have a nominative plural masculine inflection.

Possessive nouns

Because Latin uses genitive case inflections on nouns and any related words to mark the possessive, the use of prepositional of phrases or the possessive apostrophe has not yet emerged. The periphrastic genitive (e.g. ‘of the ark’) is another example of English needing to use a group of words where Latin can use one.

  • faciem terrae – the accusative singular of the feminine noun facies (face, surface) is followed by the genitive singular feminine form of terra (earth) [i.e. the surface of the earth; the earth’s surface]
  • ramum olivae – the accusative singular of the neuter noun ramus (branch) is followed by the genitive singular neuter form of oliva (olive, olive tree) [i.e. the branch of an olive, an olive’s branch]
  • uxores filiorum tuorum – the nominative plural of the feminine noun uxor (wife) is followed by the genitive plural masculine form of filius (son) and tuus (your) [i.e. the wives of your sons, your sons’ wives]


Endings are also important on Latin verbs. In contemporary English, we still use a limited number of verb inflections e.g. (simple present tense third person singular -s inflection; simple past tense -ed inflection; -ing participle inflection), but we also use groups of verbs (periphrastic verbal forms) to indicate different time scales (aspect), shades of meaning (modal verbs) and voice (active/passive). Where Latin can use a single verb with a distinctive inflection, you will find that the English translation requires several words (e.g. pronouns and primary/modal auxiliary verbs may precede a lexical verb, which may be followed by prepositions and adverbs). We therefore describe Latin as an inflected language and English as periphrastic.

By looking at some of the verbs in the Noah extract, we can see how the endings are used as signposts.

1. Active verbs

Active verbs are the most common verb forms – the grammatical subject is responsible for the action or process of the verb and is marked in Latin by a nominative inflection.


Perfect stem + 3rd person singular -it inflection (translates in English as -edhave -ed)

  • dimisit = strong perfect stem dimis- (from dimittere, to send away) 
  • emisit = strong perfect stem emis- (from emittere, to send out)
  • extendit = regular stem extend- (from extendere, to stretch out)


aperiens Noe fenestram arcae quam fecerat dimisit corvum
opening the window of the ark that he had made, Noah sent away a raven
(dimisit = verb + adverb)


Infinitive or reduced infinitive + 3rd person singular -ebatur inflection (translates literally as ‘was/were -ing‘, though in Latin-English translations it is often better translated as the simple past)

  • egrediebatur = 3rd person singular (from egredi, to go/come out)
  • revertebatur = 3rd person singular (from revertere, to turn back/go back)
  • erant  = 3rd person plural, irregular (from esse, to be)

corvum qui egrediebatur
a raven which went out
(egrediebatur = lexical verb + adverb)

2. Subjunctive verbs

The subjunctive is very common in Latin: it follows certain conjunctions (cumut, donec) and is used in specific constructions such as purpose and result clauses. In contemporary English, the subjunctive has almost disappeared, although we still use it in some set phrases (God Save the Queen), very formal commands (I insist that he be punished now), and in hypothetical conditional clauses (If I were to …). It can be recognised by the non-agreement of the subject and verb (God saves; he is punished; If I was …)


Infinitive + 3rd person singular -t inflection (translates as ‘might + infinitive’ or ‘to + infinitive’)

  • (ut) videret3rd person singular (from videre, to see)
  • (cum) requiesceret3rd person singular (from requiescere, to rest)

quae cum non invenisset ubi requiesceret pes eius reversa est ad eum

when she had not found where she might rest her foot, she returned to him
(requiesceretpronoun + modal auxiliary + lexical verb)


Perfect stem + 3rd person plural -(i)ssent inflection (translates as ‘had + -ed or ‘would + infinitive’)

  • (cum) transissent3rd person plural (from transire, to pass by)
  • (si) cessassent3rd person plural (from cessare, to cease from/be free of)
  • (cum) invenisset = 3rd person singular plural (from invenire, to find)

emisit quoque columbam post eum ut videret si iam cessassent aquae super faciem terrae
he also sent a dove after him (the raven) to see whether the waters above the surface of the earth had ceased
(cessassent = primary auxiliary + lexical verb)

3. Passive verbs

Passive verbs in Latin are indicated by a distinctive set of endings which signpost that the object of a sentence appears in the nominative case – the grammatical subject of the sentence may be omitted or will appear in the ablative case after a/ab (by + agent).

Imperfect subjunctive

Infinitive + 3rd person plural -entur inflection (translates as ‘were + -ed‘)

  • (donec) siccarentur = 3rd person plural (from siccare, to dry up)

et revertebatur donec siccarentur aquae super terram
and did (not) return until the waters over the earth were dried up
     (siccarentur = primary auxiliary + lexical verb + adverb)

4. Participles


Remove -re from the infinitive and add –ens/-ans inflection to the stem (translates as -ing)

  • aperiens = from aperire, to uncover/openNoah_catacombe
  • portans = from portare, to carry
  • tollens = from tolle, to lift/raise

at illa venit ad eum ad vesperam portans ramum olivae virentibus foliis in ore suo
but she came to him towards evening carrying the branch of an olive with green leaves in her mouth

Perfect passive

Remove -re from the infinitive and add -tus inflection – this ending is then inflected like an adjective according to case and number (translated as a clause e.g. ‘having -ed‘ or ‘When he had -ed …’) 

  • adprehensam = from adprehendre, to seize/grasp
  • expectatis = from expectare, to await, wait for

expectatis autem ultra septem diebus aliis rursum dimisit columbam ex arca
but having waited for more than seven other days, he sent away the dove from the ark again
(expectatis = primary auxiliary + lexical verb + preposition)

The effect of Latin grammar on contemporary English

Latin is an inflected language and English is a word order language. This means that the grammar systems of each language are now very different – a change which has come about over a long period of time. Old English (from around 450-1150) is often known as the period of full inflections because at this point nouns, determiners, pronouns, adjectives and verbs were inflected. During the Middle English period (1150-1500), the number of inflections were significantly reduced and it is often known as the period of levelled inflections. By the Modern English period (1500-1900), almost all inflections were redundant – it is therefore called the period of lost inflections. In contemporary English, we use very few inflections:

-s/-es/-ies → plural (noun)

‘s/s’ → possession (noun)

ly → to form an adverb from an adjective

-s → 3rd person singular present tense (verb)

-ed → simple past tense and past participle (regular verb)

-ing → present participle (verb)

We can also see the remains of a case system in the form of some of our pronouns:

Subject (nominative)              I                he                  they            who

Object (accusative)                me            him                them           whom

Beyond this, the principles of Latin grammar can be seen in some of the traditional prescriptive rules which are still sometimes cited as principles of ‘correct’ English usage.

Split infinitives

In Latin, it is not possible to split an infinitive since the preposition to is bound up in the meaning of the verb itself. Traditionalists have, therefore, always considered separating the preposition from its verb to be ‘wrong’ in English – despite the fact that there are examples of its usage in writers from the Middle Ages onwards. 

While it is still often frowned upon in formal writing, there are clearly cases where splitting the infinitive has no effect (informal conversation!) and where it can be used for dramatic effect …

To magically exist beyond the parameters of our known world, to self-consciously seek beyond the limitations of the human brain, that is my quest.

for emphatic effect …

To really understand you have to do the experiments yourself. 

or for humorous effect…

To boldly stagger, walk, jog, run or sprint’ is a great motto for all parkrun’s Saturday morning get-fitters!    

Stranded prepositions

Since the seventeenth century and the poet John Dryden’s attack on dangling prepositions, traditionalists have disliked sentences that end with a preposition. The word itself comes from Latin: prae- (before) + posito (having been placed) and Latin usage dictates that 800px-J-Drydenthe preposition should always precede the noun/pronoun to which it relates (or … which it relates to!). In English, however there is no such rule.

In contemporary English usage, it is perhaps safer in formal writing to reorder the words to avoid dangling prepositions, but it is equally important to avoid awkward or clumsy constructions – sometimes a sentence-final preposition is easier to hear and understand (particularly with multi-word verbs ). Since language is all about communicating meaning, ultimately clarity is most important.

To whom should I address my application?
(appropriate in a formal written context)

Who can I sit next to?
(appropriate in informal conversation)

Everything was sent back because the clothes hadn’t been paid for.
Everything was sent back  because paid for the clothes hadn’t been.
(moving the preposition results in an awkward sentence which is far more difficult to understand)

And finally …

For those of you who have made it this far and want to have a go at reading the Latin extract in full, here are notes on the words which haven’t been addressed elsewhere in this post:

  • cumque: and with (enclitic que i.e. joined at the end of the preceding word to form a single unit)
  • dies: days (nominative plural of diesmasculine noun)
  • enim: for
  • que: and
  • manum: hand (accusative singular of manusfeminine noun)
  • intulit: brought in (irregular 3rd person singular perfect of inferre)
  • intellexit: understood (3rd person singular perfect of intellegere)
  • quod: that
  • locutus est: spoke (3rd person singular perfect of loqui)
  • autem: but
  • Deus: God (nominative singular, masculine noun)
  • ad: to, towards (+ accusative)
  • dicens: saying (present participle of dicere
  • egredere: Go out (imperative of egredi)
  • uxor: wife (nominative singular, feminine noun)
  • tua: your (nominative singular, feminine possessive determiner)
  • tecum: with you (ablative singular, second person pronoun te with enclitic cum)
  • Domino: to the Lord (dative singular of dominus, masculine noun)
  • de: from (+ ablative)
  • obtulit: offered (irregular 3rd person singular perfect of offerre)

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


affect and effect

Which one should I choose?


The first thing to know is that:

affect = verb

(to influence or alter, to move the feelings, to infect or harm)

effect = noun

(a result or outcome, an impression produced, the creation of a technical illusion)

So, think about the context … look at the position and form of affect or effect to decide whether you need to use a noun or a verb, and then check the meaning …

The sentences below are examples of non-standard usage. Can you explain why?


  The girl had a really good affect on her

  The film effected the girls more than the boys.

If you would like more information about affect/effect and practice exercises with answers, follow the link: WOWs 6

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized