Module 20 - Wishes and Potential

Independent Uses of the Subjunctive

Last semester, we learned that the subjunctive mood can be used either in independent clauses or dependent clauses. While the latter follows the sequence of tenses and wholly depends on a main clause for context, the former uses subjunctives in standalone sentences. The one independent use of the subjunctive that we learned about last semester was the deliberative subjunctive, which we use to indicate a deliberation about a question. For example, quid dīcam? “What should I say?”

To this, we will add two more independent uses of the subjunctive: the optative and the potential. (The remaining three independent uses of the subjunctive [jussive, hortatory, negative prohibition] are all covered in the module on orders.)


The optative subjunctive expresses a wish. This wish could express something that the speaker hopes will happen in the future or something that the speaker wishes happened in the past (but didn’t).

Optative subjunctives are often introduced by an adverb like utinam (“if only,” “would that”, “I wish that”). Optatives are negated by utinam nē or simply (“if only … not”, “would that … not”, “I wish that … not”).

Wishes for a future action are indicated with the present subjunctive and are translated with the auxiliary verb “would [verb]”:

Wishes for a present action that is not coming to fruition are indicated with the imperfect subjunctive and are translated with the auxiliary verb: “were [verb]ing”:

Wishes for a past action that did not come to fruition are indicated with the pluperfect subjunctive and are translated with the auxiliary verb “had [verb]ed”!


The potential subjunctive indicates something that may, might, could, or would happen, either in the future or the past, but it’s uncertain whether it will or did happen. If it were certain, then we could use the indicative mood. The subjunctive in this case adds that note of possibility.

To indicate a potential action in the future, Latin uses the present subjunctive or, rarely, the perfect subjunctive:

To indicate a potential action in the past, Latin uses the imperfect subjunctive. Note that although the translation sounds like a perfect tense, the Latin uses the imperfect:

Potential subjunctives are negated with nōn:

Sometimes, there will be signal words like forsitan (“perhaps”) or fortasse (“perhaps”, usually with indicative but sometimes with subjunctive) to indicate the presence of a potential subjunctive:

Often, the potential is used with verbs like volō*, nōlō, mālō, and possum:

Practice Opportunity

Determine whether the following sentences contain a deliberative, optative, or potential subjunctive, and then translate.

  1. utinam nē vincantur!

  2. quid facerem?

  3. mīles domum nōn eat.

  4. agricolae omnēs discēdere forsitan incipiant.

  5. utinam is monstrum interfēcisset!

  6. quid putem?

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