Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.13

Susan C. Shelmerdine, Introduction to Latin. Second edition.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 376.  ISBN 9781585103904.  $34.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Maxwell Teitel Paule, Earlham College (

For those unfamiliar with the previous editions of Introduction to Latin – a revised first edition was published in 2007 – Shelmerdine’s basic approach is a fairly traditional pairing of grammar and translation exercises, but she supplements those exercises with regular inclusions of extended passages of Latin. This puts the text well in line with works like Wheelock’s Latin, but by providing so many additional reading exercises Introduction to Latin overcomes many of the weaknesses of Wheelock (which have been partially mitigated by Thirty- Eight Latin Stories), meaning that Shelmerdine may be considered a preferable alternative.

The book is divided into thirty-two instructional chapters with four additional “Reading Chapters” scattered throughout. The instructional chapters present few surprises in terms of structure or content; grammatical explanations (often described in terms of gapping, chunking and the identification of sentence patterns – terms with which AP Latin students may already be familiar) are interspersed with brief exercises, and each chapter concludes with a combination of sentences and brief passages to translate, as well as a vocabulary list. The reading chapters feature an extended prose passage (usually an adaptation of Livy) followed by several pages of questions about the text and assorted conceptual exercises that will provide instructors with the opportunity to review earlier material and cement students’ comprehension of new grammatical concepts. Moreover, the exercises that accompany these chapters are designed to appeal to students with different learning styles and provide welcome variety to the course. Visual learners, for example, are encouraged to diagram sentences and physically divide the words into separate grammatical branches to create a clear pictorial display of the sentence.

Far from merely rehashing earlier versions, Shelmerdine has significantly altered the text of Introduction to Latin and in doing so has created a superior volume. For those already acquainted with the revised first edition, this volume constitutes a major revision. The organization of all but the first five chapters has been drastically changed. There are multiple new exercises, extended grammatical explanations, and a largely revised selection of reading passages, including ten additional passages, many of which feature authors less frequently read in introductory courses, e.g. Florus, Eutropius, Hyginus.

The benefits of this text are numerous and many would seem to derive directly from the author’s experiences of the modern classroom. Shelmerdine recognizes that many students are unclear about certain aspects of English grammar (participles, verb moods) and so provides clear, easily comprehensible explanations thereof before delving into their Latin counterparts. The importance of paying attention to case endings is reinforced immediately by sentences that do not adhere to expected English word order, preventing students from developing the bad habit of reading the first noun as the subject. Likewise, as soon as adjectives are introduced (in the fifth chapter) students are exposed to unmatched noun/adjective pairs (malus vir, pulcher amicus) in an effort to discourage simply recognizing matched endings. There are explicit instructions and exercises for learning to predict unknown vocabulary, the adapted reading passages – and most sentences – are given useful contextual introductions, and the final three chapters (in addition to introducing a few new concepts) provide time for a review of the broader grammatical themes of the Latin language. It was also my pleasure to note several moments of (unforced!) humor throughout the text.

The greatest strength of Introduction to Latin is the speed with which it introduces students to “real” Latin. Starting in chapter four, adapted excerpts of classical texts appear with regularity. While these passages are at times heavily altered to fit the students’ comprehension level – especially early on – they are never wholly rewritten. Shelmerdine has taken great pains to preserve as much of the original text as possible without requiring an overwhelming amount of grammatical or lexical glosses. In places where the Latin is too difficult to accomplish this, Shelmerdine prefers to omit text rather than introduce an overly synthetic substitution. By the latter half of the book, passages are only slightly adapted, often by simply shifting the mood of a verb or by smoothing out an awkward idiom. By acquainting students with the compositional styles of classical Latin writers quite early on, Introduction to Latin may very well ease the shock and discouragement that so often follows a student’s transition from beginning to intermediate Latin. All that being said, Introduction to Latin is not without its problems. In the first place, this volume will not function well for individual study. That is not surprising, as one of Shelmerdine’s explicit goals is “to get out of the way of the instructor,” offering “concise explanations” while allowing “the instructor to expand… as he or she wishes” (xiii). Shelmerdine adheres to this goal well, but the result is a book that I cannot recommend for students wishing to learn Latin without the aid of an instructor.

Another problem is the amount of material presented in certain chapters. The book as a whole is designed to be completed over the course of a year, assuming a class meets at least three times per week (xv). This means that each of the thirty-two chapters (thirty-six including reading chapters) should be covered in no more than a week. In most instances this will not prove problematic. There are, however, a handful of chapters that contain so much material that instruction will be rushed, or time for other chapters will need to be condensed. Chapter seven, for example, introduces the third declension (masculine, feminine, and neuter forms); the full declensions of the first and second person pronouns; the present, future and imperfect of possum; and special verbs that take the dative or ablative. Likewise, when the subjunctive is first introduced, it is presented alongside the irregular present subjunctive forms of sum, possum and volo, and accompanied by four independent usages (hortatory, jussive, optative, prohibition).

The most significant issue facing Introduction to Latin goes hand-in-hand with its greatest strength: the predominance of largely unadulterated Latin in the latter half of the text. Shelmerdine’s goal of presenting these passages with few grammatical glosses is admirable; but without considerable intervention on the part of the instructor, this practice may render large portions of text quite difficult for all but the most dedicated of students. Having not taught from this book myself, it is of course impossible to state this with certainty, but it is my sense that the difficulty gradient of these readings will create a sharp divide among students of varying abilities in the classroom.

Purists will occasionally be displeased at inaccuracies in the word order or idiomatic expressions of Shelmerdine’s Latin, but these will present no problems for students. Indeed, Shelmerdine remarks in her preface that she has “put the needs of a beginning learner ahead of elegantly written Latin and strict adherence to all rules of usage” (xv). This does at times result in oversimplification; for example, in summarizing the uses of the Latin participle, the use of deponent verbs to form functionally perfect active participles is wholly overlooked. Nevertheless, this is utterly in keeping with the author’s desire to focus on the “need to know” material as opposed to the “nice to know” (xiii).

Other problems with the text are comparatively minor. Visually, it is not an appealing volume; there are eleven images in total, three of which are maps, the other eight of which are pictures of Ostia and Pompeii that bear no apparent relation to the text by which they appear. The excellent diversity in exercises found in the first five chapters is not so abundant later on and there are, as in any work of sufficient length, a smattering of typographical errors. None of these elements detract unduly from the overall quality of the work.

In sum, the second edition of Introduction to Latin, while not wholly unproblematic, looks to be a promising alternative for those aiming to steer a course between the grammar-heavy approach of Wheelock’s Latin and the reading method of texts like Cambridge’s Reading Latin. This is a volume that will provide students with a solid foundation of Latin grammar while simultaneously exposing them to substantially more authentic Latin literature than is found in comparable grammar-translation textbooks. Ultimately, the issues I have outlined in this review do not, I think, outweigh its benefits and I would encourage those searching for a new Latin textbook to consider Introduction to Latin.

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