Tum exortus est Ti. Gracchus qui otium perturbaret…

This was originally a post entirely devoted to English grammar.  I decided to stir things a bit and changed the title.  For those of you who are not there yet, the Latin sentence in the title means “Then stood up Tiberius Gracchus, who…”  Wait a minute – why do I have a subjunctive here? 

Back now to the original post – the one that is entirely devoted to English grammar.  I may return to the above subjunctive in the Comments section of this post.

Sometimes a noun or a name is not enough.  You need a modifier for it to hook your audience’s attention.  In English, where nouns often have multiple meanings, modifiers are essential  – a character may be Chinese or Shakespearean, or mellow, and by attaching the adjective to it, you give your audience the means to filter some of the less relevant possibilities.  Here are some of the other ways to limit the meaning of nouns in English:

  • a man of steel, the concept of justice, scent of a woman, love for mankind

Instead of an adjective before your noun, you link another noun to the first through a preposition.  (Speaking of prepositions, “of” is a particularly labyrinthine one.  At one point, I threw my arms and labeled it “link.”) 

  • SpiderMan, cookie cutter, coffee pot, tax breaks

Just place another noun in front of the vague one and you are done.  It’s sleek and easy.  You can use adverbs too: Super + Man, outside + influences.  I have always suspected the first names are front modifiers of this very sort – it is vague and ambiguous to refer to someone as Smith, but add Jim and your audience immediately starts to nod in recognition.

  • Men in Black,  goats in the Agora, the Raiders in the 70’s

This one is easy too – just use an adverbial phrase as if it’s an adjective.  The only difference is that you don’t put it in front of the noun-to-modify, as in “smelly goats,” but after.

  • Nouns-to-modify, bride-to-be

“To modify” and “to be” are infinitives, i.e., verb forms with insufficient definition.  You use them to hint at the action- or state-to-come.  Maybe this one should be listed as a subset of the Goats In The Agora type. 

  • people I met, tasks I’ve done

This one modifier is particularly confusing for learners of English because it comes in truncated form.  In essence, it is a relative clause with a missing relative pronoun.  Relative clauses, as the name indicates, are clauses establishing a link between the noun and an action or state (if unsatisfied with my definition, proffer your own.)

I am sure there are more ways to modify a noun in English.  My point is that they all perform the same function, no matter how different they look or how you label them.  Once you compile them in a mental list, you can sort them in subtypes and use them in the appropriate context.


7 thoughts on “Tum exortus est Ti. Gracchus qui otium perturbaret…

    1. Is the subjunctive purely descriptive, as in “Tiberius Gracchus, the sort of man who would disturb the peace”? If so, was he aware of his effect on others? I mean, if he knew that he was the sort to disturb the peace, he might decide to exploit it, in which case, the subjunctive could be conveying a hint of intentionality… Er, no, that’s unlikely, knowing what manuscripts report about his mother (cf. ISBN 978-0-06-158241-7). So what is it – why the subjunctive?

  1. The verb’s mood is subjunctive because the verb is used in a conditional statement. TG has the potential to disturb the peace and, under certain conditions, would do so.

    1. What do you mean when you say that “the verb is used in a conditional statement,” o Sons?
      That the relative clause plays the role of a protasis of sorts, as in “Then TGr stood up if he disturbed the peace”? Or do you mean something else?

      1. Present general conditional sentence takes subjunctive in the protasis (sufficient condition), thus,
        “If TGr is the sort who would disturb the peace, then he stands up at assemblies.”
        The necessary condition (he stands up at the assembly) occurs. Caveat: affirming a necessary (apodosis) condition does not guarantee truth of sufficient (protasis) condition.

        1. Oh. Hm.

          So let’s say we start with two separate statements:

          A. TGr is the type to disturb the peace (what I am conveying is my take on TGr’s propensity to disturb the peace in certain situations).
          B. TGr stood up at that moment (and “that moment” was ripe with opportunities for anyone with propensities for disturbing the peace).

          Then I decide to report B in a way that will jog your attention. Someone stood up to speak at some particular moment – big deal. But if I add my take on the man who stood up, I create spaces for you to insert your own interpretation:

          “At this moment, there stood TGr – a man of the sort to disturb the peace.” Oh the suspense! Oh the hidden spaces!

          BTW, this is what Woodcock (whose New Latin Syntax I mentioned somewhere else before) says about the subjunctive in relative clauses:

          The effect of the potential subjunctive instead of the indicative in a relative clause is to make the phrase descriptive instead of determinative, i.e., it no longer tells *what* person or thing is meant, but *what sort of.* […] The subjunctive generalizes, and colours the sentence with the speaker’s or writer’s own views. […] The subjunctive in these descriptive clauses is called Generic […] It is not always easy to render the exact force of it in English, but as a rule the same effect can be obtained in the singular by using the indefinite instead of the definite article (‘a man who…” instead of ‘the man who…’).

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