Latin verb placement

Peter Dickinson is probably best known in sf circles for the fictional-science book The Flight of Dragons and the kids' books The Blue Hawk and Emma Tupper's Diary, plus the Heartsease trilogy. But he's also written a bunch of other stuff, including mysteries. I'm not a big mystery fan, but I very much like his novel Hindsight, which is the source of the following bit of dialogue about Latin. I typed in this quote years ago, but I apparently never got around to using it anywhere on my site, not even in the wordplay columns.

"What kind of people do you imagine it must have been who felt so powerful a need to place the verb at the end of the sentence?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Imagine yourself in the House of Commons. You are listening to that eloquent ass, Sir Mark Cicero. He is just getting into his stride about the unspeakable behaviour of Mr Catiline. This villain, he tells you, nineteen virtuous matrons, more about their virtue all in the accusative so you know he's done something to them but what, for heaven's sake? Robbed them? Raped them? Taken them sailing? But, aha, here's an adverb, whatever he's done he's done vilely, it looks as though we're getting somewhere, but oh, no, here's a quia and we're plunging into the villain's motives when we still don't know whether the matrons are dead or alive..."

--Peter Dickinson, Hindsight, p. 46.

6 Responses to “Latin verb placement”

  1. Kendra

    *chuckle* I’ll send this to my long-suffering Latin 1 students, even though it will reinforce their entirely erroneously belief that Latin word order is nonsensical and weird.

  2. SarahP

    Good stuff!

    And isn’t he married to… Robin McKinley?

  3. Jed

    Kendra: Have you tried telling them the verb is at the end to build dramatic tension?

    SarahP: Whoa–I had no idea, but you’re right, they are married. This is particularly funny because the other day I think I mentioned Peter Beagle to someone (I forget who) and they said “Isn’t he married to Robin McKinley?” and I said no, but we weren’t sure where that idea had come from. So now I know.

    Or maybe it’s just standard practice whenever a male writer’s name is mentioned these days to say “Isn’t he married to Robin McKinley?”

  4. Vardibidian

    Or, in Massachusetts, any writer at all.


  5. Kendra

    I’ve told my students various things about Latin word order. Occasionally I even resort to the truth: that verbs tend to mark the end of natural sense units, which is very handy in a world without punctuation. Mostly, though, I’m just happy if they don’t fling words randomly about the sentence, or turn nouns into verbs.

    At least one of them thought the quote was hilarious, anyway.

  6. Bhadrika

    When I was studying German, the students asked/complained about going through long sentences with no verb until the end, and the teacher just shrugged and said, “Oh, you usually have a good idea what it’s going to be by the time you get there.”


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