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Latin Composition Tips

Question-and-Answer in Latin

Each week you will have a Latin composition assignment based on question-and-answer in Latin. The thing to remember about question-and-answer is that the question actually gives you a big part of the answer. This is true in any language; it is the nature of question-and-answer.

Cuius liber est? = Whose book is this?

Marci est. (Marci liber est) = This book is Mark's.

In simple sentences, there is a question word which indicates where the information is lacking: who? what? where? when? how? You then make your answer by replacing the question word with a word that supplies the missing information. In Latin, you get a lot of help from the fact that the question word gives you a hint about the case, and sometimes the number and gender, of the answer that you will supply. In the example given above, the question word, cuius, is in the genitive, and so is the answering word: Marci. So when you put the final answer together you can take most of the answer from the question itself -- liber est -- and then just supply the missing information, usually at the beginning of the sentence for emphasis: Marci liber est.

The rules for question and answer are much more complicated in English than in Latin. We make use of the horrible verb "to do" in creating our questions, which is actually really confusing. Latin is much simpler:

Latin: Ubi habitas? Where you live? = English: Where do you live?

Exactly because English asks questions very differently from Latin, it is much much better if you do not translate the question into English. If you absolutely have to translate the question in English, then at least do not think of the answer in English: please try to think of the answer in Latin. Remember: the point is to understand the Latin question, and to answer the question in Latin. By the end of the semester, you should be able to do this without any translation into English at all! Also, the vocabulary that you need to answer these questions is already in the story that you read. You should not need to use a dictionary to answer these questions, except perhaps to check on a noun declension or verb conjugation. If you are using the dictionary to look up the Latin word that you want, you probably should not go that way! Use the Latin words that you know already, either from your previous Latin classes or from the week's reading.

Of course, some sentences are more complex than others: these are usually the sentences that begin with the question word quare, "why"? When you answer a "why" question, you have to supply a complete sentence as your answer, instead of being able to add just a word or a phrase to the original question. Here's an example:

Quare Dalila Samson tradidit?

There are actually many possible answers:

  • Dalila mala mulier est.
  • Dalila pecuniam optat.
  • Philisthim pecuniam ei promiserunt.

The original question does not say anything about whether Delilah is good or bad, and it does not say anything about money, or about the Philistines. A "why" question is a very open-ended question, and you have to come up with a complete idea (subject and verb, and perhaps an object, or an adverb) in order to answer the question "why".

If you want to add the phrase "because" to your answer, the easiest solution is to say quia or quod, but this is not a requirement. You can simply answer the question with the sentence you have created:

Quare Dalila Samson tradidit?

  • Dalila Samson tradidit quod mala mulier est.
  • Dalila Samson tradidit quia pecuniam optat.
  • Philisthim pecuniam ei promiserunt.

Regardless of the question that you are responding to, your answer must be a complete sentence in Latin. At a minimum, this means that your sentence must have a verb in it. Sometimes a verb is a complete sentence and is the complete answer to a question. In most cases, however, your sentence will contain several Latin words. Here are some things to ask yourself about each Latin sentence that you write:

  • do you have a verb? is the verb in the correct tense?
  • do you have an expressed subject? is the subject in the nominative case? do the subject and verb agree in person and number?
  • if the subject is expressed, do you really need to do that? remember: if it is totally clear from the preceding question what the subject is, you do not need to express the subject
  • does your verb take an object? does it take an object in the accusative case, or is it one of those tricky verbs that wants a genitive or a dative instead?
  • have you chosen a word order that puts the most important information either at the very beginning of the sentence or at the very end?

As you get more used to writing Latin, you will not have to ask yourself these questions explicitly; this will become an automatic process for you.


Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM