(old misleading title: The difference between ablative absolute and present participle)

On participles A&G notes:

  1. The present and perfect participles are often used as a predicate, where in English a phrase or a subordinate clause would be more natural. In this use the participles express time, cause, occasion, condition, concession, characteristic (or description), manner, means, attendant circumstances.

,which sounds quite close to ablative absolute (AA). If we take the first example of AA in A&G:

Caesar, acceptīs litterīs, nūntium mittit. (B. G. 5.46)

and change it to use present participle:

accipiens litteras, Caesar nuntium mittit.

What's the difference? It seems indeed that AA might occur just before the action, and not simultaneously, but I'm unsure how consistent is that. The first example of the participle:

Volventēs hostīlia cadāvera amīcum reperiēbant.

Is switching to AA (not sure how to technically do this in this case) would change something in the tone/stress?

A&G also says "A substantive in the Ablative Absolute very seldom denotes a person or thing elsewhere mentioned in the same clause." (hence it named absolute as being somewhat independent), but judging from the examples, there are not so few (even in the first, as Caesar is implied to accept the letters), where this is not exactly the case or I misread things.

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    The current/second title is still misleading: note that the participle in an AA is precisely a predicative one. The participle in ablative case is the predicate of the AA. – Mitomino Dec 3 '20 at 15:43
  • What is the problem with using the traditional taxonomic labels here? Cf. AA (acceptis litteris, Caesar...) and "participle coniunctum" (accipiens litteras, Caesar...). Cf. also latin.stackexchange.com/questions/14297/… – Mitomino Dec 3 '20 at 17:32
  • @Mitomino, yes, I changed the title again. – d_e Dec 3 '20 at 18:44

The question in the title is a bit strange, because present participles often occur in ablative absolutes. In your example, you seem to be aiming for the difference between perfect and present participles, for example when you switch between accipiens and acceptis, but at the same time you switch between an ablative absolute and a predicative use of the participle.

The difference between the present and the passive participle is that:

  • the present participle is active and stands for contemporaneity with the tense of the sentence
  • the perfect participle is passive and stands for anteriority with respect to the tense of the sentence

An ablative absolute can use either. Perfect:

Cibo apparato epulati sumus.
With the food prepared we dined.


Multitudine spectante ad supplicium ducti sunt.
With the crowd onlooking they were led to the gallows.

(Note I used a “with the” phrase in English, which is a good first stepping stone for the translation of an ablative absolute in my opinion; of course in reality you might phrase the English differently, e.g. “now that the food had been prepared” or whatever.)

Now to get to your example:

Volventes hostilia cadavera amicum reperiebant.

You want to “switch to AA,” and that is an impossible request. You cannot simply switch back and forth between totally different constructs. That is not to say you could not express the idea and use an ablative absolute in the process; you sure could. For example you could say:

Militibus hostilia cadavera volventibus amicus repertus est.

Although that sounds like a really cumbersome way to put it. I would not say it would be a stylistic improvement. Of course you could also say:

Hostilibus cadaveribus volutis amicum reperiebant.

But that would not be the same. Now they find the friend not while turning over the corpses, but rather after the corpses have been turned over. Okay, it is not much of a difference in practice, I suppose, but it is different nonetheless.

  • Thank you, it makes more sense now, I've edit the title a bit. my switch between passive and active, was due to another mistake, thinking its better to use the passive participle in AA. – d_e Dec 3 '20 at 7:43
  • By the way, the perfect participle is of course active in meaning when you have a deponent verb. But deponents also have a present participle, which is also active in meaning. My pocket grammar has this cute example: Sole oriente/orto profecti sumus = We departed at/after sunrise. – Sebastian Koppehel Dec 3 '20 at 13:20
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    Yes, given the parallelism between Cicerone mortuo and Cicerone occiso (in both cases Cicerone is patient!), why should one claim that the perfect participle of deponent verbs like mori is "active in meaning" (see your statement above)? It is not. Rather it is passive in meaning. Hence the syntactic & semantic parallelism between unaccusative verbs (Cicero mortuus est) and passive constructions (Cicero occisus est). Note also that unaccusative verbs select sein in German. No surprise that the passive construction has also been claimed to be an unaccusative construction. – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 1:01
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    One more argument from the well-known bipartite class of intransitive verbs (unergatives vs. unaccusatives): only agentive/unergative verbs form impersonal passives (e.g.. Germ. Es wurde getanzt) but patient/unaccusative verbs do not form passives. Unaccusative verbs (e.g. mori, nasci) are passive in meaning: their subject is a patient, like the subject of a passive construction! To say that deponent verbs like mori are "active in meaning" neglects (i) the important division above among intransitive verbs and (ii) the parallelism between passive constructions and unaccusative verbs. – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 3:14
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    Probably, our disagreement comes from the fact we're talking at cross-purposes. I understand why the traditional informal proposal ("passive form, active meaning") is said to hold for all deponent verbs. What I'm just trying to show is why this old formula falls short for unaccusatives like mori or nasci (it goes well for hortor, which is not unaccusative. See my link above). Unaccusativity provides a formal parallelism between unaccusative dying and passive being killed: i.e. their derived subjects come from an object position, where they are interpreted as patients. – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 19:26

Diagramming the sentences will make clear the difference between an ablative absolute and a participle.

Accipiens litteras, Caesar nuntium mittit.

Sentence diagram of "Accipiens litteras, Caesar nuntium mittit."

Here is how the notation works. When A and B are connected directly by a line, and B is higher than A, then A modifies or supplies a parameter for B. For example, accipiens is an adjective modifying Caesar; nuntium is the direct object of mittit. An arrow connecting two words A⟶B means that A's grammatical form agrees with B. For example, mittit agrees in number with Caesar; accipiens agrees in number, case, and gender with Caesar.

So, accipiens is a present participle—that is, a verbal adjective—modifying Caesar. That is why accipiens agrees grammatically with Caesar. The word litteras is the direct object of accipiens (in its role as a verb).

Now let's diagram the contrasting sentence:

Caesar, acceptis litteris, nuntium mittit.

Sentence diagram of "Caesar, acceptis litteris, nuntium mittit."

There's a very big difference here: acceptis litteris does not connect grammatically with the rest of the sentence! This is the meaning of "absolute construction". The word acceptis is a past participle modifying litteris. But the noun litteris is not governed at all by mittit. Who received the letter? The sentence does not say. Without additional context, we should infer Caesar; additional context might indicate someone else.

In English, we would say for the first sentence, "Caesar, receiving the letter, sent a messenger." For the second sentence we would say, "The letter having been received, Caesar sent a messenger."

In Latin, the custom is to put the principal noun of an absolute construction into the ablative case—hence "ablative absolute". English, of course, lacks an ablative case to show this. The ablative absolute is very common in Latin and rare in English. In fact, it only came into English as a learnéd borrowing from Latin.

  • Just a minor qualification on your claim: "acceptis litteris does not connect grammatically with the rest of the sentence! This is the meaning of "absolute construction"". I agree with you. However, on the basis of attested examples like obsidibus imperatis centum hos Haeduis custodiendos tradit in "very classical" texts (Caes. BG, VI, 4, 3) we should rather say "this is the prototypical meaning of AA". – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 1:53
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    I agree with you: given the nature of the question above, you should not complicate your very clear explanation, which holds for many cases. However, there are exceptions to the rule. As for your questions/doubts regarding my example above, (i) yes, hos does connect grammatically with obsidibus & (ii) no, hos does not seem to modify custodiendos. If any, it's the other way around. Yes, the issue (i.e. exceptions to the rule of AA formation) is worth of a separate question. Please feel free to do it. – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 2:42
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    @Mitomino Proposita quaestione, responsum tuum opperior. :) Above, yes, I got that wrong: custodiendos modifies hos. That's corrected in the question. – Ben Kovitz Dec 4 '20 at 4:33
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    @Mitomino: In the example from Caeser, the hostages appear in the AA; and, then they are the accusative direct-object in the main clause (hos custodiendos) with the accusative of the gerundive. This violates the rule that a noun cannot be put into an AA if it goes on to be the subject or object of the main clause. Is this what you mean by "prototypical"? Why is this violation allowed? – tony Dec 4 '20 at 10:23
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    @tony Please take a look at my answer to Ben's interesting question. As for your questions, let me tell you that what some prescriptive/scholar grammars can say about AA does not necessarily coincide with what one can find in real texts (even in "very classical" ones like Caesar's works). By the informal term of "prototypicality" I mean what one typically finds. Examples like the one in Ben's question are not typical/frequent but this does not mean that they violate a grammatical rule (I'm using "rule" here not in the prescriptive sense). – Mitomino Dec 4 '20 at 21:43

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