Potential subjunctives (outside of conditional statements)
The potential subjunctive is most commonly found as part of conditional statements to form contrary-to-fact and less vivid conditionals. This assignment, however, will focus only on the independent use of the potential subjunctive, not its use in conditionals.
The independent use of the potential subjunctive expresses an action which is possible or was possible (but didn’t occur) in the past. Additionally, the potential is also used in the 1st person singular to express mild assertion and in the expression of wishes (as an alternative to the optative subjunctive).
The potential subjunctive is negated by nōn.
Present or perfect subjunctive (with no distinction in sense) in any person or number may refer to an action which is either possible or imaginable. Subjunctive verbs of this sort are often translated into English with “may”, “would”, and “could”.
Hecatē hoc nōn sinat. “Hecate would not permit it.”
Forsitan (“perhaps”) sometimes accompanies a potential subjunctive (but it is also frequent with the indicative). With forsitan, no added words are needed to indicate potential in English.
Forsitan Venus ex tōtā gente tribūta petat.
“Perhaps Venus seeks payment from my whole family.”
The potential subjunctive often has an indefinite subject in the 2nd person (an indefinite or generic “you”) or 3rd person (“someone”). In the 3rd person, this is often signaled with an indefinite subject, for example: aliquis, quispiam, or the indefinite quis (see Assignment 5).
Nōn facile inveniās ūnum multīs in mīlibus.
“You could not easily find one among thousands.”
Forsitan quispiam hoc dīxerit. “Perhaps anyone could say this.”
The imperfect subjunctive may refer to a conceivable or probable action in the past and can be expressed in any person and number. A past conceivable action is best translated into English with “might have”, “would have”, and “could have”.
Haec causa melius ā tribus agerētur quam nunc ab ūnō agitur.
“This cause would have been better plead by three men than now it is plead by one.”
A 2nd person singular imperfect subjunctive in narration indicates what you (an indefinite or generic “you”) would have seen, thought, or believed, if you had been present at the events described. Sometimes the 3rd person imperfect subjunctive is used in an equivalent sense.
Crēderēs dē caelō deōs dēcidere.
“You would have believed that the gods fell from the sky.”
The first person singular present or perfect subjunctive is common in mild assertions expressed with verbs of thinking, speaking, or wishing. This may be illustrated in the difference between the statements credo (“I believe”) and velim crēdere or velim crēdam (“I would like to believe”). This use of the potential subjunctive may be translated into English phrases like: “I would like”, “I would say”, “I would think”, etc.
Hoc minimum malōrum in illīs dīxerim. “I would call this the least of their evils.”
When it is a verb of wishing used in this way, there is little difference between the potential subjunctive and a wish expressed by the optative subjunctive (ie. velim manēre, velim maneat, and maneat may mean “may he remain”).
Velim tū saepe ad mē scrībās.
“I would like you to write to me often” or “I wish you would write to me often.”
The imperfect forms vellem, nōllem, and māllem (as well as other verbs of wishing, ie. cuperem, optārem) indicate an unfulfilled wish in the present. This use of the potential subjunctive can be translated with phrases such as: “I wish it were” “I wish I could”, “I prefer you would”, etc.
Nunc vellem frēnāre dracōnēs Mēdēae. “Now I wish I could bridle Medea’s dragons.”
or “Would that I could now bridle Medea’s dragons.”
Nōllem, sed necesse est. “I wish it weren’t, but it is necessary”
The formulations are often, but not necessarily, less exclamatory in nature than the optative subjunctive (see Assignment 7). Otherwise, there can be little to no difference between the this use of the potential subjunctive and the unfulfillable wish, as indicated by the alternate translations included above.
Some additional notes
Potential expressed by a perfect subjunctive does occasionally refer to a past likelihood (see Pinkster §7.45).
Forsitan frāter tuus ista audīverit. “Perhaps your brother might have heard these things.”
Outside of conditionals, the pluperfect subjunctive appears rarely with potential force referring to something which could have happened in the past, but did not.
Nūlla pāgina meīs in libellīs sine tē crēvisset.
“No page in my books would have grown without you.”
The potential subjunctive with an indefinite subject may occur in interrogative statements, and in such cases are little different from the deliberative use of the jussive subjunctive (except that the subject is indefinite).
Quis sōlem dīcere falsum audeat? “Who would dare to call the sun deceitful?”
Quis iniūriam Catōnī sciēns faceret? “Who could have knowingly done injury to Cato?”
For each of the following present tense subjunctives, provide the corresponding perfect tense subjunctive form, preserving person, number, and voice.
Sample: faciant Answer: fēcerint
Sample: addam Answer: addiderim
Sample: videar (f.) Answer: vīsa sim
Identify whether the following potential phrases would be better expressed with the present or imperfect subjunctive, then give the correct form using the provided vocabulary.
Sample: “I would not want” (nōlō) Answer: present, nōlim
Sample: “You could have seen” (videō) Answer: imperfect, vidērēs
Sample: “I prefer it were” (mālō) Answer: imperfect, mallem
Sample: “(Anyone) could have believed” (crēdō) Answer: imperfect, crēderet
“I would say” (dīcō)
“You (s.) may seek” (quaerō)
“You (s.) could have seen” (videō)
“I would prefer” (mālō)
“You (s.) could have thought” (putō)
“I would like” (volō)
“You would have understood” (sciō)
“I wish it were” (cupiō)
“You (s.) may ask” (rogō)
“You could have beheld” (aspiciō)
“I would hope” (optō)
“You (s.) may be able” (possum)
“(Anyone) could have judged” (cēnseō)
“I wish it were” (volō)
“You (s.) would have understood” (intellegō)
Translate the following sentences using grammar from this assignment.
Hoc nōn negāverim.
Vellem in urbe adessēs.
Nōn facile tibi hoc dīxerim.
Forsitan haec parva tibi videantur.
Velim mē certiōrem faciās.
Crēderēs hostēs victōs esse.
Aliquis hoc minime crēderet.
Mē esse fēlīcem dīcere nōn possim.
Forsitan quaerās ā quō haec epistula mittātur.
Māllem hōra fūneris mihi prius vēnisset!
Examples in Context
Translate the following modified examples.
n) Context for the sentence(s)
Modified example sentence(s)
[grammatical and contextual notes, if any]
1) A quotation attributed to Nero after he has been asked to sign for the execution of two robbers.
Vellem litterās nescīrem.
[litterās, here in the sense “to read and write”]
2) Aeneas anticipates that his audience is eager to hear about the death of Priam.
Forsitan requīrās quae fāta Priamī fuerint.
[Priamī, gen. from Priamus]
3) Ovid imagines himself to die alone in exile.
Velim ipse posse meōs cinerēs obruere.
4) Seneca has reminded Lucilius that although they pursue virtue, they are inhibited by vices and obligations.
Optāverim hoc nōbīs magis quam prōmīserim.
[Optāverim, here “hope”; hoc, here “the attainment of virtue” or similar]
5) Cicero complains to Atticus that the latter is leaving to Asia on business without consulting him first.
Māllem haec integrā rē tēcum ēgisse.
[ēgisse, here “discuss”; integrā rē, abl. absolute with an implied form of sum (see Assignment 2); integrā, here “undecided”]
6) From exile, Cicero attempts to ascertain through Atticus what is going on in Rome.
Velim ad mē scrībās quid videās, quid intellegās, quid agātur.
7) Seneca points out that certain qualities, such as wealth, have no bearing on a persons goodness.
Non magis amārēs virum bonum locuplētem quam pauperem.
[locuplētem... pauperem, each agree with virum bonum]
8) Hannibal, upon arriving to Spain, immediately wins over the Carthaginian military.
Haud facile discernerēs utrum Hannibal imperātōrī an exercituī cārior esset.
[utrum… an, indirect question, “whether… or…”; imperātōrī, Hasdrubal]
9) Quinctius Capitolinus speaks honestly to the Roman people while readying them for a difficult war with the Aequi and the Volscians.
Vellem vōbīs plācēre, Quirītēs, sed multō mālō vōs esse salvōs.
[plācēre, “be pleasing” with the dative; Quirītēs, “Romans”; multō, ablative degree of difference “by much, much more”; mālō, this is the verb]
10) Seneca thinks that the most commendable goods are those which are obtained through trial and difficulty.
Itaque magis laudāverim haec bona exercitāta et fortia et cum fortūnā rixāta.
[rixāta, deponent “clash”]
11) Ovid describes the nymph Cyane transformed into liquid.
Vidērēs membra mollīrī, ossa patī flexūs, unguēs posuisse rigōrem.
[patī flexūs, here perhaps “to be afflicted with bending”; posuisse, here “set aside”]
12) Dido, via a letter, reminds Aeneas that, for all he knows, their brief union may have left her pregnant.
Forsitan gravidam Dīdō, scelerāte, relinquās, parsque tuī clausa meō corpore lateat.
[Dīdō, here an accusative singular; scelerāte, vocative, referring to Aeneas]
13) Ovid addresses the land of his exile.
Pontica tellūs, pāce tuā dīxisse velim: “Tū es pessima pars in exiliō durō et tū mala mea gravās.”
[Pontica tellūs, voc. “land of Pontus”; pāce tuā, a common idiom meaning “with your permission” or similar; gravās, “make worse”]
14) L. Lentulus urges the Roman people to accept a truce after the disastrous situation of the Caudine Forks.
Quid mīlitēs habent quod morte suā servent? “Tēcta urbis,” dīcat aliquis, “et moenia et eam turbam ā quā urbs incolitur.” Immō ea omnia prōduntur dēlētō hōc exercitū, nōn servantur.
[Tēcta... moenia... turbam, objects of the implied verb habent; Immō, “No, rather...”; prōduntur, “surrendered”]
15) Vergil describes the center of Aeneas’ shield, bearing a scene from the Battle of Actium.
In mediō classēs aerātās, Actia bella, cernere erat, tōtumque Leucaten instructō Mārte fervēre vidērēs et fluctūs aurō effulgēre.
[In mediō, of the shield; erat + inf. “it was possible”; Actia bella, in apposition to classēs aerātās, literally “the Actian wars”; Leucaten, acc. sing. m., a place, “Leucas”; Mārte, here “battle”]