I see many dictionaries use the 1st person singular present active indicative form as the "canonical" or dictionary entry for verbs in Latin. For example, a typical dictionary would show this description for the word sumus:

first-person plural present active indicative of sum

However, an English dictionary would most certainly describe are as first-person plural form of be (instead of am). The Latin entry, however, doesn't use the infinitive esse as the "entrypoint".

This applies to all Latin verbs but most common modern languages aren't laid out like this (there might be but not that I know of). Can anyone explain to me?

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    1P or 1S? Most Latin dictionaries use 1S.
    – Draconis
    Jun 4, 2021 at 18:53
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    Also, I disagree on "no modern language". Languages vary a lot in what they use as their citation form, and while my specialty is ancient languages, I doubt all modern languages use the infinitive (or even have an infinitive).
    – Draconis
    Jun 4, 2021 at 18:55
  • @Draconis The P in 1P stands for "person" but I missed the possible ambiguity with "plural". I'll correct that.
    – iBug
    Jun 4, 2021 at 19:07
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    Why does English use the infinitive as the ‘representative’ form in dictionaries instead of using the 1s form like Latin or Greek? Because convention. That’s just how it is. Sanskrit uses the base root (which doesn’t even exist as a word in the language); Irish mostly uses the 2s imperative nowadays, though formerly 1s present was common too; Semitic languages in general normally use 3s perfect; Greenlandic generally uses 3s imperfective. It’s a convention within each language. (Indeed, how do you know English uses the infinitive and not 1s subjunctive? They’re identical.) Jun 4, 2021 at 19:32

1 Answer 1


Historical accident.

Roman (and Ancient Greek) grammarians seem to have thought of verb paradigms somewhat like noun paradigms: the forms of puella "girl" are puella, puellae, etc, and the forms of amō "love" are amō, amās, etc. Rather than listing out all the forms, you can refer to the whole paradigm by its first element: the nominative singular for nouns, the first person singular for verbs. This convention is used by Varro, among others. There's not anything special about the first singular as opposed to other persons and numbers; it just happens to be the first on the list. (And the choice to put "first person" first and "second person" second and so on seems to go back to Dionysius Thrax.)

English, and most other Indo-European languages, tend to use the infinitive as the citation form ("citation form" being the technical term for the way you list it in the dictionary). But this isn't universal. For a couple examples of modern languages, Bulgarian uses the first singular present; Arabic uses the third singular past. From personal experience, I can tell you that Hittite uses either the first singular present (ḫarkmi) or third singular present (ḫarkzi), depending on the source; Akkadian uses either the infinitive (parāsum) or the third singular masculine past (iprus); Egyptian uses the "root" rather than any specific form (sḏm).

In the end, it comes down to what a particular lexicographer thinks will be most useful. For Latin, this is almost always the first singular present, because of the weight of tradition; that's the form Latinists expect to see. For something like Hittite, where there aren't hundreds of years of tradition for how to organize dictionaries, an individual lexicographer has some freedom to make their own choices.

  • Hungarian uses the 3rd person singular as the citation form. (In regular verbs, this is simply the stem.)
    – TonyK
    Jun 10, 2021 at 11:42

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