Working With Latin Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions are found throughout both English and Latin and are used to link together nouns with other words. Typically, prepositions

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are short words such as “in,” “with,” “by,” and “to” so they are relatively easy to recognize. Whenever one of these words is encountered, look for their use in a prepositional phrase. This practice makes their identification and translation easier from one language to the other.

English Prepositions

Prepositions are words that link a noun (or pronoun) with another word. They are used to indicate several grammatical constructions such as location, direction, and manner. Paired with an object of the preposition, they make up what is known as a prepositional phrase. For example:

Location: Caesar was defeated in the city.

Direction: The soldier walked toward (or to) Caesar.

Manner: The man defeated the city with courage.

Notice that the prepositional phrase in each sentence refers to an object of the preposition. In the first sentence, the prepositional phrase “in the city” indicates where (location) Caesar was defeated. In the second sentence, “to Caesar” indicates to whom the soldier walked. Finally, “with courage” indicates in what manner the man defeated the city. Notice, also, that the preposition is found at the beginning of the prepositional phrase. This fact becomes important when identifying and properly translating prepositional phrases from Latin to English.

Latin Prepositions

Latin Prepositional Phrases

Prepositions in Latin function similarly to the way they do in English; they link a noun (or pronoun) with another word. The problem with Latin prepositions for English speakers is that Latin prepositions are paired with either the accusative or the ablative case. Knowing which to use when translating English to Latin is a matter of memorization. Translating from Latin to English is a much simpler situation. Consider the following examples:

Location: Caesar in urbe superatus est.

Caesar was defeated in the city.

Direction: Miles ad Caesarem Ambulavit.

The soldier walked toward (or to) Caesar.

Notice that, like English, the preposition precedes the remainder of the prepositional phrase. This makes them easy to recognize; whenever a preposition is encountered in Latin, look for a subsequent noun in either the accusative or ablative case and see if a prepositional phrase is employed.

One important note worth mentioning is with the use of the preposition “to.” Recall that words functioning as indirect objects in a sentence are often identified in English with the words “to” or “for” preceding them. Latin uses the dative case to identify an indirect object and translating them to English requires the addition of the telltale words “to” or “for.” Consider the following Latin sentences:

Puer puellae rosam dat.

The boy is giving a rose to the girl.

Puer ad puellam ambulat.

The boy is walking toward (or to) the girl.

Notice that the phrase “to the girl” appears in both sentences. However, in the first sentence, “puellae” is an indirect object in the dative case. This phrase answers to whom the rose (the direct object) is given.

In the second sentence, “ad puellam” is a prepositional phrase indicating to whom (or toward whom) the boy is walking. It is important to distinguish these two very different constructions. Latin prepositional phrases using a preposition and a noun in either the accusative or the ablative case do not replace use of the dative to indicate indirect objects. This is an important lesson that must be memorized for translation from English to Latin.

Similar Function

There are many prepositional phrase constructions in both English and Latin. Some indicate location, direction, and time, and still others indicate manner, means, and agency. Luckily, for the Latin student, prepositions and prepositional phrases function similarly in both languages. Whenever a preposition is encountered in Latin, immediately look for a subsequent noun (or pronoun) in either the accusative or the ablative case. Chances are that a prepositional phrase is at play, making its translation quite simple. When translating from English to Latin, only memorization of the correct case to use with the preposition will ensure proper formation of prepositional phrases.

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