In Ancient Greek grammar, the genitive absolute (Latin: genitivus absolutus) is a grammatical construction consisting of a participle and often a noun which are both in the genitive case, very similar to the ablative absolute in Latin. A genitive absolute construction serves as a dependent clause, usually at the beginning of a sentence, in which the genitive noun is subject of the dependent clause and the participle takes on the role of predicate.
The term absolute comes from the Latin absolutus, literally meaning made loose. This comes from the general truth that the genitive absolute does not refer to anything in the independent clause; although this is often true, there are many exceptions, notably in the New Testament and in Koine.
Conjunctions in different tenses
All three participle tenses are used in forming a genitive absolute. This results in different meanings of text and different translations, because of different relations in time between the independent and the dependent clause. Present participles are used when the information in the dependent clause happens "during" the independent clause, and are therefore translated as such. Either such a translated genitive absolute begins with, for example, while or as, or a present participle is used.
Aorist participles are used when the dependent clause takes place before the independent clause. This means that instead of while and as, after and when are the conjunctions in translations, or a perfect participle is applied and not a present one. Future participles, which are less common than their present and aorist counterparts, give information about what will or might be.
Apart from translations with these conjunctions, others are also frequently used while translating a genitive absolute, such as because, however, or although.
Absolute constructions occur with other grammatical cases in Indo-European languages, such as accusative absolute, ablative absolute in Latin, dative absolute in Gothic and Old Church Slavonic, and locative absolute in Vedic Sanskrit. Compare also nominative absolute in English.
Below are two examples of the genitive absolute, in different tenses.
- τῶν ἀνδρῶν πολεμούντων, αἱ γυναῖκες μόναι οἴκοι εἰσίν [tōn andrōn polemoúntōn, hai gunaīkes mónai oíkoi eisín]
- While the men are waging war, the women are at home by themselves.
This first example shows how a genitive absolute with a present participle is used with simultaneous actions. The independent clause is "αἱ γυναῖκες μόναι οίκοι εἰσίν " ("...the women are at home by themselves"). The dependent clause and genitive absolute in this example is "τῶν ἀνδρῶν πολεμούντων " ("While the men are waging war"). It explains to the reader why the women are home alone, and yet is additional and not required information. Note the usage of the conjunction while, indicating the two facts occurring at the same time.
When translating into English, failure to render the Greek participle into a finite clause often yields a stilted or even ungrammatical result: "The men waging war, the women are at home..." is hardly acceptable.
- τοῦ δεσπότου κελεύσαντος, οἱ δοῦλοι ἢργαζον [toū despótou keleúsantos, hoi doūloi ērgazon]
- After their master has ordered it, the slaves begin to work.
This example shows a genitive absolute with an aorist participle. The independent clause in this sentence, "οἱ δοῦλοι ἢργαζον ", explains what happens ("...the slaves begin to work."). The genitive absolute, being "τοῦ δεσπότου κελεύσαντος ", provides the reader with additional information ("After the/their master has ordered (it)..."). Here, note the conjunction after, which indicates the two facts do not happen simultaneously, as they do with the present genitive absolute.
In this case, a more direct rendition, with 'having' as an overt indicator of temporal sequence, is possible if somewhat stilted: "The master having ordered it, the slaves began to work."
- Katanik, blog entry explaining the genitive absolute in Ancient Greek in few easy terms.