In Latin grammar, the ablative absolute (Latin: ablativus absolutus) is a noun phrase cast in the ablative case. More specifically, it consists of a noun or pronoun and either a past participle, a present participle, an adjective, or an appositive noun, all in the ablative. In the case of sum "to be", a zero morpheme often has to be used as the past and present participle do not exist, only the future participle.
The ablative absolute indicates the time, condition, or attending circumstances of an action being described in the main sentence. It takes the place of, and translates, many phrases that would require a subordinate clause in English. However, the noun in the ablative case cannot recur in the same sentence, hence the name absolute, derived from the Latin word absolvere, meaning to loosen from. The unfamiliarity of this construction makes it sometimes difficult for Latin students to grasp; however, mastery of this construction is needed to write Latin well, and its availability makes Latin prose quite concise. The closest English equivalent is the nominative absolute.
The closest translation to the Latin follows the paradigm, with the Noun Participle. This construction often sounds awkward in English, however, it is often finessed into some other, more English-like, construction. In the following examples, the first line is the direct translation from Latin, while the second has been construed to sound more at home in English. The usage of present, passive or future participles will determine the verbal idea in the ablative absolute.
- urbe capta Aeneas fugit:
- With the city captured, Aeneas fled.
- When the city was captured, Aeneas fled.
- Ovidio exule, Musae planguntur.
- With Ovid exiled, the Muses weep.
- The Muses weep because Ovid has been exiled.
The ablative absolute indicates the time when things happened or the circumstances when they occurred:
- Caesare consule...
- with Caesar as consul...
- when Caesar was consul...
It also indicates the causes of things, as in:
- ira calefacta, sapientia dormit.
- With anger kindled, wisdom sleeps.
- Wisdom sleeps because anger is kindled.
- domino absente, fur fenestram penetravit.
- With the master absent, a thief entered the window.
- Since the master was absent, a thief entered the window.
It can be used to add descriptions:
- passis palmis, pacem petiverunt.
- With hands outstretched, they sued for peace.
- Hands outstretched, they sued for peace.
- audito eum fugisse...
- with it having been heard of him to have fled...
- with it having been heard that he had fled...
- hearing that he had fled...
- having heard that he had fled...
- when they heard he had fled...
An English example appears in a line spoken by Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 1, Scene 1):
- Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated, The rest I'd give to be to you translated.
The ablative absolute construction is sometimes imitated in English in a construction called the nominative absolute: "The Americans, (with) their independence secured, formed a government." Nevertheless, the construction is rarer and less natural in English than it is in Latin. It was introduced by early modern authors heavily influenced by Latin, for example, John Milton, whose Paradise Lost makes frequent use of the construction.