Tip 10: Irritating Irregularities!

A276 – Learning Latin – Targeting Grammar – Tip 10



Have a look at the List of Irregular Principal Parts on pages 73-74 of the Language Reference Book. Annoying, isn’t it?!


You could simply try to memorise (‘learn’) all these like vocabulary items. Or you could try pattern spotting to see if you can group them together in any meaningful way.


Be warned – you’ll need to bear with me on this one. There’s a lot that’s easily explained one-to-one with pen and paper. It’s heavier going, though, to tackle it all in print as you read through what I’ve written below. See what you think…


The first thing I’d recommend is to concentrate on the present active and perfect active forms. If you get to grips with those then you’ll automatically have cracked almost all the present infinitive and supine forms as well.


Let’s imagine you’ve noticed and picked out all the ones with an ‘x’ before the ‘i’ ending in their perfect active forms: dixi, duxi, reduxi, rexi, traduxi, traxi, vixi.


You might then be able to take one step further and realise that the ‘x’ is there because an ‘s’ has been added to the present stem of the verb and the sound of that ‘s’ has merged with the sound of the consonant at the end of the present stem to make an ‘x’ sound. Here’s what I mean:




e.g. the present active form ‘I rule’ is ‘rego’. If you take the ‘o’ ending away then you’re left with the stem ‘reg-’. If you now add an ‘s’ to that then you get ‘regs-‘ and if you add an ‘-i’ ending to that you get ‘regsi’ which sounds just like ‘rexi’. Take the ‘-i’ ending off again and you’re left with ‘rex-’ and that is the perfect stem!


N.B. The ‘h’ in ‘trahs-’has a sort of throaty catch to it like the ‘ch’ in Scottish ‘loch’. Combined with the ‘s’ that gives a (close enough) ‘x’ sound. Less obvious is ‘vs’ in ‘vivs-’. In fact ‘v’ and ‘s’ can’t really be sounded together; it doesn’t work – you end up sounding a bit like you’re hissing and trying to blow out a birthday-cake candle all at the same time! So ‘x’ is used to replace the ‘vs’ (think of ‘x’ as the ‘unknown’ quantity in Maths; here it stands for the sound ‘vs’ for which there’s ‘no known’ separate symbol!).


If you look at the supine form of the verbs you’ll see the ‘x’ of the perfect stem turns into ‘ct’.


If you look at ‘reduco’ you’ll see it’s just the preposition ‘re’ (‘back’) + ‘duco’ (I lead) i.e. ‘I lead back’.


If you look at ‘traduco’ you might realise it’s just the preposition ‘trans’ (‘across) + ‘duco’ (‘I lead’) i.e. I lead/bring across’. The only slight hiccup here is that it’s not ‘transduco’ but ‘traduco’. The ‘n’ and the ‘s’ disappear on the way from the ‘a’ sound before them, to the ‘d’ sound after them. This is because the sounds of ‘a’, ‘n’, ‘s’ and then ‘d’ are so close to each in other (in terms of the movements your tongue makes inside your month) that pronouncing each of them separately, in sequence, at the normal speed of speech, means that the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ are ‘lost’ between the ‘a’ and the ‘d’!



Where does all this get you?

If you’ve already decided that this is all too much to take in and you’d feel more comfortable persevering with memorising as many of the irregular forms as you can then that’s perfectly (!) fine.


If you feel you’re up for the challenge of a bit of this pattern spotting lark (complex though it certainly is for tackling these tricky irregular verbs) them by all means go for it.


As usual, the learning comes from scouring the list and puzzling out for yourself, in your own way of thinking, how to make as much sense of it all as possible.


I’ve given you an idea of what you could look for when you’re deciding how to group verb forms from the List of Irregular Principal Parts. Think, for starters, of these:


  • What happens at the end of the present stem to turn it into the perfect stem?
  • What happens to the beginning of the present stem?
    • is a preposition added to modify the meaning of the verb (e.g.‘duco’ into ‘reduco’)?
    • are the first letters of the present stem doubled up to turn it into the perfect stem (e.g. ‘curro’ into ‘cucurri’)?
  • What happens to the sounds of adjacent letters?
    • do two letters merge into one (e.g. ‘-gs-’ into ‘-x-’)?
    • does one letter resolve into two (e.g. ‘-x-’ into ‘-ct-’)?
    • are any letters lost (e.g. ‘-ansd-’ into ‘-ad-’)?
    • is/are any letter(s) added between two letters to help get from the sound of one letter to the next?


How many more features to look out for could you add to this list, once you’ve scrutinised the List of Irregular Principal Parts and wracked your brains a bit? Into how many groupings can you then subdivide the list? Do groups overlap (e.g. ‘reduco’ fits into the ‘add-a-preposition-to-the-start-of-the-verb’ group as well as the ‘add-an-s-to-the-end-of-the-present-stem-and-then-that-merges-with-the-letter-before-to-become-an-x-at-the-end-of-the-perfect-stem’ group!). Can a verb form therefore belong to two, or even more than two groups?




 Think in terms of the final exam. Of all the verbs in that exam only some will be in the perfect tense. Of those only some will be irregular. You will know some of them. Of those remaining you will be able to work out some from the context. Of the few that are left an educated guess will often hit home. Finally, there may be a couple left where you do actually need to recall from memory a tricky irregular form for which there is no clue. You either know it or you don’t. But we’re talking of only a mark or two at this stage.


Ask yourself whether you’re better to put a lot of learning effort into hammering these irregular forms into your head; or, for example, making sure you know all your vocabulary thoroughly?


Which is more likely to be a better investment of your time, effort, and energy? What will best boost your overall score? Exactly! Don’t, as they say, sweat the small stuff!


Next time, some advice about approaching language revision over the Easter break…


Steven Havelin (18.03.18)