cum clauses & dum clauses

This chapter summarizes and supplements earlier teaching about cum clauses, and presents an amplified account of the syntax of dum clauses.


cum clauses


Please note, in the first place, that cum is both a preposition and a conjunction. As preposition it is followed by a noun or pronoun in the ablative case, and is to be translated "with," indicating one of two constructions: ablative of accompaniment (e.g. cum pueris, "with the children"), or ablative of manner (e.g. magna cum diligentia, "with great care").


Kinds of cum clauses

These can be most effectively summarized in the following schema:

 Name of construction Tenses/moods used Translation Observations/Hints
 cum circumstantial imperfect & pluperfect subjunctive "when" most common kind of cum clause, used to relate general circumstances under which the action contained in the main verb occurred
 cum causal any subjunctive
(per sequence of tenses)
"since" used in sentences where a cause-and-effect sequence is emphasized
 cum concessive any subjunctive
(per sequence of tenses)
"although" tamen ("nevertheless") appears in the main clause
 cum temporal past tenses of indicative "when" more specifically temporal than cum circumstantial; usually some indication of precise time occurs in the main clause; cum temporal clause often follows main clause

Some examples to put flesh on these bones:

cum Quintus in fundo maneret, felicissimus erat.

When Quintus was staying on his farm, he was very happy.

NB the cum clause here is circumstantial. It does not emphasize a particular point of time, but rather the circumstances that obtained when Quintus felt happiest.

Quintus Romam redit ipso tempore cum Octavianus ab Oriente pervenit.

Quintus returned to Rome at the very time when Octavian arrived from the East.

NB the definite time-marker eo tempore and the cum clause coming second identify this as a cum temporal clause; hence the indicative pervenit.


cum Quintus Octavianum maximi aestimaret, bellum tamen civile odit.

Although Quintus regarded Octavian very highly, nevertheless he hated the civil war.

NB the tamenin the main clause is a dead giveaway: this is a cum concessive clause: though the subordinate clause concedes a fact, the main clause asserts something in spite of it (hence the word "nevertheless").


cum Antonius Octaviam repudiare constituisset, senatus bellum inferre ei aperte potuit.

Since Antony had decided to divorce Octavia, the Senate was able to declare war on him openly.

NB this cum clause is indistinguishable in form from a circumstantial clause; yet the context makes a cause-and-effect relationship between the clauses highly likely, so it is best to consider this an instance of a cum causal clause.


dum clauses

As with cum clauses, clauses construed with the conjunction dum must be distinguished carefully one from another; the differences in the syntax and meaning are subtle but telling. The different kinds of dum clauses are not, however, differentiated by names like "concessive" or "temporal." You call them all dum clauses, but you have to be careful to translate them in accordance with the kind of verb you find in each.

The first distinction to observe is this: the two basic meanings of dum are (1) "while," and (2) "until."

dum = "while"

dum/"until" clauses always use the indicative mood, in either present or imperfect tenses. The difference is as follows:

dum + present indicative indicates a span of time within which the action described in the main verb falls. Consider, for instance, this sentence:

While you were sleeping, someone called.

The calling represents an isolated, specific action that occurred within a range of time characterized by another action, namely your sleeping. The nap could have been three hours long, and at some moment within those three hours a call came in. The way Latin handles such clauses seems counterintuitive: such dum clauses always contain the present indicative, regardless of when the action of the main verb occurred. Hence

dum dormis, aliquis vocavit.

Though vocavit, clearly enough, indicates that the call occurred in the past, Latin uses the present dormis to indicate the time-span within which the calling took place.

Contrast with this a sentence like:

While Rome burned, Nero fiddled.

The suggestion here is that the two actions described (Rome burning, Nero playing his fiddle) were exactly coextensive in time; the fiddling did not represent a single action that occurred within a period of time characterized by some other action. For a dum clause with this meaning, Latin uses the imperfect indicative:

dum Roma ardebat, Nero lyra cecinit.

dum = "until"

"Until" means "up to the time when." As such it can denote not just fact, but intention. In the former case, Latin uses the indicative mood (usually a past tense); in the latter, it uses the subjunctive to emphasize the intent, not the actual event--in fact, there is no certainty that the intention was ever fulfilled. Consider, therefore, these two Latin sentences:

Quintus ad fundum non rediit dum Octavianum ab Aegypto pervenientem vidit.

Quintus ad fundum non rediit dum Octavianum ab Aegypto pervenientem videret.

The only difference is in the mood & tense of the verb in the dum clause. The indicative vidit conveys to the reader the information that, as a matter of historical (and presumably verifiable) fact, Quintus did not go back to his farm until he saw Octavian. The subjunctive videret in the second sentence, however, tells us something different, namely that Quintus' intention was to stay until he might see Octavian. This Latin sentence makes no assertion as to whether his intention was fulfilled.

It is up to us, as translators, to preserve this nice distinction. We do so by observing the same distinction in mood in English, thus:

Quintus did not return to his farm until he saw Octavian arriving from Egypt.

Quintus did not return to his farm until he might see Octavian arriving from Egypt.

"Saw," an English indicative, emphasizes fact; "might see," a subjunctive, emphasizes intention.