Subjunctive Constructions Used in Independent Clauses

Hitherto we have seen the subjunctive mood used almost exclusively for subordinate (or dependent) clauses. Purpose clauses, result clauses, indirect questions, indirect commands--all these cannot be sentences in and of themselves, but rather must be attached to some kind of independent clause. Only those conditions which employ the subjunctive can be considered as examples of sentences in which the subjunctive can be the main verb.

All that is about to change. Chapter 45 introduces four independent uses of the subjunctive. None is as common, say, as a purpose clause, but neither can you get far in Latin literature without running into all four of these constructions. Some look similar in Latin, but there are typical contexts in which each occurs, so you should be able to discern among them.

These four constructions are: deliberative, hortatory, optative, and potential.


When a question is being posed that speculates not about a present or past action or state, but rather deliberates over what action may be taken in the future, or could have been taken, the normal indicative mood is replaced by the present or imperfect subjunctive. Contrast the following:

Regular questions:

quale carmen Quintus componit? What sort of poem is Quintus composing?

quale carmen Quintus componebat? What sort of poem was Quintus composing?

Deliberative questions:

quale carmen Quintus componat? What sort of poem is Quintus to compose?

quale carmen Quintus componeret? What sort of poem was Quintus to compose?

Notice the way we translate deliberative questions in English: linking verb + infinitive. Consider, too, that such questions really don't make sense with any other tense.


The hortatory subjunctive, as its name implies, urges action without openly ordering it (in which case one would use the imperative mood). This subjunctive is used only in the present tense, in only the 1st and 3rd persons. If the exhortation is negative, the particle ne is used. The operative word in translation is "let." This is perhaps the most common of the independent uses of the subjunctive that you will see. Examples:

Quintus alium carmen componat. Let Quintus compose another poem.

carmina Quinti ne spernam. Let me not reject Quintus' poem.

vincams copias Antonii. Let us defeat Antony's forces.


From exhortation we pass to wishes. To express a wish in Latin the subjunctive mood is again used. Most of us think, in the first instance, of wishes that refer to something that is not yet the case, but that we would like to see happen: "May all your dreams come true (even the nightmares in which a monster has you for lunch)." For such future wishes, English uses the helping verb "may," and Latin uses the present subjunctive, negated by ne. Two examples:

Octavianus urbem iuste regat. May Octavian rule the city justly.

Cleopatra senatum populumque Romanum ne regat! May Cleopatra not rule the Senate and Roman people!

If you think about it, however, sometimes you express a wish that something that is so, were not so, or that something that was so, had not been so. Such wishes are best conveyed in English with a rather old-fashioned verbal formula, "would that," e.g. "Would that this class were nearly over." "Would that it had snowed a lot this winter." Latin uses the imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive, respectively, for these "unfulfilled wishes," and often introduces them with the particle utinam. Thus:

utinam Octavianus Romae iam adesset. Would that Octavian were still here in Rome.

utinam Antonius uxorem Octaviam non repudiavisset. Would that Antony had not rejected his wife Octavia.

Perhaps this seems strangely familiar to you....It should! These unfulfilled wishes are just like the protases (plural of "protasis") of contrary to fact conditions: both use the same tense of subjunctive in Latin, and both are similarly translated into English.


The so-called "potential subjunctive," generally in the present tense, indicates capacity or possibility; it therefore admits of various English translations--would, could, may, might. For present purposes, you will generally find it used only in certain verbs construed with infinitives, as follows:

ausim + inf. = "I would dare to..."

velim + inf. = "I would like to..."

nolim + inf. = "I would not like to..."

However, it will be helpful in future to know that this subjunctive is also commonly used with indefinite pronouns or the second person indefinite. Here is an example:

dicas Maecenatem auctoritatem non petivisse. You would/could/might say that Maecenas did not seek power.

You will see that the potential subjunctive, so used, is like a truncated future less vivid condition--the apodosis without a corresponding protasis; both use the present subjunctive, and "would" translates both correctly into English.

Summary of Independent Subjunctive Constructions

 Name  Negative particle  Tense used  Translation Hint
 DELIBERATIVE  non (very rare) present/imperfect  linking verb + inf. direct question with subjunctive
 HORTATORY  ne present "let..." only 1st/3rd person
 OPTATIVE ne present
/ "would that...were"
/"would that...had"
 may be introduced by utinam
 POTENTIAL  non present would/could/might usually seen in velim, nolim, & ausim (+ inf.)