Understanding Participles in Latin

(cf. Wheelock 23)

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In order to understand participles, remember the following:


Participles are verbal adjectives.

They have some features of verbs and some of adjectives. But they are most basically a type of adjective.

As adjectives, participles can modify nouns or pronouns.

As adjectives, participles can sometimes stand alone (as "substantives"), with the modified noun or pronoun implied.

As verbals, participles can take objects.

As verbals, participles can have tense (i.e., refer to past, present, or future) and voice (i.e., indicate that an agent is "actively" doing something or "passively" receiving some action).




1. Participles are verbal adjectives. Here are some participles with the nouns and pronouns that they modify:

The shining sun.

The waning moon.

The crying child.

The running water.

Those qualifying for a rebate.

The book loved by millions.

Notice that a verb stands behind each participle: to shine, to wane, to cry, to run, to qualify, to love. Regular adjectives (for example: large, many, upper, red, crusty, these) do not relate as directly to verbs as participles do.

So Latin can build on the verb prôspiciô to say:

oculus â longê prôspiciêns  = the eye looking out from afar




2. Ordinary adjectives can be used alone as "things" or "substantives":

The poor need help.

The rich have an opportunity.

How can we achieve the greater good?

Attending to what these phrases really mean shows their adjectival nature: the poor [people], the rich [people], the good [reality]. A noun (people or reality) is implied but not stated.

Participles can be used the same way. The following participles are used substantivally; that is to say that they stand for persons, places, or things just as nouns do:

See the following.

Find the dispossessed.

Care for the dying and the wounded.

Join the blessed.

What the participles really mean is something like

the following [items]

the dispossessed [people]

the dying [persons] and the wounded[persons]

the blessed [ones].

The bracketed words are the implied nouns that the participles, being adjectives, are modifying.  A Latin proverb exemplifies this kind of substantival use of participles:

Sêrô venientibus ossa. = To the [ones] coming late, bones.





3. As verbals, participles can do something that ordinary adjectives cannot do. Participles can have objects:

Catching the ball, the receiver fell to his knees.

Reading the Latin poem, the lady swooned.

Studying participles, the students sat in silent amazement.

To find the object of a participle, ask Who? or What? after it:

Catching what? The ball.

Reading what? The poem.

Studying what? Participles.


Here is a famous Latin example of a participle taking an object:

Timeô Danaôs et dona ferentês.    = I fear the Greeks even [when they are] bearing gifts.




4. Notice that the participial phrases, which happen to be marked off here by a comma from the rest of the sentence, modify some substantive:

Which receiver?   The catching receiver, the receiver catching the ball.

Which lady?    The reading lady, the lady reading the poem.

What students?    The studying students, the students studying participles.

Participial phrases do not include the words that they modify (e.g., receiver, lady, students), only the words that closely depend upon the participle itself.


For more examples of such constructions in Latin, see the syntactical compendia at this site, which have items like:

ipse equo circumiens unum quemque nominans appellat, hortatur...

   = He himself circling on his horse, naming each one, calls them, encourages them...




5. Participles can have tense and voice.

TENSE indicates a reference to past, present, or future.

VOICE indicates an agency's direct action (active voice) or an agency's receiving of an action ("suffering", passive voice).

N.B.: Not all languages use all the possible combinations of tenses and voices.


Latin uses these forms:


Present Active Participle:

amâns - loving; the loving one (= lover)
sequêns - following
sapiêns - wisely knowing, the knowing one, the sage
oriêns - rising

[No Present Passive Participle]

["being loved"]

Past Passive Participle:

amâta - loved; having been loved, the beloved
parâtus - prepared
captî - [those] having been captured; taken
armâtî - armed

Past Active Participle (only for deponent verbs):

secûtus - having followed
locûta - having spoken

Future Active Participle:

moritûrî - about to die, going to die
futûra - about to be

Future Passive Participle (= the "Gerundive"):

dêlenda - about to be destroyed, to be destroyed
agenda - [things] to be done
corrigenda - [things] to be corrected
memoranda - [things] to be remembered


To learn why and how the endings of participles change, even for the same tense and voice, click on the link below:

Master the participial forms.






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