Learn how to form and use the ablative absolute in Latin. Includes a review of how to form ablative case.
Formation of the Ablative Case
Like the name "ablative absolute" implies, this form in Latin uses the ablative case, the fifth out of six different cases that nouns can be declined in. In English, we refer to the ablative case as the objective form that includes “from," “with," “by," “in," “on" or “at." Before we start forming the ablative absolute, let's review the ending of the ablative in each declension (the first through fifth):
Formation of the Ablative Absolute
When we form the ablative absolute, we have two words that are put in the ablative case. Next, we finish the sentence by connecting the two ablative case words, though the connection is grammatically loose.
The ablative absolute can have three different sentence formations, where the ablative case words are either:
1) a substantive and a participle,
2) two substantives
3) a substantive and an adjective.
The first sentence construction, a substantive and a participle, is the most commonly used one; the participle must match the gender, number and case of the substantive. The same principle applies to the third sentence formation, the adjective must match the gender, number and the case of the substantive. Let's look at examples of each of the sentences (examples are from "Smith's First Year Latin"):
Signō datō, oppidum oppugnāvērunt. (sentence type one)
(The signal having been given) When the signal had been given, they attacked the town.
Caesare imperātōre, ad victōriam exercitus dūcētur. (sentence type two)
If Caesar is general, the army will be led to victory.
Perīculō magnō, Caesar signum dedit. (sentence type three)
Since the danger was great, Caesar gave the signal.
When we translate a sentence in the ablative absolute, it usually refers to time, cause, condition or concession; it is also translated as a clause. Another translation note is that “the substantive in the ablative absolute never denotes the same person or thing as the subject or object of the main verb," according to Smith and Thompson.
In the first sentence, notice that datō matches signō in the ablative; this makes it as close to “having given" in Latin as possible. This is because there is no perfect active participle in Latin, making a literal translation of “having given" impossible. Let's look at another example that uses signō datō (also from "Smith's First Year Latin"):
Signō datō, dux fortiter pugnāvit
(The signal having been given) When the signal had been given, the leader fought bravely.
The above sentence can also be translated as: the leader gave the signal and fought bravely.