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Mastering Latin Ablatives

Ablatives are to Latin grammar what black holes are to space: They suck in all matter and energy. Well, sort of. Actually, the ablative case is the case for all sorts of time and space-related uses. In other words, this case shows the following:

  • The time when something happens or the time frame within which it happens.
  • The place where or place from which an action takes place.
  • How something was done, called the Ablative of Means.
  • The way in which something was done, called the Ablative of Manner.
  • Ablative Absolute, which is a basic adverbial clause that can show the time, circumstance, or cause of an event.

To see what ablatives are all about, check out the following sections.

If you're pretty comfortable with English grammar, thinking of ablatives as Latin's version of English adverbial clauses and phrases may help you. They perform practically the same function.

What time is it?

The ablative case shows the point of time when something happens or the time frame within which it happens. Although several ablative uses require a preposition, these time expressions don't. Consider these sentences:

  • Illo die ad urbem advenimus.
    ihl-lo dih-ay uhd ur-behm uhd-way-nih-mus.
    On that day we arrived at the city.
  • Hostes vincemus diebus tribus.
    hoh-stays win-kay-mus dih-ay-bus trih-bus.
    We shall conquer the enemy within three days.

Another space-time expression involves the accusative case and shows the extent of time or space in which something occurs. For example:

Menses duos et milia passuum innumerabilia altum navigaverunt.
mayn-says du-os eht mee-lih-uh pahs-su-um ihn-nu-meh-rah-bih-lih-uh uhl-tum nah-wih-gah-weh-runt.
For two months and countless miles they sailed the deep.

Quo Vadis? (Where are you going?)

You also use the ablative case to show the place where or place from which an action takes place. Unlike the time ablatives, these ablatives do require prepositions. The basic prepositions that you use for these ablatives are

  • in (ihn; in, on)
  • sub (sub; under)
  • a, ab (ah, uhb; from, away from)
    Note: Use a before consonants and ab before vowels.
  • e, ex (ay, ehks; from, out of)
    Note: Use e before consonants and ex before vowels.
  • de (day; down from)

The following sentence covers just about everything:

Sciurus in ramo sub umbra ab ave cucurrit et e fronde de arbore cecidit.
skih-oo-rus ihn rah-mo sub um-brah uhb uh-weh ku-kur-riht eht ay frohn-deh day-uhr-boh-reh keh-kih-diht.
The squirrel on the branch under the shade ran away from the bird and fell out of the foliage down from the tree.

The adverb quo (kwo) is an interrogative word that asks "where?" in the sense of "to what place?" In general, however, when you want to show the place to which something is going, use the accusative case and a preposition such as in (ihn) meaning "into," or ad (uhd) meaning "to, toward":

Avis ad nidum volabat.
uh-wihs uhd nee-dum woh-lah-buht.
A bird was flying toward the nest.

Everything but the kitchen sink

After you understand the primary functions of the ablative case, you can sail through a vast array of classic Latin literature.

Ablative of means

The ablative of means doesn't require a preposition. It simply involves a word in the ablative case that shows how something was done. For example:

Deos deasque et carminibus et ludis honorabamus.
deh-os deh-ahs-kweh eht kuhr-mih-nih-bus eht loo-dees hoh-no-rah-bah-mus.
We were honoring the gods and goddesses with both songs and games.

The Romans had many ways of worshiping their gods, including games that involved athletics and dancing. The Ludi Megalenses (loo-dee meh-guh-layn-says) — Great Games — for example, were held in April to honor the fertility goddess Cybele, also known as Magna Mater (muhng-nuh mah-tehr), the Great Mother.

Ablative of manner

Similar to the ablative of means, the ablative of manner shows the way in which something was done. It always involves abstract nouns, such as virtue, love, anger, and so on. If no adjective is used, you must use the preposition cum (koom), which means "with:"

Templum cum reverentia intravi.
tehm-plum koom reh-weh-rehn-tih-ah ihn-trah-wee.
I entered the temple with reverence.

When adjectives are part of the phrase, then cum is optional:

Pontifex magna cum cura victimam obtulit.
pohn-tih-fehks muhng-nah koom koo-rah wihk-tih-muhm ohb-tu-liht.
The priest offered the sacrifice with great care.

Latin usually pulls one word of a prepositional phrase out in front of the preposition itself. For example, if you graduate from college the highest in your class, you're honored summa cum laude (sum-mah koom low-deh). Even though the preposition is in the middle, this phrase still means "with highest praise."

Ablative absolute

English teachers always say not to use dangling participial phrases. If you never understood what that meant, don't worry. Latin uses them all the time with this construction. Basically, you take a couple of words in the ablative case with no preposition and stick them somewhere in a sentence. This clause is grammatically freed from (ab (uhb) from + solutus (soh-loo-tus) freed) the rest of the sentence, so they just sort of dangle there. Take a look:

Caesare pontifice maximo, Romani fastos novos obtinuerunt.
kigh-suh-reh pohn-tih-fih-keh muhks-ih-mo, ro-mah-nee fahs-tos noh-wos ohp-tih-noo-ay-runt.
With Caesar as chief priest, the Romans obtained a new calendar.

You can usually get a rough idea of what an ablative absolute means when you translate using the word with. To smooth things out, however, try something like when or because. Of course, the clause "because Caesar was chief priest" is different from the clause "when Caesar was chief priest," but that just shows how every translation is in some ways an interpretation.

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