Latin grammar

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Ablative absolute)
Jump to: navigation, search

Latin grammar is very different from English grammar in that Latin uses inflected words (words with the same root but different suffixes) to give a phrase or sentence meaning, where English relies much more on word order. Latin grammar, like that of other ancient Indo-European languages, is highly inflected, and so allows for a large degree of flexibility in choosing word order. For example (omitting capitals and punctuation for simplicity), the sentence femina togam texuit meaning "the woman wove a toga", represents the preferred word order. However, the meaning could also, if less commonly, be expressed correctly as texuit togam femina or togam texuit femina. Each word's suffix (-a-am and -uit) indicates the word's grammatical function as a subject, object and verb, respectively; thus it provides the sentence with its particular meaning. To provide the necessary meanings, there are five regular declensions or forms, for nouns and four regular conjugations or forms, for verbs, but there are also some words that are inflected according to irregular patterns.

Priscian, or the Grammar, marble cameo panel dated 1437–1439 from the bell tower of Florence, Italy, by Luca della Robbia. The scene is an allegory of grammar and, by implication, all of education. Note the opening door in the background and the unshod feet of the first pupil.

Latin word order is generally subject–object–verb. However, variations on this are common, especially in poetry, and can also be used to express subtle nuances in prose. On the other hand, subject-verb-object word order was likely very common in ancient Latin conversation, as it is prominent in the Vulgate Bible and the Romance languages, which evolved from Latin.[1]

Latin does not have articles and so does not generally differentiate between, for example, "a girl" and "the girl": puella amat means both "a girl loves" and "the girl loves". Unlike English, Latin usually places adjectives after nouns. Latin does use prepositions. Finally, Latin omits pronouns in situations where the meaning is already obvious. Often the form of the verb alone is generally sufficient to identify the agent or subject of the sentence. Latin also exhibits verb framing, in which the path of motion is encoded into the verb rather than in a separate word or phrase. For example, the Latin verb exit (a compound of ex and it) means "he/she/it goes out".


Detailed information and conjugation tables can be found at Latin conjugation.

Latin verbs have numerous conjugated forms. Verbs have four moods (indicative, subjunctive, imperative and infinitive), two voices (active and passive), two numbers (singular and plural) and three persons (first, second and third). They are conjugated in six main tenses (present, imperfect, future, perfect, pluperfect and future perfect). They have the subjunctive mood for the present, imperfect, perfect and pluperfect. Infinitives and participles occur in the present, perfect and future tenses. As well, they have the imperative mood for present and future.

Conjugation is the process of inflecting verbs; a set of conjugated forms for a single word is called a conjugation. Latin verbs are divided into four different conjugations by their infinitives, distinguished by the endings -āre, -ēre, -ere and -īre.


There are six tenses (Latin: tempus):

  • Present (Latin: praesens): describes actions happening at the time of speaking:
    The slave carries (or is carrying) the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portat.

Building the tense: [present basis of the verb]+[personal endings] Example: the verb 'amāre' (to love), tenēre (to hold), dicere (to say), audīre (to hear)

Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amō amāmus teneō tenēmus dīcō dīcimus audiō audīmus
2nd amās amātis tenēs tenētis dīcis dīcitis audīs audītis
3rd amat amant tenet tenent dīcit dīcunt audit audiunt
  • Imperfect (Latin: imperfectum): describes actions continuing in the past:
    The slave used to carry (or was carrying) the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portabat.

Building the tense: [present basis of the verb]+[temporal modal morpheme]+[personal endings]

Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amābam amābāmus tenēbam tenēbāmus dīcēbam dīcēbāmus audiēbam audiēbāmus
2nd amābās amābātis tenēbās tenēbātis dīcēbās dīcēbātis audiēbās audiēbātis
3rd amābat amābant tenēbat tenēbant dīcēbat dīcēbant audiēbat audiēbant
  • Future (Latin: futurum (primum)): describes actions taking place in the future:
Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amābō amābimus tenēbo tenēbimus dīcam dīcēmus audiam audiēmus
2nd amābis amābitis tenēbis tenēbitis dīcēs dīcētis audiēs audiētis
3rd amābit amābunt tenēbit tenēbunt dīcet dīcent audiet audient
  • The slave will carry (or will be carrying) the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portabit.
  • Perfect (Latin: perfectum): describes actions completed by the present:
Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amāvī amāvimus tenuī tenuimus dīxī dīximus audīvī audivimus
2nd amāvistī amā(vi)stis tenuistī tenuistis dīxistī dīxistis audivistī audī(vi)stis
3rd amāvit amā(vē)runt/ amāvere tenuit tenuērunt/tenuere dīxit dīxērunt/ dīxere audīvit audī(vē)runt/ audīvere
  • The slave carried (or has carried) the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portavit.
  • Pluperfect (Latin: plusquamperfectum): describes actions occurring before another past action:
Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amāveram amaverāmus tenueram tenuerāmus dīxeram dīxerāmus audīveram audīverāmus
2nd amāverās amāverātis tenuerās tenuerātis dīxerās dīxerātis audīverās audīverātis
3rd amāverat amāverant tenuerat tenuerant dīxerat dīxerant audīverat audīverant
  • The slave had carried the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portaverat.
  • Future Perfect (Latin: futurum exactum): describes actions that will be completed some time in the future:
Person Singular Plural Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
1st amāverō amāverimus tenuerō tenuerimus dīxerō dīxerimus audīverō audīverimus
2nd amāveris amāveritis tenueris tenueritis dīxeris dīxeritis audīveris audīveritis
3rd amāverit amāverint tenuerit tenuerint dīxerit dīxerint audīverit audīverint
  • The slave will have carried the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portaverit.


There are four moods (Latin: modus):[2]

  • Indicative (Latin: [modus] indicativus), which states facts:
    The slave is carrying wine.
    servus vinum portat.
  • Subjunctive or Conjunctive (Latin: [modus] conjunctivus), which is used for possibilities, intentions, necessities, and statements contrary to fact:
    May the slave carry the wine.
    servus vinum portet.

The subjunctive is also used with the formation of subordinate clauses:

We hoped the slave would carry the wine.
sperabamus ut servus vinum portaret.
  • Imperative (Latin: [modus] imperativus): used for commands:
    "Carry the wine home, slave!"
    "porta vinum ad villam, serve!"
  • Infinitive (Latin: [modus] infinitivus): it can be translated as a 'to' form such as habēre (to have) and portāre (to carry) or as a verbal noun (gerund): having, carrying.


There are two voices:

  • Active (Latin: [genus] activum) if the verb is done by the subject:
    The slave carried the wine home.
    servus vinum ad villam portavit.
  • Passive (Latin: [genus] passivum) if the verb is done to the subject:
    The wine is carried home by the slave.
    vinum ad villam a servo portatur.
    The wine was carried home by the slave.
    vinum ad villam a servo portatum est.

Hoewever, Latin grammarians attested five voices for Latin, namely active, passive, neuter, deponent and common.[3]


Detailed information and declension tables can be found at Latin declension.

Nouns (including proper nouns and pronouns) have: six cases (casus): nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative (a few nouns have a seventh case called the locative). They have three genders (Latin: genus): masculine, feminine and neuter and serve a grammatical function, and necessarily to distinguish the sex of the object. They have two numbers (Latin: numerus): singular and plural.

Declining is the process of inflecting nouns; a set of declined forms of the same word is called a declension. Most adjectives, pronouns and participles indicate the gender of the noun to which they refer or modify.

Most nouns in the first declension are feminine, but a few are masculine; they are never neuter. Most in the second declension are masculine or neuter, but there are a few that are feminine, mainly the names of cities and some towns. Nouns in the third declension can be masculine, feminine and neuter in the consonant declension), feminine and neuter in the 3rd vocal declension) and masculine and feminine in the mixed declension). Nouns in the fourth declension are masculine except for a few that are feminine and neuter. Nouns in the fifth declension are feminine except two, diēs (day) and its compound form merīdiēs (midday), which are sometimes, but not always, masculine.

It is necessary to learn the gender of each noun because it is sometimes impossible to discern the gender from the word itself. One must also remember which declension each noun belongs to be able to decline it. Latin nouns are thus often learned with their genitive (rex, regis) as the latter gives a good indication for the declension to use and reveals the stem of the word (reg-, not rex).

  • The nominative case is used to express the subject of a statement or following a copula verb:
    servus ad villam ambulat.
    The slave walks to the house.
  • The vocative case is used to address someone or something in direct speech.
    festina, serve!
    Hurry, slave!
  • The accusative case is used to express the direct object of a verb or direction or extent of motion and may be the object of a preposition:
    dominus servos vituperabat quod non laborabant.
    The master cursed the slaves because they were not working.
  • The genitive case is used to express possession, measurement, or source. In English, the preposition of is used to denote this case, or, in the case of possession, the English possessive construction:
    servus laborat in villa domini.
    The slave works in the house of the master. or The slave works in the master's house.
  • The dative case is used to express the recipient of an action, the indirect object of a verb. It is used as well to represent agency in a construction with a passive periphrastic. The dative is never the object of a Latin preposition.

In English, the prepositions to and for most commonly translate this case:

  • servi tradiderunt pecuniam dominis.
    The slaves handed over the money to the masters.
  • The ablative case, whether or not preceded by a preposition, is used to express separation, indirection or the means by which an action is performed. In English, the prepositions by, with, and from most commonly translate this case:
    dominus in cubiculo dormiebat.
    The master was sleeping in his bedroom
  • The locative case is used to express the place in or on which or the time at which an action is performed. The locative case is very rare in Latin and applies only to the names of cities and small islands and to a few other isolated words. All other nouns use the ablative with a preposition to serve the same purpose. In form, it is identical to the genitive case in the singular of the first and second declension and the ablative case otherwise, with some exceptions: the noun domus ("home") has the locative "domi", and the noun tempus (time) has the locative tempori.
    servus Romae erat.
    The slave was in Rome.

Articles, determiners and personal pronouns[edit]

Detailed information and declension tables can be found at Latin declension.

In Latin there is no indefinite article or definite article (the, a, an). The function of articles, when really necessary, is usually expressed by the determiner quīdam, quaedam, quoddam (English a, an; but also some in the strong meaning) for the indefinite article:

Homo quidam debebat ultra fluvium transferre lupum, capram, et fasciculum cauli.
A man had to carry beyond the river a wolf, a goat and a bunch of kale.

and by the determiner is, ea, id (English the; but also such a in the strong meaning) for the definite article:

Quo ea pecunia pervenerit.
Into whose hands the money has passed. //pervenerit is in the tense that makes the correct form 'has', not 'had'.

But normally words are alone, without any determiner around them. However, as tendence, the absence of any determiner expresses the function of a definite article. Indetermination indeed, when it really exists, must be explicitly expressed in order to avoid confusion.

In Latin there are also demonstratives, such as hic, haec, hoc (masculine, feminine and neuter proximal, corresponding to English this), ille, illa, illud (distal, English that), iste, ista, istud (medial, for something not very far), and is, ea, id ("weak" demonstrative, he, she, it). As in English, these can act as pronouns as well. There are also possessive adjectives and pronouns, cardinal and ordinal numbers, quantifiers, interrogatives, etc. Iste, ista, istud also could be use to describe someone or something contemptible.

Personal pronouns also exist, for first and second person, in both singular and plural: ego, nos (I, we) in the first, tu, vos (you, you all) in the second. Ordinarily a pronoun is not used for the subject of a verb, the function being served by the inflection of the verb.


Detailed information and declension tables can be found at Latin declension.

Adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in case and number and gender. Thus, Latin adjectives must be declined as well. First- and second-declension adjectives are declined identically to nouns of the first and second declension. Unless the word in question is in poetry, adjectives are generally placed after the nouns they modify.

Degrees of comparison[edit]

Adjectives exist, like in English, with positive, comparative and superlative forms. Superlative adjectives are declined according to the first and second declension noun paradigm, but comparative adjectives are declined according to the third declension noun paradigm.

When used in sentences, there are three ways to handle the declension of the thing to which the comparison is made:

  • With quam (Latin: than) it matches the word with which it is being compared.
  • If comparing a part to the whole, the partitive genitive is used.
  • Use the ablative of degree of difference.


  • Cornelia est fortis puella: Cornelia is a strong girl.
  • Cornelia est fortior puella quam Flavia: Cornelia is a stronger girl than Flavia. (Here quam is used, Flavia is in the nominative to match Cornelia)
  • Cornelia est fortior puella Flaviā: Cornelia is a stronger girl than Flavia. (Here Flavia is in the ablative.)
  • Cornelia est fortior puellārum: Cornelia is the stronger of the girls (Comparison to the group, so the genitive.)
  • Cornelia est fortior puella: Cornelia is a rather strong girl.
  • Cornelia est fortissima puella omnium/inter omnes/ex omnibus: Cornelia is the strongest girl of all.
Regular adjectives
exterus, -a, -um exterior, -ius extrēmus, -a, -um
novus, -a, um novior, -ius novissimus, -a, -um
posterus, -a, -um posterior, -ius postrēmus, -a, -um
pulcher, -chra, -chrum pulchrior, -ius pulcherrimus, -a, -um
superus, -a, -um superior, -ius suprēmus, -a, -um
Irregular adjectives
bonus, -a, -um melior, -ius optimus, -a, -um
magnus, -a, -um māior, -ius maximus, -a, -um
malus, -a, -um pēior, -ius pessimus, -a, -um
multus, -a, -um plus; pl. plūres, plūra plūrimus, -a, -um
parvus, -a, -um minor, -us minimus, -a, -um

Detailed information and declension tables can be found at Latin declension.


Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs by indicating time–place, or manner. Latin adverbs are indeclinable. Like adjectives, adverbs have positive, comparative, and superlative forms.

The positive form of an adverb can be formed from an adjective by appending an adverbial suffix to the base, typically -e, -er, -iter, -itus, more rarely -o, or -um. The adjective clarus, -a, -um, which means bright, can be contrasted to the adverb clare, which means brightly.

The comparative form of an adverb, formed from third declension adjectives, is extremely simple. It is the same as the neuter nominative singular form of a comparative adjective and it usually ends in -ius. Instead of the adjective clarior, which mean brighter, the adverb is clarius, which means more brightly.

The superlative form is also extremely simple. It has exactly the same base as the superlative adjective and always ends in a long -e. Instead of the adjective clarissimus, which mean brightest, the adverb is clarissime, which means most brightly.


A prepositional phrase in Latin is made up of a preposition followed by (except for a few postpositives) a noun phrase in an oblique case (ablative, accusative and rarely genitive). The preposition determines the case that is used, with some prepositions allowing different cases depending on the meaning. For example, Latin in takes the accusative case when it indicates motion (English into) and the ablative case when it indicates position (English on or inside of).

Numerals and numbers[edit]

Only the first three numbers have masculine, feminine and neuter forms fully declined as if they were normal adjectives.

ūnus, ūna, ūnum  (1)
duo, duae, duo  (2)
trēs, trēs, tria  (3)

ūnus (one) has mostly first- and second-declension endings, but -īus is the normal genitive singular and the normal dative singular ending (all three genders). duo (two) has an irregular declension. On the other hand, trēs, tria (three) is a regular third-declension adjective with the stem tr-.

The numbers quattuor (four) through decem (ten) are not declined:

quattuor (4)
quīnque (5)
sex (6)
septem (7)
octō (8)
novem (9)
decem (10)

The "tens" numbers are also not declined:

vīgintī (20)
trīgintā (30)
quadrāgintā (40)
quīnquāgintā (50)
sexāgintā (60)
septuāgintā (70)
octōgintā (80)
nōnāgintā (90)

The numbers 11 to 17 are formed by affixation of the corresponding digit to the base -decim, hence ūndecim, duodecim, tredecim, quattuordecim, quīndecim, sēdecim, septendecim. The numbers 18 and 19 are formed by subtracting 2 and 1, respectively, from 20: duodēvīgintī and ūndēvīgintī. For the numbers 21 to 27, the digits either follow or are added to 20 by the conjunction et: vīgintī ūnus or ūnus et vīgintī, vīgintī duo or duo et vīgintī etc. The numbers 28 and 29 are again formed by subtraction: duodētrīgintā and ūndētrīgintā. Each group of ten numerals through 100 follows the patterns of the 20s but 99 is nōnāgintā novem rather than *ūndēcentum.

Compounds ending in 1 2 and 3 are the only ones to decline:

I saw 20 blackbirds = vīgintī merulās vīdī
I saw 22 blackbirds = vīgintī duās merulās vīdī (where duās changes to agree with merulās)

The "hundreds" numbers are the following:

centum (indeclinable)
ducentī, -ae, -a  (200)
trecentī, -ae, -a  (300)
quadringentī, -ae, -a  (400)
quīngentī, -ae, -a  (500)
sēscentī, -ae, -a  (600)
septingentī, -ae, -a  (700)
octingentī, -ae, -a  (800)
nōngentī, -ae, -a  (900)

However, 1000 is mille, an indeclinable adjective, but multiples such as duo mīlia or duo mīllia (2000) have mīlia as a neuter plural substantive followed by a partitive genitive:

 I saw a thousand lions = mīlle leōnēs vīdī
 I saw three thousand lions = tria milia leōnum vīdī

Ordinal numbers are all adjectives with regular first- and second-declension endings. Most are built off of the stems of cardinal numbers (for example, trīcēsimus, -a, -um (30th) from trīgintā (30), sēscentēsimus, -a, -um nōnus, -a, -um (609th) for sēscentī novem (609). However, "first" is prīmus, -a, -um, and "second" is secundus, -a, -um (literally "following" the first; sequi means "to follow").

Word order[edit]

Latin allows a very flexible word order because of its inflectional syntax. Ordinary prose tended to follow the pattern of subject, Indirect object, direct object, adverbial words or phrases, verb (SIDAV). Any extra though subordinate verb is placed before the main verb; for example infinitives. Adjectives and participles usually directly followed nouns unless they were adjectives of beauty, size, quantity, goodness, or truth, in which case they preceded the noun being modified.

Relative clauses were commonly placed after the antecedent that the relative pronoun describes. Since grammatical function in a sentence was not based on word order but on inflection, the usual word order in Latin was often abandoned with no detriment to understanding but with various changes in emphasis. Latin being a pro-drop language, the subject would often be omitted if obvious.

While these patterns of word order were the most frequent in Classical Latin prose, they were frequently varied. The strongest surviving evidence that suggests that the word order of colloquial Latin was mostly Subject-Object-Verb as well can be found in some very conservative Romance languages, such as Sardinian and Sicilian in which the verb is still often placed at the end of the sentence (see Vulgar Latin).

In poetry, however, word order was often changed for the sake of the meter, for which vowel quantity (short vowels vs. long vowels and diphthongs) and consonant clusters, not rhyme and word stress, governed the patterns. One must bear in mind that poets in the Roman world wrote primarily for the ear, not for the eye; many premiered their work in recitation for an audience. Hence, variations in word order served a rhetorical as well as a metrical purpose; they certainly did not prevent understanding.

In Virgil's Eclogues, for example, he writes, Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori!: Love conquers all, let us yield to love!. The words omnia (all), amor (love) and amori (to love) are thrown into relief by their unusual position in their respective phrases. The meter here is dactylic hexameter, in which Virgil composed The Aeneid, Rome's national epic.

The ending of the common Roman name Marcus is different in each of the following examples because of its grammatical usage in that sentence. The ordering in the following sentences would be perfectly correct in Latin and clearly understood despite the fact that in English they are awkward at best and senseless at worst:

  • Marcus ferit Corneliam: Marcus hits Cornelia. (subject–verb–object)
  • Marcus Corneliam ferit: Marcus Cornelia hits. (subject–object–verb)
  • Cornelia dedit Marco donum: Cornelia has given Marcus a gift. (subject–verb–indirect object–direct object)
  • Cornelia Marco donum dedit: Cornelia (to) Marcus a gift has given. (subject–indirect object–direct object–verb)

Ablative absolute[edit]

In Latin grammar, the ablative absolute (Latin: ablativus absolutus) is a noun phrase cast in the ablative case. More specifically, it consists of a noun or pronoun and either a past participle, a present participle, an adjective, or an appositive noun, all in the ablative. In the case of sum "to be", a zero morpheme often has to be used as the past and present participle do not exist, only the future participle.

The ablative absolute indicates the time, condition, or attending circumstances of an action being described in the main sentence. It takes the place of and translates many phrases that would require a subordinate clause in English. However, the noun in the ablative case cannot recur in the same sentence, hence the name absolute, derived from the Latin word absolvere meaning "to loosen from". The unfamiliarity of this construction makes it sometimes difficult for Latin students to grasp; however, mastery of this construction is needed to write Latin well, and its availability makes Latin prose quite concise. The closest English equivalent is the nominative absolute.

The closest translation to the Latin follows the paradigm with the noun participle. This construction often sounds awkward in English; however, it is often finessed into some other more English-like construction. In the following examples, the first line is the direct translation from Latin, and the second has been construed to sound more at home in English. The usage of present, passive or future participles will determine the verbal idea in the ablative absolute.

  • urbe capta Aeneas fugit:
    With the city captured, Aeneas fled.
    When the city was captured, Aeneas fled.
  • Ovidio exule, Musae planguntur.
    With Ovid exiled, the Muses weep.
    The Muses weep because Ovid has been exiled.

The ablative absolute indicates the time when things happened or the circumstances when they occurred:

  • Caesare consule...
    with Caesar as consul...
    when Caesar was consul...

It also indicates the causes of things:

  • ira calefacta, sapientia dormit.
    With anger kindled, wisdom sleeps.
    Wisdom sleeps because anger is kindled.
  • domino absente, fur fenestram penetravit.
    With the master absent, a thief entered the window.
    Since the master was absent, a thief entered the window.

It can be used to add descriptions:

  • passis palmis, pacem petiverunt.
    With hands outstretched, they sued for peace.
    Hands outstretched, they sued for peace.

Sometimes, an infinitive or clause occurs in the ablative absolute construction, especially in Titus Livius and later authors:

  • audito eum fugisse...
    with its having been heard of him to have fled...
    with its having been heard that he had fled...
    hearing that he had fled...
    having heard that he had fled...
    when they heard he had fled...

The ablative absolute construction serves similar purposes to the nominative absolute in English. An example appears in a line spoken by Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 1, Scene 1):

  • Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, The rest I'd give to be to you translated.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Devine, Andrew M.; Stephens, Laurence D. (2006). Latin word order: structured meaning and information. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3–5. Word order is what gets the reader of Latin from disjoint sentences to coherent and incrementally interpretable text. 
  2. ^ Ethan Allen Andrews; Solomon Stoddard (1837). Grammar of the Latin language... Crocker & Brewster. p. 85. Retrieved 23 April 2012. 
  3. ^ Aelius Donatus in his Ars Minor (De Verbo): "Genera verborum quot sunt? Quinque. Quae? Activa passiva neutra deponentia communia".
    Maurus Servius Honoratus in his Commentarius in Artem Donati: "Verborum genera quinque sunt, activa passiva neutra communia deponentia".


External links[edit]