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Showing Possession with Latin's Genitive Case

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

As an inflected language, Latin uses the genitive case to denote possession. But unlike English, a noun and its possessor need not reside next to each other in a sentence. Learn how to use the genitive case to show ownership and possession in Latin.

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    Latin is an inflected language, which means words change to reflect their purpose in a sentence. The nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, vocative, and locative cases all combine to allow for the construction of complex sentences with little to no ambiguity as to the sentence’s interpretation and translation. However, native English speakers are not used to looking for inflection and tend to mix up the uses of the seven cases. This is made more difficult by the fact that Latin has five declensions, each with its own forms and quirks for inflection.

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    English Possession

    Possession means ownership. When someone possesses something they are said to own it. In English, ownership is expressed in one of two ways. The first method adds an apostrophe “s” to the end of the possessor followed by the object possessed. For example:

    John’s book is on the table

    Betty’s car is in the driveway

    Mark’s grade in Latin was an A+

    Notice that is each case, the thing possessed or owned follows the owner to which the apostrophe “s” has been added. However, there is another method to indicate ownership or possession. Using the word “of” can also denote possession as in:

    The book of John is on the table

    The car of Betty is in the driveway

    The grade of Mark in Latin was an A+

    This construction is a bit more cumbersome and is rarely used in everyday speech or writing. The simpler apostrophe “s” method is much more common.

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    Latin Possession

    As an inflected language, word order in Latin is far less important than in English. This fact gives many Latin students trouble because they assume words next to one another must be somehow related. Their rules for proper English get in the way of learning the new system.

    Possession in Latin is constructed with the genitive case of the five declensions. There is no word for “of” in Latin; the student must decide when and where adding the extra word is appropriate when translating from Latin to English. For example:

    Liber pueri in mensa est. (The boy’s book is on the table) or (The book of the boy is on the table)

    Pater puellarum in agro est. (The father of the girls is in the field) or (The girls’ father is in the field)

    Unlike English, it is easier for the beginning Latin student to use the “of” method of translation since the genitive case is most often associated with the word “of” in most Latin language programs. Later, after the translation is complete, the student can change the English to use the apostrophe “s” method of possession to make the sentence easier and more familiar.

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    Conclusion

    Latin can be more easily translated into English if the less-common method of English’s possessive form is initially used. Latin’s inflections eliminate the need for the word “of”; and it must be supplied by the English-speaking student where appropriate. In fact, sometimes for emphasis, a Latin author will separate the noun from its possessor by several words or even clauses. Since Latin word order is far less important than in English, Latin students often find this construction unfamiliar and struggle assuming words next to each other must be related.