A Basic Lesson in Latin Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

A Praxis On the Latin Prepositions. Key Paperback – April 5, 2010 by Samuel Butler


In his 19th century book on prepositions in Latin, Samuel Butler writes:

Prepositions are particles or fragments of words prefixed to nouns or pronouns, and denoting their relations to other objects in point of locality, cause or effect. They are found in combination with all the parts of speech except interjections...."
A Praxis on the Latin Prepositions, by Samuel Butler (1823).

In Latin, prepositions appear attached to other parts of speech (something Butler mentions, but is not of concern here) and separately, in phrases with nouns or pronouns -- prepositional phrases. While they can be longer, many common Latin prepositions are from one to six letters long. The two vowels that serve as single letter prepositions are a and e.

Where Butler says the prepositions help denote "relations with other object in point of locality, cause or effect," you might want to think of prepositional phrases as having the force of adverbs. Gildersleeve calls them "local adverbs."

Position of the Preposition

Some languages have postpositions, which means they come after, but prepositions come before the noun, with or without its modifier.

Ad beate vivendum
For living happily

has a preposition before an adverb before a gerund (noun). Latin prepositions sometimes separate the adjective from the noun, as in the graduation honor summa cum laude, where summa 'highest' is an adjective modifying the noun laude 'praise', and separated from it by the preposition cum 'with'.

Since Latin is a language with flexible word order, you may occasionally see a Latin preposition following its noun.

Cum follows a personal pronoun and may follow a relative pronoun.

Cum quo or quo cum
With whom

De may follow some pronouns, as well.

Gildersleeve says that instead of using two prepositions with one noun, as we do when we say "it's over and above our duty" the noun will be repeated with each of the two prepositions ("it's over our duty and beyond our duty") or one of the prepositions be turned into an adverb.

Sometimes prepositions, reminding us of their close relationship with adverbs, appear alone -- without a noun, as adverbs.

The Case of Nouns in Prepositional Phrases

In Latin, if you have a noun, you also have a number and case. In a Latin prepositional phrase, the number of the noun can be either singular or plural. Prepositions almost always take nouns in either the accusative or ablative case. A few prepositions can take either case, although the meaning should be at least subtly different depending on the case of the noun.

Gildersleeve summarizes the significance of the case by saying the accusative is used for whither? while the ablative is used for whence? and where?

Here are a few of the common Latin prepositions divided into two columns depending on whether they take the accusative or ablative case.

Accusative Ablative

Trans (across, over) Ab/A (off, of from) Ad (to, at) De (from, of=about) Ante (before) Ex/E (out of, from) Per (through) Cum (with) Post (after) Sine (without)

Those single vowel prepositions can not appear before a word starting with a vowel. The usual form is the one that ends in a consonant. Ab can have other forms, like abs.

There are subtle distinctions between several of these prepositions. If you are interested, please read Butler's work.

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Gill, N.S. "A Basic Lesson in Latin Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/latin-prepositions-and-prepositional-phrases-120425. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). A Basic Lesson in Latin Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-prepositions-and-prepositional-phrases-120425 Gill, N.S. "A Basic Lesson in Latin Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-prepositions-and-prepositional-phrases-120425 (accessed June 9, 2023).