Adjectives and participles can be used dominantly:

  • aethere summo - (not: the highest heaven, but:) the highest point of heaven

  • mediis ... Achivis: the middle of the Greeks

  • virgine caesa: the murder of a girl

(The examples are from Aeneis.)

How does one know when adjectives and participles are used dominantly? I find it hard to identify it, other than that the literal translation is often awkward.

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    e.g. Pinkster 2015, 11.77 The so-called partitive use of adjectives indicating relative positions, pp. 1048-1051 or Vaughan 1942 Latin Adjectives with Partitive Meaning in Republican Literature jstor.org/stable/i222643
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 23, 2020 at 15:14
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    Is "dominant adjective" a standard term for the type of construction in the first two examples? Those feel like a different phenomenon from the "dominant participle" construction of the third.
    – TKR
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 19:55
  • @TKR I think that "dominant adjective" is not a standard term for the first two examples. However, it is true that some linguists like the French structuralist linguist Lucien Tèsniere provided a uniform analysis for both types. I'd like to know if such a parallelism is older (I guess so) or was firstly (?) pointed out by Tèsniere, L. (1959). Éléments de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 23:16
  • @Mitomino Could you tell us where exactly Tesniere provided such an analysis? An English translation of his 1959 monograph is open-access jbe-platform.com/content/books/9789027269997#chapters
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 14:54
  • @AlexB. In your English transl. the syntactic and semantic parallelism is pointed out on page 302 (cf. sect. 7 & 8). Some years ago I remember a Latinist scholar telling me that this parallelism is known but I must say I've never seen it in Latin grammars, only in Tèsniere. That's why I said above that I'd like to know when this parallelism was put forward for the first time (probably before Tèsniere 1959). Furthermore, I remember I saw more specific structuralist analyses of this parallelism but I can't find them now, perhaps I saw them in a different work.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 18:06

2 Answers 2


I'm afraid I don't have good news for you. In Latin one can only use meaning & context to know if the adjective/participle is used "dominantly" (NB: for a relevant terminological remark, please see TKR's comment above). Note that your first example is ambiguous between a predicative/"dominant" reading ('the highest point of heaven') and an attributive reading ('the highest heaven'). In contrast, your second example (mediis elapsus Achiviis (Virg. Aen. I, 242)) is not ambiguous for the same reason a dominant participle construction like ante Christum natum is not ambiguous either: i.e., proper names and personal pronouns (e.g., ante te cognitum (Sall. Bell. Iug. 110)) cannot be modified by attributive adjectives/participles, whereby only the dominant predicative reading is possible here.

Your third example (indeed, a very famous one!) is also very interesting: sanguine placastis ventos et virgine caesa (Virg. Aen. II, 216). Putting the relevant rethorical figure (hendiadys) aside (cf. lit. 'with blood and with a slaughetered virgin' and 'with a slaughtered virgin's blood'), I'd say that the syntactic coordination with a concrete nominal phrase like sanguine makes the attributive reading more natural (i.e., grammatically speaking). In contrast, the dominant reading is clearly preferrable in an ablative absolute context like virgine caesa, Danai ad Iliacas oras venerunt.

As far as I know, word order in Latin does not typically help to decide betweeen the two readings (althought perhaps a frequency study could give interesting hints/results, especially when dealing with lexicalized phrases). In contrast, as pointed out by Haspelmath (1987: page 31), i.a., word order is relevant in Ancient Greek: cf. his examples he hidrumene polis (attributive use: 'the city which has been founded') and he polis hidrumene (dominant use). SOURCE: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/14524242.pdf

NB: for further discussion on so-called "dominant participle constructions" (also/typically known as ab urbe condita constructions), take a look at the following posts: here, here, here, here, and here.

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    Do you think it's really a meaningful question in a Latin-internal sense whether the participle in virgine caesa is "dominant" or "attributive"? Arguably we only see two readings here because modern European idiom prefers You placated the winds with the slaughter of a virgin to ...with a slaughtered virgin, but is there a real semantic (or other) difference?
    – TKR
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 20:03
  • @TKR Putting translation to modern languages aside, there is an important difference between "dominant" and "attributive" participles: the former are predicative, whereas the latter are not. That's why only the former are compatible with proper nouns. Note that Iphigenia caesa, unlike virgine caesa, is not ambiguous: i.e., in Iphigenia caesa (or for the same matter in ante Christum natum), the participle caesa (or natum) cannot be interpreted attributively but only predicatively. For more arguments, see onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1467-968X.12061
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 21:14
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    Thanks -- some interesting examples in that paper!
    – TKR
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 21:23
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    I'm not sure I understand your comment, though -- are you saying that proper names in general can't be modified by an attributive participle?
    – TKR
    Commented May 24, 2020 at 23:35
  • @TKR The point is that there is a such a restriction when dealing with the alleged modification of proper names in dominant participle constructions (ablative absolutes included: e.g., in Cicerone mortuo the participle cannot be attributive). Another clear context where the attributive reading is excluded is the one involving a pronoun: ante te cognitum (Sall. Bell. Iug. 110). Again in this example the participle cannot be interpreted as attributive but only as dominant/predicative. For more discussion, please see the text just above the examples in (6) on page 30 of the work/link above.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 25, 2020 at 0:12

In addition to Mitomino's excellent answer, I would just like to note that partitive use of adjectives exists in English too and is no less ambiguous than in Latin.

OK, we do not say “the top mountain” in English. But we do say:

  • the southern United States (really: the southern part)
  • the late twentieth century (really: the late part)
  • the lowest ebb (really: the time when the tide is lowest)
  • central London (really: the centre)
  • the outer Solar System (really: the outer region)

So when Cicero says: “Caedebatur virgis in medio foro Messanae civis Romanus,” then “in medio foro” is probably no more ambiguous to him than “central London” is to us.

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