A participle is so called because it partakes (partem capere) of the nature of both a verb and an adjective, that is to say that participles are formed from verbs and can take on the function of adjectives. Compare, for example, Vergil, Aeneid 12.36 campi ... ossibus albent “The plains are white with bones” (of the devastation caused by the war between Aeneas and Turnus) with Tacitus’ imitation at Annals 1.61 medio campi albentia ossa “Bleaching bones in the middle of the plain” (of the site of the Teutoburg massacre).

In English, the present participle has the same form as the gerund, which is a verbal noun; e.g. “Seeing is believing”. For the gerund, and also the gerundive, which is sometimes considered as a future participle passive, see Chapter 20.

“Being about to -” is somewhat clumsy, and English rarely uses such a form. The future participle active is fairly common in Latin, not only because Latin tends to make rather more extensive use of its participles in general than does English (see below), but also because the future participle active is a component in the future infinitive active (see Chapter 21).

The Romans felt the absence of a present participle of esse to be a deficiency in their language. As the educated classes and the substantial Greek-speaking sector of the rest of the population were well aware, it exists in Greek. Whereas Latin has three participles, the present and future active and the perfect passive, Greek has twelve, a present, future, aorist and perfect participle for each of its three voices, active, passive and middle. Even in Greek, however, the verb “to be” has no past participles (and is in fact much less well provided with past tenses than Latin is).

As present participle of esse, Julius Caesar proposed ens, entis, on the analogy of potens, potentis (which is strictly the present participle of posse, but is used only as an adjective, in the sense “powerful”). He might have added that abesse and praeesse, which are also compounds of esse, have the present participles absens, -entis “being absent” and praesens, -entis “being present”. Caesar’s proposal had the approval of the influential teacher Quintilian and later of the grammarian Priscian, but it never took hold in the classical period. ens and the rather wonderful ens entium “the being of beings” were once used in philosophical writing; note esp. the principle of Occam’s razor, entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” (i.e. the least complex theory to fit the facts has most chance of being the correct one). (Unlike other philosophical maxims such as post hoc, ergo propter hoc “after this, therefore on account of this” and Pascal’s cogito, ergo sum “I think, therefore I exist”, this phrase, which is not actually to be found in Occam’s extant writings, was not pithy enough to be retained in its original language in modern vernaculars.)

Modern Arabic and Hebrew even manage without the finite forms of the present tense of the verb “to be”. It is, of course, usually wrong to describe the absence of a particular term or expression in a language as a deficiency. Neither Latin nor Italian nor Spanish have a specific word for “toe”, but manage perfectly well with “finger of the foot” (digitus pedis, dito del piede, dedo del pie), while French uses doigt de pied as well as orteil (from the less specific Latin term articulus, -i masc. 2 “little joint”). Conversely, English has no specific word for the “big toe”, whereas Italian has adapted the Latin (h)allus, -i masc. 2 as alluce.

Caesar might more properly have proposed that sons, sontis should be used as the present participle of esse, for that form seems actually to be found, hidden under the specialized sense “guilty” [= “being (sc. the person who committed the crime)”], the only sense which the participle still bore by the classical period.

Since Latin lacks both the definite article and a present participle of esse, τ ν (to on, literally “the being thing”), Plato’s important term for reality, is usually translated as quod est (“[the thing] which exists”).

At Metamorphoses 1.18-20, in describing the world’s primeval chaos, Ovid wittily challenges his audience to decipher the playful way in which he flaunts Latin’s linguistic deficiencies:

corpore in uno

frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,

mollia cum duris, sine pondere habentia pondus

In one body

the cold fought with the hot, the wet with the dry,

the soft with the hard, the weighty with the weightless

pondus is the direct object of habentia, which means literally “things which have”; the Greek equivalent would be much clearer, since it would define the phrase with an article τ βάρος χοντα (ta baros echonta, literally “the having weight things”).

sine pondere means simply “without weight”, and is a syntactically unmarked abbrevation for “the things which are without weight”. There is no indication that it is doing duty for an ablative, equivalent to calidis, siccis and duris.

Ovid’s bilingual audience would recognize that sine pondere is a hopelessly inadequate equivalent to the dative (Greek has no ablative) adjective τος βαρέσι (tois abaresi), meaning literally “the not weighty things”.

iens is the nominative (and vocative) masculine and feminine singular and the nominative, (vocative) and accusative neuter singular of the present participle active of ire, but the stem is eunt-; hence euntis, eunti, euntem, eunti etc.

“Jumping off the bridge, he drowned in the river” is illogical, since the drowning happened after the jump was completed, but the present participle is perhaps as common in such sentences as the past participle (“Having jumped ...”). Latin also uses this idiom not infrequently, even when, as is the case with deponent verbs, a perfect participle with an active sense is conveniently available.

prope flumen ambulans ...

Note the brevity attainable in Latin by the use of participles: the Latin version has only 41 words, whereas the longer, and more natural, of the two English versions has 92 words. In practice, however, a Latin author would not permit such a high density of participles, preferring to vary his style with finite clauses; for relative clauses, see Chapter 18, for clauses introduced by “if”, see Chapter 26, by “when”, “since”, “although”, see Chapter 27.

Ovid, however, makes splendid use of participles at Fasti 3.21, to convey the speed with which Mars abducts Rhea Silvia: Mars videt hanc, visamque cupit, potiturque cupita “Mars sees this woman, and desires her when he has seen her, and possesses her when he has desired her”.

His description of Dis’ abduction of Proserpina at Met. 5.395 uses finite verbs to much the same effect: paene simul visa est dilectaque raptaque Diti “Almost all at once she was seen and loved and abducted by Dis”.

amans, sapiens, advocatus and factum are, respectively, the present participles active of amo 1 “love” and sapio, sapere, sapii 3 “have taste” (and hence “be wise”), and the perfect participles passive of advoco 1 “summon (to help in a lawsuit)” and facio, facere, feci, factum 3 i-stem “do”. Whereas “fact” is derived directly from the Latin participle factum, “feat” comes via the Norman French fait (as in the nice phrase fait accompli, literally “done thing accomplished”).

The ablative absolute

absolutum is the perfect participle passive of absolvo, absolvere, absolvi, absolutum 3 “to release”. (The construction is called the ablative absolute, rather than, as would be more natural, the absolute ablative, under the influence of the Latin term ablativus absolutus. In his Latin Grammar of 1669, John Milton called it the “Ablative put Absolute” [though he entitled his great poems, rather more poetically, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained].) The use of the ablative in this construction would seem to be a specialized form of the ablative of manner (for which, see Chapter 16). English makes some limited use of absolute clauses; for example, “God willing”, “Present company excepted”, “All being well”.

The ablative absolute may initially seem to be a rather clumsy construction, but it would be wrong to suppose that it arose simply because of the small range of participles: classical Greek not only has a plethora of participles but also makes free use of a genitive absolute and, very occasionally, an accusative absolute (the ablative case is not found).

Ovidium carmina amatoria scribentem ...

As in the paragraph prope flumen ambulans ..., the concentration of participles is rather unnaturally dense, to illustrate the various ways in which they may be used.

coepi is also found in the perfect system passive, usually in conjunction with a passive infinitive, but often such forms are most naturally translated in the active voice (e.g. urbs deleri coepta erat “The city had begun to be destroyed”).

memini has the singular and plural imperative forms memento and mementote.