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DIAGRAMMING LATIN SENTENCES, PART I

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This approach to Latin was inspired by two things:

The Basics of Diagramming

Diagramming is a technique for translating Latin sentences to their English equivalents. It is a sort of bridge to help you cross from one language to the other: on one side is a thought expressed according to correct Latin grammar and usage, and on the other is the same thought expressed according to correct English grammar and usage. In many cases you won't need any help; you will be able to leap across from one language to the other. However, if the distance seems too great, this bridge will help you cross it by following a step-by-step procedure. The bridge can also make visible for you the steps you use intuitively when you are able to leap across.

The Kernel: The sentence expresses a complete thought, and a kernel is the core part of a sentence, stripped down to the basic necessities. We diagram a kernel by using blank lines (which I call here “slots”) to designate the key elements in basic English sentences; all kernels contain a slot for the subject (first position: S) and a slot for the verb (second position: V). Some also contain an additional slot for the object or the complement (third position: O or C). Every sentence will contain at least one kernel, but may contain more than one. Compound sentences, for example, contain two kernels: “John loves Mary,  but  Mary doesn't love John.” The diagram is based on the structure of English, in which word position determines the function of words in a sentence (in Latin, word endings rather than position determine the function of words).

Listed below are the three basic types of kernels, including the parts of speech which are permissible in each slot and the Latin case which signals the same function as the English word position:

Intransitive Kernel intransitive kernel
Transitive Kernel transitive kernel
Linking Kernel linking kernel

Apposition: Appositives are nouns which identify/rename other nouns or pronouns. Since they have the same function in the sentence as the words they rename, they are written in the same diagram slot with a comma between the noun and its appositive (in Latin, appositives have the same case ending as the words they rename). For example:

“Scintilla filiam, Horatiam, vocat.”
diagram of apposition
“Scintilla calls her daughter, Horatia.”

Gapping: In gapping (symbol: Ø), the word for one of the slots in the kernel is implied rather than stated. In an English command, for example, the subject you is gapped: “[you] Go!” Although some gapping is permissible in English, gapping is much more frequent in Latin; you will therefore have to fill the gaps in the diagram by determining from the Latin context what words are implied.

Direct Address: People or things (nouns or pronouns) addressed directly by the speaker of a sentence should be placed on a straight line above and to the left of the kernel, followed by a comma. For example:

“Quinte, Flaccum iuva!”
diagram of direct address
“Quintus, help Flaccus!”

Connection and Modification: All other words in the sentence serve as connectors (they join two equal or unequal elements in the sentence) or modifiers (they describe or qualify elements in the sentence). Connectors should be written between the elements they joing, wherever these occur, and modifiers should be written below the kernel, in various ways that will be described in connection with the parts of speech.

Parts of Speech in Relation to the Diagram

Verbs: Verbs express an action or a state of being. The verb is the most crucial part of the sentence; every kernel must have a verb, and the type of verb determines the type of kernel (intransitive, transitive, or linking). Verbs always fill the second slot in a diagram. In Latin, verbs can be identified by special endings (e.g. third person singular -t; third person plural -nt). Latin will occasionally gap verbs when the meaning is clear from the context, but verbs cannot be gapped in English.

Nouns/Pronouns: A noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, or abstraction. A pronoun stands in for or takes the place of a noun. In the diagram, nouns and pronouns are always written on straight lines, never on slanted ones—in the first or third slots of the kernel (subject, object, or complement); below the kernel (object of prepositions); above and to the left of the kernel (direct address). All Latin nouns have a gender (either masculine, feminine, or neuter) and have special endings indicating their number (singular or plural) and their case (revealing their function in the sentence). For example:

nouns in diagram

Adjectives: Adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns or pronouns; they generally answer questions such as Which one? What kind of? or How many? In the diagram, an adjective may fill the third slot of a linking kernel (complement) ; otherwise an adjective should be written on a slanted line below the noun or pronoun it modifies. In Latin, adjectives agree with their nouns in gender, number and case; their endings will indicate different genders as well as number and case. For example:

adjectives in diagram

Adverbs: Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They generally answer questions such as When? Where? How? Why? Under what conditions? To what degree? In the diagram, an adverb should be written on a slanted line below the word it modifies. In Latin, all adverbs are indeclinable (that is, they do not have case endings).

adverbs in diagram

Prepositions: A preposition is a word placed before a noun or pronoun (which is called the object of the preposition) to form a phrase modifying another word in the sentence. Prepositional phrases can function as adjectives, modifying nouns or pronouns; in this case they answer the questions Which one? or What kind of? and in English must almost always be placed right after the noun they modify. Prepositional phrases can also function as adverbs, modifying verbs; in this case they answer the questions When? Where? How? Why? Under what conditions? To what degree? and can usually be placed in a number of positions in the English sentence without changing the meaning.

In the diagram, a preposition should be written on a slanted line below the word it modifies, whether a noun or a verb. The object of the preposition should be written on a straight line attached to the end of the slanted line. In Latin, prepositions are indeclinable (they do not have endings); the object of a Latin preposition will be in either the ablative or the accusative case. Many ideas which Latin expresses by the genitive, dative, or ablative cases without prepositions must be diagramed and translated in English as prepositional phrases.

prepositions in diagram

Continue with Part II: Steps to Follow When Diagramming.

Legacy Document: November 1999
Barbara F. McManus, Elementary Latin Syllabus
The College of New Rochelle