Wondering what the Latin dative case is? In this post, we will cover all the most important uses of the dative in Latin – with examples.
Grammar books will break down the dative into many different types, but this isn’t always useful for you as a Latin student. This post presents the primary uses of the dative in beginner-friendly terms.
My goal is to familiarize you with this important case so that you can start reading and enjoying Latin. And if you want to dive even more into grammatical nuances, I have linked to some resources at the end of the post.
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Latin Dative Case: Basic Facts
The word “dative” comes from the Latin adjective datīvus. This, in turn, is formed from the verb dō “give”. So the dative case is the giving case.
This name gives us a clue into the most fundamental use of the dative. The dative does, in fact, often appear in conjunction with verbs of giving.
Before I discuss the concrete types of Latin datives, I will give you an important tip. If you are reading Latin and you see a noun in the dative, you can almost always translate it as “to / for [blank].”
Sometimes this results in clunky English, but this basic translation will help you to figure out what is happening in the Latin. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.
So, remember: the dative is the “to / for” case.
Uses of the Dative in Latin
Dative as Indirect Object
The most common use of the Latin dative – or at least the use that is usually taught first in textbooks – is the dative as indirect object.
Puella sorōrī pecūniam dat.
The girl gives money to the sister.
In the sentence above, sorōrī “sister” is the indirect object of the verb dat “gives”. The sister is indirectly affected by the action of the verb; she is the beneficiary or the recipient.
This is in contrast with pecūniam “money”, which is the direct object. The money is the thing being given, while the sister is indirectly connected to the action of giving.
Indirect objects can always be translated into English as “to [blank]”. They frequently show up with verbs of giving, sending, telling, etc.
Here are some more examples of indirect objects in Latin. The indirect object is in bold.
Cui litterās scrībis? = To whom are you writing a letter?
Rēx mihi vēritātem nōn dīxit. = The king did not tell me the truth / tell the truth to me.
Equō aquam dō. = I give water to the horse.
Cūr librum agricolae mīsistī? = Why did you send the book to the farmer?
Līberī mātrī respondent sē in silvīs lūdere. = The children respond to their mother that they are playing in the woods.
Note that in English, we don’t have to use “to” to translate the dative. We can say “I give the horse water” instead of “I give water to the horse.” Horse is still the indirect object in both instances.
Dative of Reference
This dative has many different names. Sometimes it is called the dative of advantage or disadvantage. The important thing is to recognize how it works; don’t worry about the terminology.
The dative of reference indicates the person (or thing) for whose benefit or for whose advantage something is done.
Amīcō cēnam fēcimus. = We made dinner for our friend.
In this sample sentence, the dinner is made for the benefit of the friend. Thus amīcō is a dative of reference.
Fīlium tibi laudāmus. = We praise (your) son for you.
Here, the idea is that we praise your son because of our regard for you. You are an important motivating factor in this situation.
The dative of reference can also be negative. Look at the following example:
Tibi dōna abstulit. = He took the gifts away from you.
In this case, it is to your disadvantage that he takes away the gifts.
The dative of reference can also express someone’s opinion or perspective. Here are a few examples:
Puellae omnēs canēs sunt bonī. = For the girl (i.e. in the girl’s opinion) all dogs are good.
Venientibus ā Rōmā domus est laevā parte. = For those coming from Rome, the house is on the left.
The dative of reference has a broad extent and sometimes it blurs a bit with the indirect object. Don’t worry too much about nitpicky details of grammatical terminology; just focus on the meaning.
If you see a random dative floating around, try to translate it as “to [blank]” or “for [blank]” and see how things go.
Dative of Possession
This use of the dative often confuses my students, since they associate the genitive case with possession. The thing to remember is that the dative expresses possession in very specific circumstances.
Let’s look at an example.
Senātōrī est canis. = The senator has a dog.
Super literally, this sentence means “A dog is / exists for the senator.” But, since this sounds weird in English, we rearrange it and translate it as “The senator has a dog.”
The sentence emphasizes the fact of possession: the senator really has a dog. So the dative of possession stresses the existence of the thing possessed and the reality of its possession.
In this construction, the thing possessed is in the nominative case. The possessor is in the dative case. And a form of the verb sum “be” will connect the two nouns.
Here are some more examples.
Cūr tibi est rosa? = Why do you have a rose? (literally: Why is there a rose for you?)
Avunculō fuit domus in monte. = My uncle had a house on a hill. (literally: For my uncle there was a house on a mountain.)
Suntne puellae amīcī? = Does the girl have friends? (literally: Are there friends for the girl?)
The Latin dative of possession can be scary at first, but I promise that it gets easier with time. You can start with a literal translation and then reshape the sentence into more idiomatic English.
If you see a dative and then a form of the verb sum “be”, this is your cue to consider the possibility of a dative of possession.
Dative with Special Verbs
Some verbs take a dative object instead of an accusative object. Scholars debate the range of meanings of such verbs and the reasons behind this grammatical feature. But the most important thing for you, as a Latin student, is to be aware of this phenomenon.
Nōn tibi invideō. = I do not envy you.
Nautae placent animālia. = Animals are pleasing to the sailor.
Here is a list of some common Latin verbs that take a dative object. Such verbs typically have meanings like favor, please, trust, help, persuade, etc.
- fīdō, fīdere, fīsus sum – trust
- ignōscō, ignōscere, ignōvī, ignōtus – forgive, pardon
- invideō, invidēre, invīdī, invīsus – envy, look askance at
- noceō, nocēre, nocuī, nocitus – harm, be harmful to
- parcō, parcere, pepercī, parsus – spare, be lenient to
- pāreō, pārēre, pārūi, pāritus – obey, be obedient to
- persuādeō, persuādēre, persuāsī, persuāsus – persuade
- placeō, placēre, placuī, placitus – please, be pleasing to
- serviō, servīre, servīvī, servītus – serve, be a slave to
Note how many of these verbs can be translated into English with the preposition “to”. Since the dative is the “to” / “for” case, this can help remind you that these verbs take the dative.
Dative with Adjectives
Some Latin adjectives are also accompanied by the dative case. Such adjectives usually have meanings related to fitness, likeness, nearness, etc. and their opposites. In fact, you will notice that we typically follow such adjectives in English with the preposition “for” or “to”.
Since the dative is the “for” or “to” case, this makes sense! Now let’s look at a few examples.
locus idōneus castrīs – a place suitable for a camp
puella similis sorōrī – a girl similar to her sister
Canere mihi est difficile. = It is difficult for me to sing.
Here is a list of some adjectives that commonly take the dative case.
- amīcus, a, um – friendly (to)
- aptus, a, um – suitable, fit (for)
- dissimilis, e – different (from)
- idōneus, a, um – proper, suitable (for)
- pār, paris – equal (to)
- similis, e – similar (to)
- ūtilis, e – useful (for)
Dative of Agent
The dative of agent appears in very specific contexts: with the gerundive and, sometimes, with the perfect participle passive. If you have not learned either of these forms yet, then you can skip this section.
Normally, the agent of a passive verb is expressed via ab + the ablative. But when the gerundive comes into play, it is customary to use the so-called dative of agent instead.
Carmen est puellae scrībendum. = A song must be written by the girl.
In this example, the dative puellae expresses the agent by whom the action must be completed. In more idiomatic English, we would say: “The girl must write a song.”
This type of dative mostly accompanies a gerundive, but perfect passive participles can also take datives of agent. This usually occurs when the participles are used adjectivally (and not as part of the compound perfect passive system).
Here are more examples of the dative of agent in action.
Multa sunt nōbīs facienda. = Many things must be done by us. (We must do many things)
Iter in Italiam meō frātrī erat faciendum. A trip into Italy had to be made by my brother. (My brother had to make a trip into Italy)
Mihi est pugnandum. = I must fight. (literally: it must be fought by me)
The dative of agent is the main type of Latin dative where you can’t translate it as “to / for [blank]”. Instead, you translate the dative with the preposition “by”.
Final Thoughts on the Latin Dative Case
How are you feeling about the dative case? Does it make a little more sense now? I hope so. If you get stuck, remember that most of the time you can translate the dative as “to / for [blank].”
The goal of this post is to give you a good feel for the types of situations in which the Latin dative case appears. But there are other types of datives beyond these – the ethical dative, the dative of purpose, etc.
If you want to dive deeper into the dative 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 360 to 385 discuss the dative at length.
Now you know more about the dative, but what about the other Latin cases? Check out these helpful posts: