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Reviewed by:
  • The Oxford Latin Syntax by Harm Pinkster
  • Andrew R. Dyck
Harm Pinkster. The Oxford Latin Syntax. Vol. 1: The Simple Clause. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxx, 1430. $210.00. ISBN 978-0-19-928361-3.

Publishers are invited to submit new books to be reviewed to Professor Gareth Williams, Department of Classics, Columbia University, 1130 Amsterdam Ave., 617 Hamilton Hall, MC 2861, New York, NY 10027; email:

Anyone who has explored recent literature on Latin syntax has surely encountered the name of the Amsterdam Latinist Harm Pinkster, one of the pioneers of the movement treating Latin as a functional system. The book under review is the first of two volumes that will offer a systematic account of the way Classical Latin functions based upon observations Pinkster has made for more than forty years. The aim is to replace the synchronic reference grammar of R. Kühner and C. Stegmann (Ausführliche Grammatik der lateinischen Sprache, 2. Teil: Satzlehre, 2 vols., 2nd ed. [Hanover 1912–1914]). The chronological range is from 240 b.c. to a.d. 600, though some interesting observations are made about the way Romance phenomena develop out of Late Latin (for example, 1146, 1242).

Although the subject matter is the same as the first volume of Kühner–Stegmann, the approach is very different. The German authors assumed a level of competence in Latin that cannot be taken for granted today, so Pinkster offers translations (taken or modified from the Loeb editions) for his main examples. He also cites examples much more selectively than his German predecessors. Nor does he focus, as they did, primarily on Caesar and Cicero, the major “school authors” of that era. Pinkster tends to cite Cicero and, since the interactive nature of his text makes him a good candidate for functional analysis, Plautus. Since Plautus’ text is (mostly) translated from Greek, this raises the question of syntactic Grecisms, a problem that Pinkster addresses sporadically (see index under Greek influence); but it might perhaps have been explored systematically in a dedicated section of the introduction.

To use this book, classicists trained in traditional grammar will have to learn new terminology. Building on foundations laid in his Latin Syntax and Semantics (London 1990), Pinkster borrows the terminology developed by linguists to describe the functional units of clauses. Thus a clause will be analyzed into a nucleus, consisting of the verb and its argument(s) (= subject, complement) and satellite(s) (= adverb[s]). The relevant terms, which are clearly explained at the beginning, should pose no great obstacle, and the gains—in subtlety, precision, and openness to linguistic analyses based on other languages—are considerable. With a little goodwill, the reader will also tolerate a few questionable forays into jargon (for example, deagentivization).

Pinkster’s Latin is a dynamic system, with the verb at the center. This has consequences. The verb and its properties account for the lion’s share of the presentation (50–64, 72–734, and 1243–1301), and many topics treated in traditional grammars under uses of particular cases appear here as complements of particular (types of) verbs. In discussing the distribution of the moods and tenses, Pinkster points out that such statistics are usually heavily weighted toward narrative texts, a tendency he corrects by bringing in drama and dialogue (391–94, making effective use of tables). He is also good on the use of the [End Page 575] indicative as not merely a default but a conscious choice that an author makes for stylistic reasons (395). The school rule is that in Latin, unlike Greek, the subjunctive is used in indirect questions. In fact, the matter is more complex: Pinkster shows that in certain types of texts and with certain leading verbs, indicative is regular in indirect questions, and cautions against editors’ tendency to replace transmitted indicatives with subjunctives in such instances (629–31).

One is grateful that Pinkster has written in English, rather than Dutch or German. His English is, in fact, very good, and slips are few (for example, “discomforture,” 89). The book is attractively produced and carefully edited, with remarkably few typos. The one change in format I would urge for the...


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