Is the Latin infinitive a “mood”?

Recently I found myself wondering about the Latin verb, and specifically the “mood” – indicative, subjunctive, imperative, and so on.  Partly this came about after I read a blog post on the Dyspepsia Generation blog, on “Latin by the Dowling method”, whatever that might be. The blog as a whole is a long-running US right-wing politics blog and aggregator, which is always to be found at, but often is not found in Google search results.  The author incidentally offered this advice:

With respect to verbs, whenever you see ‘mood’ pronounce it ‘mode’ out loud; eventually when you see ‘mood’ you will hear ‘mode’ in your head and the amount of confusion in your life will dramatically decrease. (If I ever find the guy who tagged this aspect of the verb with such a confusing name, I will smite him with a mighty smite.)

I confess that I often find “mood” a confusing label, and I think that’s quite a good precept.

Equally odd is the question of whether the infinitive is a mood or not.  If you use QuickLatin or Whitaker’s Words, you find it treated as if it is.  But a google search reveals disagreement.

Much of our Latin grammar vocabulary comes to us from antiquity.  So, in such cases, it can be illuminating to examine Donatus, the 4th century grammarian – and teacher of St Jerome – whose Ars Minor was a standard Latin teaching text for a millennium.  Intratext have the Latin here.  If we look in De Verbo, we find:

Modi qui sunt? Indicativus, ut lego, imperativus, ut lege, optativus, ut utinam legerem, coniunctivus, ut cum legam, infinitivus, ut legere, inpersonalis, ut legitur.

That’s pretty clear, but usefully there is a 1926 English translation, which is public domain and freely downloadable (for once) at Hathi here.[1]

Verbum quid est? Pars orationis cum tempore et persona sine casu aut agere aliquid aut pati aut neutrum significans. Verbo quot accidunt? Septem. Quae? Qualitas coniugatio genus numerus figura tempus persona. Qualitas verborum in quo est? In modis et in formis. Modi qui sunt? Indicativus, ut lego, imperativus, ut lege, optativus, ut utinam legerem, coniunctivus, ut cum legam, infinitivus, ut legere, inpersonalis, ut legitur. Formae verborum quot sunt? Quattuor. Quae? Perfecta, ut lego, meditativa, ut lecturio, frequentativa, ut lectito, inchoativa, ut fervesco calesco. Coniugationes verborum quot sunt? Tres. Quae? Prima secunda tertia. …

What is a verb? A part of speech with tense and person, without case, signifying “to perform some action,” or “to suffer,” or neither. How many attributes has the verb? Seven. What? Quality, conjugation, gender, number, inflection, tense, person. In what does the quality of verbs consist? In modes and in forms. What are the modes? Indicative, as lego; imperative, as lege; optative, as utinam legerem; subjunctive, as cum legam; infinitive, as legere; impersonal, as legitur. How many forms of verbs are there? Four. What? Undefined, as lego; desiderative, as lecturio; frequentative, as lectito; inchoative, as fervesco, calesco. How many conjugations of verbs are there? Three. What? First, second, third. …

How interesting to see that Donatus knows nothing of our “mood”; to him it is simply “mode”, just as the Dyspepsia Generation blogger suggested.  I wonder if perhaps our English word has suffered damage through the spelling and vowel changes that have affected our language since the 17th century, leaving behind a now-meaningless “mood” which was once simply “mode”?

Likewise we find that, for Donatus, the infinitive is indeed a “mode” or “mood”.  No doubt this is the origin of the tendency to so classify it in English, because it really doesn’t fit well with the indicative and subjunctive.

Before we leave Donatus, let’s take a quick look at a few remarks from the Noun, De nomine, the “name”:

Casus nominum quot sunt? Sex. Qui? Nominativus genetivus dativus accusativus vocativus ablativus. Per hos omnium generum nomina pronomina participia declinantur hoc modo:

magister nomen appellativum generis masculini numeri singularis figurae simplicis casus nominativi et vocativi, quod declinabitur sic: nominativo hic magister, genetivo huius magistri, dativo huic magistro, accusativo hunc magistrum, ablativo ab hoc magistro; et pluraliter nominativo hi magistri, genetivo horum magistrorum, dativo his magistris, accusativo hos magistros, vocativo o magistri, ablativo ab his magistris.

The cases of nouns are how many? Six. What? Nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, ablative. Through these, nouns, pronouns, and participles of all genders are declined in this way:

Magister is a common noun of masculine gender, singular number, simple form, nominative and vocative case, which will be declined thus: in the nominative, hie magister; in the genitive, huius magistri; in the dative, huic magistro; in the accusative, hunc magistrum; in the ablative, ab hoc magistro; and in the plural in the nominative, hi magistri; in the genitive, horum magistrorum; in the dative, his magistris; in the accusative, hos magistros; in the vocative, O magistri; in the ablative, ab his magistris.

Here again in English we have a funny word, “noun”, when Latin simply has “name”.

Those funny words like “nominative”, “vocative”… and “decline”; they are the Latin terms, brought straight across.

It’s fascinating to see.  These are examples of one of the commonest things in our world: many things in our own day make no sense at all, unless you happen to know just how they came about, and the path by which we came to them.

  1. [1]W. J. Chase, The Ars Minor of Donatus: For one thousand years the leading textbook of grammar.  translated from the Latin with introductory sketch, Madison (1926)