The ablative case is a source of fear for many Latin students, but it doesn’t need to be. This post breaks the uses of the Latin ablative down into digestible chunks.
We will discuss what the ablative case is, where it came from, and how it is used. And, of course, I will provide lots of examples to help you out.
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Latin Ablative Case: Basic Facts
The ablative case is sometimes called the “everything case”, since it seems to do a bit of, well, everything. There is a historical reason for this. When Latin was developing, it merged three Proto-Indo-European cases into one.
Here are the three cases:
Most uses of the classical Latin ablative fall into one of these three categories (or a combination of them). So, random as the various uses of the ablative may seem, there is actually some logic involved. I promise.
The instrumental case focuses on the means or instrument with which you perform some action. The locative explains where (in what location) something occurs. And the Proto-Indo-European ablative case expresses separation or motion away from.
The Latin ablative can do all of these things. Before we move on, I want to address one more question. Why is the ablative called the ablative?
“Ablative” derives from the Latin ablātīvus, which in turn comes from the verb auferō “take away”. Literally, ablātīvus means something like “related to taking away” or “likely to have something taken away from it”.
It’s a mouthful, but the general idea is clear: the ablative case concerns removal or separation.
Tips For Approaching the Latin Ablative
It is hard to summarize the uses of the ablative case in a few words, since the ablative plays so many different roles. Often the ablative appears with a preposition, and this makes its meaning easier to determine (as we will discuss more below).
But the ablative frequently appears on its own, as well. In such cases, as a very general rule, you can translate a noun in the ablative as “by / with / from [blank].”
This doesn’t always work, but it is a good start.
I am about to introduce you to a long list of “uses of the ablative”. For beginning students, I recommend thinking of the ablative as performing two main functions:
- The ablative case is used (without a preposition) to indicate the means or instrument with which you perform an action
- The ablative case is used after many prepositions
Once you reach a more advanced level, you will encounter the ablative absolute. This is one of the most common – and potentially most confusing – uses of the ablative. Pay close attention to it, since I am not kidding when I say that it shows up everywhere.
Uses of the Ablative Case in Latin
Grammarians have divided the usage of the ablative case up into many different types. In this post, I have listed the most common uses – and the ones that are most likely to show up in beginning textbooks.
But before we dive into grammatical niceties, I want to emphasize one thing. It is most important that you understand what the Latin means, not why it means that.
Your ultimate goal, when learning Latin or Spanish or any new language, is to understand that language in the original. Only pay attention to the specific grammatical terms insofar as they help you, not hinder you.
In this post, I talk about the instrumental use of the ablative first. Then I cover the various ablatives associated with prepositions, before moving on to the ablative absolute.
Ablative of Means or Instrument
The ablative case indicates the thing by means of which you carry out some action. Let’s look at a few example sentences, and this use will become clear.
Rēgīnam litterīs monuimus. = We warned the queen with / by means of a letter.
Puer sellam saxō frangit. = The boy breaks the chair with / by means of a rock.
Cūr mē tangis ēnse? = Why are you touching me with / by means of a sword?
In all three of these sentences, someone performs an action and the object in the ablative is the instrument necessary for that action. The queen is in danger, and the letter was our means of warning her. Similarly, the boy makes use of a rock to smash the chair, and you use the sword to touch me.
Two important notes:
- The ablative of means does not require a preposition. You will never see the preposition cum (with) used to express means or instrument.
- The ablative of means is almost exclusively used for inanimate objects. This makes sense – you wouldn’t normally say that you do something by means of a person.
Ablative of Accompaniment
This ablative does exactly what you might think . . . it explains with whom you are doing something. It tells you who your companion is.
In Latin, we express accompaniment with the preposition cum + the ablative. The noun in the ablative is usually a person or animal, since you aren’t likely to do something in the company of a thing.
Cum amīcīs ambulō. = I am walking with (my) friends.
Cūr cum eā erās? = Why were you with her?
Iter cum cane fēcī. = I traveled with (my) dog.
In each of these examples, I perform an action in the company of someone else. Note that here “with” means “along with” or “in the company of”.
Ablative of Accompaniment vs. Ablative of Means
Sometimes students confuse the ablative of means and the ablative of accompaniment, since both can be translated into English with the preposition “with”.
If you are looking at a Latin phrase, it is easy to tell the difference. The ablative of means does not have a preposition, while the ablative of accompaniment always features cum.
You can also tell based on the meaning. When in doubt, replace “with” with “by means of”. If that works, then the ablative is an ablative of means.
But if it does not work, try to substitute “in the company of”. If that works, then you are dealing with an ablative of accompaniment.
Consider the following English sentences. Both sentences use “with”, but “with” has very different meanings in each context.
- I write with a friend.
- I write with a pen.
In Sentence #1, I am clearly not writing by means of a friend. That would be weird. Instead, I mean that I am writing in the company of a friend. So Sentence #1 has an ablative of accompaniment.
In Sentence #2, I probably do not mean that I am writing in the company of a pen. In this case, I am indeed writing by means of a pen, so this is an ablative of means.
Here are the Latin translations of the two sentences:
- Cum amīcō scrībō.
- Stilō scrībō.
Ablative of Place Where
This type of ablative explains where things are located. This ablative is easy to spot, since it usually follows a preposition. The two prepositions indicating place where are in “in, on” and sub “under”.
In the following examples, the ablatives are in bold.
Sēdeō in sellā. = I sit on a chair.
Sub arbōribus sunt ovēs. Under the trees are sheep.
Watch for in or sub and an ablative, and you are good to go.
Ablative of Place From Which
The ablative of “place from which” appears with prepositions indicating removal or separation.
- ab, ā = from, away from
- ex, ē = from, out of
- dē = from, down from
This use of the ablative is quite straightforward. You see the preposition, and you know that you are dealing with an ablative of place from which.
Ab Ītaliā veniō. = I am coming away from Italy.
Aqua dē montibus fluit. = Water flows down from the mountains.
Ablative of Manner
The ablative of manner explains the manner or way in which you do something. Watch for the preposition cum + an abstract noun in the ablative.
Puer litterās magnā cum cūrā scrībit. = The boy writes a letter with great care.
Semper mē monēs cum sapientiā. = You always advise me with wisdom.
Yes, I know – another use of the ablative translated by “with”. But if you focus on cum + an abstract noun, the ablative of manner should be easy to spot.
Note that the expressions cum laude, magnā cum laude, and summā cum laude are examples of the ablative of manner. This is because you graduate with honor, with high honor, or with highest honor.
Ablative of Time When / Time Within Which
We use the ablative to express various temporal relationships. When you want to say at what time or when something happens, you use the ablative.
Tertiā hōrā veniō. = I am coming at the third hour.
Proximō annō veniēmus. = We will come next year.
You also use the ablative to indicate the time within which something occurs.
(In) tribus diēbus victōria erit nostra. = Within three days victory will be ours.
A preposition is not necessary with this use of the ablative, but in can appear for clarification along with the ablative of time within which.
Ablative of Comparison
The ablative of comparison is used – you guessed it – in comparisons. Look at the following sentence.
I am taller than my sister. = Altior sum quam soror mea.
In English, we use the word “than” to express a comparison. We can do that in Latin, too: quam is the equivalent of “than.”
But in Latin, we have another method, too. Instead of quam + a noun in the nominative, we can use a simple noun in the ablative.
Altior sum quam soror mea. = Altior sum sorōre meā.
The ablative of comparison pops up all the time in Latin texts, so be on the lookout. Your clue will be the presence of a comparative adjective or adverb.
Ablative of Agent
The ablative of agent expresses the person by whom an action is performed. You can spot this ablative because it is always accompanied by the preposition ab / ā “by.”
This use of the ablative almost always appears with the passive voice. So if you haven’t learned the passive voice yet, you can skip this usage for now.
Puella ā matre laudātur. = The girl is praised by (her) mother.
Litterae ab amīcīs missae erant. = The letter had been sent by the friends.
The ablative of agent always expresses a personal agent. In other words, the ablative of agent cannot be an inanimate object. Thus the ablative of agent and the ablative of means fulfil different needs.
The ablative of agent focuses on the person by whom an action is performed, while the ablative of means focuses on the thing by means of what an action is performed.
And now, at long last, we have arrived at the infamous ablative absolute. An ablative absolute is an expression involving, at minimum, 1) a noun in the ablative and 2) a participle in the ablative.
If you haven’t learned participles yet, then you should skip this section for now. It won’t make much sense to you.
Ablative absolutes create their own mini-world within a sentence. This is why they are called “absolute” – they exist separate from the grammar of the rest of the sentence. They are floating in a void, so to speak, on their own.
As I said, an ablative absolute will (almost) always involve a noun (or pronoun) in the ablative plus a participle in the ablative. Let’s look at a few examples.
exercitū veniente = with the army coming (veniente = present participle active)
puellā laudātā = with the girl having been praised (laudātā = perfect participle passive)
rēgīnā litterās missūrā = with the queen about to send the letter (missūrā = future participle active)
Each of these phrases expresses a circumstance that is either occurring, has occurred, or will occur. The time frame of the ablative absolute depends on the tense of the participle.
When we put the ablative absolute into a sentence, it gives us background information on that sentence.
Exercitū veniente agricolae fugiunt. = With the army coming the farmers flee.
Puellā laudātā pater laetātus est. = With the girl having been praised (her) father rejoiced.
Rēgīnā litterās missūrā rēx cōnsilium cēpit. = With the queen about to send the letter the king made a plan.
So far I have translated the ablative absolutes super literally, and this is an important first step. But as a second step, you can express the ablative absolute more idiomatically in English.
Because the army is coming / when the army is coming the farmers flee.
After the girl had been praised / because the girl had been praised (her) father rejoiced.
Although the queen was about to send the letter / because the queen was about to send the letter the king made a plan.
As you can see, ablative absolutes can be translated in a variety of ways. They can be confusing at first, but they are everywhere, so if you read Latin frequently, you will soon get a lot of practice.
(Ablative absolutes deserve a lot more attention. I will hopefully have a full post on them soon!)
Latin Ablative Case: Final Thoughts
I hope that you feel more comfortable with the ablative case now. Remember: the most important thing is to understand the ablative when you see it. If you don’t remember all the fancy types of ablative, it’s no big deal.
That said, there are even more uses of the ablative out there. Ablative of specification, ablative of cause . . . the list goes on. And on.
If you want to dive deeper into the ablative and its many uses, then I recommend looking at a good grammar book. My personal favorite is Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar. Paragraphs 398 to 431 discuss the ablative at length.
Now you know more about the ablative, but how do you feel about the other Latin cases? Check out these helpful posts: