Syntax Synonyms: Don’t Fear the Subjunctive

The subjunctive is usually regarded as a more advanced grammatical concept, the very mention of which can give students crippling anxiety, but EFF that—it’s not.

To begin with, in a grammatical syllabus, the subjunctive is simply unnecessarily delayed. In Lingua Latīna per sē Illustrāta, for example, it doesn’t appear until chapter 28 of 35, and in Ecce Rōmānī not until chapter 42 of 68. Given enrollment figures, it’s clear that most students don’t even encounter the subjunctive before dropping Latin in conventional programs! The reality of language and communication (yes, reading is a form of communicating—interpretation), however, is that the subjunctive is much more frequent, and can actually be less difficult to process!

What the…?!

Yep, facts. Because we can establish meaning of a subjunctive phrase with an English equivalent, syntax isn’t really more or less difficult per se. When it comes to processing speed, however, we know that shorter messages are easier to understand (i.e. a message with 10 words is more likely to be understood by the novice than a message with 20 words). Shorter, then, is simpler and less difficult when it comes to input, and the difference between short/simple and long/complex isn’t necessarily a matter of what our textbooks taught us to be “more advanced” syntax. Consider these pairs:

ut habeatso that she has
quia vult habēre = because she wants to have

nē habeatso that she doesn’t have
quia habēre nōn vult = because she doesn’t want to have

In the examples above, “ut/nē + subjunctive” phrases used to express purpose/result can be substituted with “quia vult + infinitive.” These pairs are often years apart in conventional curricula, but note how the subjunctive phrases contain fewer words to process. The subjunctive examples are actually simpler messages than what conventional teachers consider “basic syntax!”

As teachers, our perception of “basic” and “more advanced” is significantly skewed by our knowledge ABOUT language, so it’s gonna take some rethinking to have an inclusive communicative classroom based on compelling CI, which levels the playing field of difficulty. Even my recent TESOL training reminded me that teachers should never, ever use the words “easy” or “hard” when introducing something. Take Richie’s title of Fābulae Facilēs ( = Easy Stories). Those stories are supposed to be easy—FOR WHOM, though?

So, Syntax Synonyms can be helpful in different ways depending on your situation. If you’re simplifying existing Latin (e.g. Tiered, Embedded, or Recycled Readings) for conventional students who fear the subjunctive purpose clause, just substitute “quia vult + infinitive” in order to make their reading more comprehensible. If your students are already familiar with “quia vult + infinitive,” you can start introducing the subjunctive immediately! One technique I appreciated from Terence Tunberg at the summer conventicula was his constant rephrasing of statements and questions in at least two different ways. Not only did it allow us all more time to process what he said, but it often meant the difference between Comprehensible and Incomprehensible Input, even if the second or third variation just included more familiar vocabulary.

This simple strategy of repeating a question or statement is a great time to use Syntax Synonyms, and would provide a broader “net” of input. Since we know that all learners have different acquisition rates, some of them will be ready to pick up those syntactical structures long before any textbook would introduce them, so don’t fear the subjunctive and use both! Here are other pairs of common Syntax Synonyms for the subjunctive. Not all make for shorter/simpler messages, but they certainly add to the “net” of input.

cum habeat = since she has
quia habet = because she has

dubitō sit = I doubt that she is
nōn crēdō eam esse = I don’t believe she is

imperat ut eat orders that she go
iubet eam īre = orders her to go

cum īvissetwhen she had gone
postquam īvit = after she went

habeāmus! let’s have!
quīn habēmus? = why don’t we have?



3 thoughts on “Syntax Synonyms: Don’t Fear the Subjunctive

  1. Pingback: Input Processing: Implications | Magister P.

  2. Do you have a good subjunctive story to share? I was directed to Ritchie’s Fabulae Faciles and I am not happy with it!

    • If you’re looking for a story in order to teach the subjunctive, I can’t help you. In fact, I don’t believe in targeting grammatical features. I believe in using them whenever necessary and not being afraid of any particular one of them. If you want a story with the subjunctive, I recommend just adding a line of subordination to anything you have already, or moments of possibility, etc.

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