The Genitive Case

Types of Genitive: Possession| |Description| |Material| |Characteristic| |Subjective-Objective| |Partitive| |Indefinite Value| |Crime & Punishment| |Remembering and Forgetting| |w/ Impersonals

The genitive case is most familiar to English speakers as the case that expresses possession: "my hat" or "Harry's house." In Latin it is used to indicate any number of relationships that are most frequently and easily translated into English by the preposition "of": "love of god", "the driver of the bus," the "state of the union," "the son of god." In all these instances, the prepositional phrase modifies a noun; that is, the prepositional phrase acts like an adjective: "love of god" = "god's love" = "divine love". The last example shows the "genetic" relationship that gives the genitive case its name. Linguists who have studied this case have concluded that it is a convenient way of indicating relationships between nouns, or, put in more grammatical terms, the genitive case turns any noun into an adjective. How do we do that in English? Consider: there are big houses, red houses, houses in the country, and a house that belongs to Harry. In these four examples "big" and "red" are familiar adjectives; but, if you think about it, "in the country" and "that belongs to Harry" are also expressions that "modify" or "define" the nouns they are attached to. In Latin, you would use the genitive case for "Harry" and for "country" if you wanted to define the houses in this way. Some other examples include: "the road to Rome" = via Romae, "rivers of milk" = flumina lactis, and "part of the men" = pars virorum.

The Genitive With Verbs

The genitive case in Latin is also used adverbially with certain verbs. The most common are verbs of convicting, accusing and punishing. The construction is parallel to the English "I accuse you of treason." accuso te maiestatis. See how the possessive case and the preposition "of" work in English.

The Genitive Case: Categories and Name [On Latin Cases]

I have not listed all the kinds of genitive identified by grammarians. There comes a point when such exercises in categorization become self-serving and even an obstacle to understanding. In what follows I have tried not to leave out any important parts of the whole picture, while selecting especially those genitives whose classification helps in translation or understanding of a foreign idiom.

Genitive of Possession: self-explanatory. The genitive case indicates who possesses an object. There are, however, many relationships that are merely analogous to possession that can be loosely fit under this category: "my child", "my god", perhaps even "my man."

Genitive of Description: essentially all genitives used with nouns describe, but the grammarians like to use this term for the more qualitative descriptions. For example, vir magnae sapientiae = a man of great wisdom = a very wise man. When used precisely as a technical term of standard grammar, the Genitive of Description has the further rule that it must be composed of a noun + adjective. In other words, you would NOT say vir sapientiae; that would be sapiens.

Genitive of Material: this term identifies the use of the genitive to specify the material out of which something is made: a statue of marble, rivers of milk and honey, books of examples, and so on. You can see that it is just a specific use of the genitive to create an adjectival modification.

Genitive of Characteristic: this name sounds almost redundant with the category "genitive of description," but grammar is a technical study and this is a technical term with a very precise meaning. When the genitive case is found with the verb "to be" (or equivalent expresssion), apparently NOT modifying a noun but followed by an infinitive, we have a genitive of characteristic. The name is handy because it reminds you that an easy formulaic translation will supply the English word "characteristic" as the noun that goes with the genitive. Thus boni oratoris est bene dicere. = "it is characteristic of a good orator to speak well." This kind of genitive is also called the Predicate Genitive because it is the predicate, the modification that describes the subject, which is the infinitive.

Subjective and Objective Genitive. Nouns that express verbal notions, often nouns made from verbs and verbals, may indicate who the subject or the object, or both, of the verbal notion is by placing them in the genitive. Sometimes the verbal relationship is not immediately apparent. Consider: severitatis invidiae = "hatred that arises from your severeness" or, more obviously an objective genitive: "hatred of your severeness." There is no difference in form between the subjective and the objective genitive. Only context can make a final determination. However, there are norms. First, word order: the objective genitive usually comes first. This is only a guide, however, since word order may always be changed for emphasis. Second, adjectival forms are preferred for the subjective genitive, presumably because the subject of an action modifies the action more directly than the object. Consider even the English: "my love for you." Here the possessive pronoun, "my," indicates who is the subject of the (hidden) verb "love": "I love you." Similarly, "divine love" specifies the God or gods as the one(s) who love.

Partitive Genitive. This category specifies that the genitive is used for the larger whole of which something is a part. The simplest example is pars civitatis = "part of the state." Here, of course, the state (civitas) is the whole, and this "party" is the part (pars). This categorymay serve as a useful reminder that the English expression "all of the state" is not partitive, since "all" is not a "part"; consequently, you cannot use the genitive in Latin; you just use an adjective: omnis civitas.

Genitive of Indefinite Value. A not-surprising extension of the adjectival function of the genitive case is its use after verbs of evaluation and estimation (aestimo, duco, habeo, facio) with certain idioms that designate either non-specific worth or worthlessness. suos parvi fecit = "he considered his [own men] to be of little [value]."

Genitive Case With Verbs [Return to Case Definitions]

The genitive case is used with three classes of verbs in Latin that have analogies in English with the use of the preposition "of."

Genitive of Crime and Punishment. accuso te maiestatis = "I accuse you of treason." Examples like this are easy. It gets tricky when the English idiom does not use "of"; for example: capitis te damno = "I condemn you to death" or literally "I condemn you "of your life (head)."

Genitive with Verbs of Remembering and Forgetting. Here the analogy with English is in the idioms "forgetful of" and "mindful of". In Latin, apparently transitive verbs take the genitive: tui memini = "I remember you" or "I am mindful of you." nostri oblivisceris? = "Do you forget us?" or "Are you forgetful of us?"

Genitive with Certain Impersonals. Certain impersonal verbs of emotion (shame pudet, regret paenitet, disgust piget, pity miseret, boredom taedet) take a direct object where English uses a subject, and a genitive where English uses a direct object. It is probably best just to memorize the form as an idiom and to memorize the five verbs that act this way. piget me tui = (literally) "It disgusts me of you" = (idiomatically) "I am disgusted with you."

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