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Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin
Discovering Ancient Greek and Latin

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3.2 ‘To’, ‘for’ and the dative case

When Pliny wants to say ‘to you’, he takes the word ‘you’ (tu) and uses the form tibi. To say ‘for future generations’ he changes the ending of the word posterī (literally ‘those who come afterwards’) and writes posterīs. These endings are examples of the dative case, which in English would typically be expressed by the prepositions ‘to’ or ‘for’.

The dative case often involves the idea of someone giving or transmitting something to someone. (The word ‘dative’ derives from the Latin verb , ‘I give’). Note that English can say both ‘I gave a book to him’ or ‘I gave him a book’. In both examples, Latin would typically use a dative case.


  • scrībō tibi – I write to you
  • grātiās agimus Augustō – we give thanks to Augustus
  • sōl omnibus lucet – the sun shines for everyone (or ‘upon’) everyone
  • cui dōnō ...? – To whom do I give

Catullus begins his collection of poems with a dative case (cui? – ‘to whom?’), appropriately so in a poem whose topic is a dedication. He answers his own question in the third line with another dative, referring to the biographer Cornelius Nepos:

Cornelī, tibi. ...

to you, Cornelius ...

The dative case has a range of uses, but it is reasonable to think of it as the ‘to’ or ‘for’ case, especially when the noun in the dative case is 1) a person and 2) on the receiving end of something, usually beneficial but occasionally disadvantageous. It is often found with the verb ‘give’ or ‘say’.


The English words ‘to’ and ‘for’ cover a wider range of ideas than the dative case in Latin. Note in particular that the dative would not be used in Latin to express the following:

  • ‘I am going to the shops’. Here ‘to’ expresses the idea of motion towards something, not a person on the receiving end of anything. Latin would express ‘to’ in this instance with a preposition.
  • ‘I want to speak with you this morning’. In this instance ‘to’ goes closely with the verb ‘speak’ (grammatically, they form an infinitive).


Activity 15: the dative case


a. The Gauls provided supplies for Caesar.


b. Caesar sailed to Africa.


c. Agrippa gave a gift to his wife.


d. Agrippa gave his wife a gift.


e. I want to live well.

The correct answers are a, c and d.






Correct. c. and d. mean the same.