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Learn the Five Basic Cases of Latin Declensions

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

As an inflected language, Latin words change to reflect their use. The five basic cases found in Latin declensions have subtle but important differences for students of the language. Learn about the five basic cases in all of Latin's Declensions.

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    Just as a Latin verb changes to reflect the role it plays in a sentence, so do Latin nouns change for the same purpose. However, whereas verbs are conjugated, nouns are declined. The inflected forms of nouns, known as cases, indicate whether a noun functions as a subject, an object, an indirect object, and others. Since declensions form part of the foundation of Latin translation, it is necessary to memorize the uses of the cases early in Latin study.

    Nominative Case – The nominative case is used to indicate the subject of a finite verb. When looking up a noun in a Latin dictionary, the nominative case is often given, followed by the genitive to indicate to which declension the noun belongs. Example:

    Nauta in scapha est

    The sailor is on the boat

    Genitive Case – The genitive case is used when one noun modifies another and is often used to show possession or ownership. There are other uses of the genitive but the meaning of this case can usually be understood by using the preposition of. A noun in the genitive case usually follows a noun in the nominative. Example:

    Filia viri pulchra est

    The daughter of the man is beautiful

    Dative Case – The dative case is used to indicate a noun which is indirectly affected by the verb. Hence, nouns in the dative case function primarily as indirect objects. Translation of indirect objects into English usually require the use of to or for with the noun. Example:

    Puer puellae rosam dat

    The boy is giving a rose to the girl

    Accusative Case – Just as the dative case indicates an indirect object, so does the accusative case indicate a direct object or the noun directly affected by the verb. The accusative case can also be used for the object of a preposition. Examples:

    Puer puellae rosam dat

    The boy is giving a rose to the girl

    Nauta in scapham salit

    The sailor is jumping into the boat

    Ablative Case – The ablative case is commonly referred to as the adverbial case because it is used to modify a verb by accompaniment, place, time, and so on. Sometimes the ablative is used with a preposition and sometimes not. There are so many uses for the ablative that there is no one way to easily translate it using a standard preposition. Often, the ablative can be translated using from, by, or with, but only context gives clues as to its use in a Latin sentence. Example:

    Caesar urbem gladio vicit

    Caesar conquered the city with a sword

    Determining the function of a noun in early Latin study is a two-fold process. First, the case must be identified. Second, the use of the noun in relation to the verb and other nouns must be determined so that correct translation is possible. It is worth memorizing concurrently the forms of the declensions and their functions so that they can be recognized automatically and used without hesitation.