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Grammar: Ablative Absolute

A noun in the ablative case, together with a participle, can be used to construct an ablative absolute construction. This makes it possible to incorporate a complete verbal idea into another sentence without any explicit coordination or subordination (the construction is called "absolute" because it is free or loosened from the grammatical structure of the main sentence).

» concussis columnis cecidit domus. When the columns were shaken, the house fell down.

It often helps to think of the ablative absolute as a way to combine two sentences into one:

» concussae columnae sunt. domus cecidit. The columns were shaken. The house fell down.

Because there is no coordination or subordination of the one sentence to the other, you have to explore the range of possible English translations. Many first year Latin students are taught to translate the ablative absolute with a phrase like "the blank having been blanked". This can lead to a lot of confusion later on! A phrase like "the blank having been blanked" is an absolute in English too -- the problem is that we really do not use the absolute construction very much! Instead we tend to use clauses with a real subject and a real verb in the clause.

In other words, it is really much better to translate the ablative absolute as a separate sentence or clause. You can then connect that sentence to the main clause of the sentence with "and". You can also use other words to connect the two sentences: "when...", "because..." or even "despite the fact that...". There are many different kinds of relationships that an ablative absolute can have to the rest of the sentence. If you make the ablative absolute into its own clause, that will give you a good chance to think about the relationship between this clause and the main sentence.

Sometimes you may choose to think of the absolute as a temporal clause, translated with "when":

» concussis columnis cecidit domus. When the columns were shaken, the house fell down.

Sometimes you may detect a causal clause, and translate with "because":

» concussis columnis cecidit domus. Because the columns were shaken, the house fell down.

In other cases you may detect a concessive clause, and translate with "despite the fact that":

» concussis columnis non cecidit domus. Despite the fact that the columns were shaken, the house didn't fall.


Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit http://www.ou.edu/online/ for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003.  laura-gibbs@ou.edu. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM