Grammatical Case in English

By Maeve Maddox

Old English had five cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental.

Modern English has three cases:

1. Nominative (also called subjective)
2. Accusative (also called objective)
3. Genitive (also called possessive)

The objective case subsumes the old dative and instrumental cases.

Case refers to the relation that one word has to another in a sentence, i.e., where one word “falls” in relationship to another. The word comes from a Latin word meaning “falling, fall.” In other modern languages, adjectives have case, but in English, case applies only to nouns and pronouns.

Nominative/Subjective Case
When a noun is used as a) the subject of a verb or b) the complement of a being verb, it is said to be in the subjective or nominative case.

The king laughed heartily.
King is a noun in the subjective case because it is the subject of the verb laughed.

The king is the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Son is a noun in the subjective case because it is the complement of the being verb is.

Accusative/Objective Case
When a noun is used as the object of a verb or the object of a preposition, it is said to be in the objective or accusative case.

The king subdued his enemies.
Enemies is a noun in the objective case because it receives the action of the transitive verb subdued; it is the direct object of subdued.

The friends went to a movie.
Movie is a noun in the objective case because it is the object of the preposition to.

Sallie wrote Charlie a letter.
Charlie is a noun in the objective case because it is the indirect object of the verb wrote.

A transitive verb always has a direct object; sometimes, it will have a second object called the “indirect object.” In the old terminology, the indirect object was said to be in the “dative case.” Nowadays, the indirect object, like the direct object, is said to be in the accusative or objective case

Note: Some English teachers may still distinguish (as I once did) between the accusative and the dative, but the most recent college English textbook I have, (copyright 2000), does not even list the term “dative” in its index. As nouns and pronouns in the dative case are spelled the same as those in the objective case, there’s no practical reason to retain the former designation.

Genitive/Possessive Case

Of the three noun cases, only the possessive case is inflected (changes the way it is spelled).

Nouns in the possessive case are inflected by the addition of an apostrophe–with or without adding an “s.”

The boy’s shoe is untied.
Boy’s is a singular noun in the possessive case.

The boys’ shoes are untied.
Boys’ is a plural noun in the possessive case.

This one inflected noun case is the source of error for a great many native English speakers.

English pronouns are also a frequent source of error because they retain inflected forms to show subjective and objective case:

Pronouns in the subjective case: I, he, she, we, they, who
Pronouns in the objective case: me, him, her, us, them, whom

The pronouns you and it have the same form in both subjective and objective case.

Note: Strictly speaking, both my and mine and the other possessive forms are genitive pronoun forms, but students who have been taught that pronouns stand for nouns are spared unnecessary confusion when the teacher reserves the term “possessive pronoun” for words that actually do stand for nouns, like mine and theirs. Like adjectives, my, its, our, etc. stand in front of nouns, so it makes sense to call them “possessive adjectives.”

The objective form whom is almost gone from modern speech; the subjective form who has taken over in the objective case for many speakers.

Related posts:
Transitive Verbs
The Principles of Possessives
Beware of ‘Whom’

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8 Responses to “Grammatical Case in English”

  • Tony Hearn

    Er, casus is Latin, Maeve, not Greek.

  • Maeve

    Tony,
    Where’d that “Greek” come from?! Blush.
    I’ll ask Daniel to change it.

    Thanks.

  • dragonwielder

    At last, a nice basic description of what case is! The only time I learned anything about it was in a college-level History of the English Language class, for a translation project, but I never really understood it what it was. Great post!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Calling certain pronouns “possessive adjectives” to reduce avoid confusing the students?? Ugh.

    I have found in my teaching experience that inflicting some confusion on the student – in limited doses – is a good thing!
    It gives the students something challenging to “wrestle with”, and thus they are prompted to learn something from it.
    Call these words “possessive pronouns”: my, your, his, her, its, our, their because that is what they are, and that is what their equivalents are called in Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Urdu, and so forth.
    “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade – and do the other things – not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
    “We choose to study Euclidean geometry, not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” and likewise for algebra, trigonometry, integral calculus, and analysis.
    Facing up to one’s fears is the way to learn about courage and guts.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve

    dragonwielder,
    Thanks for the kind words. They made me feel better after my embarrassing typo.

  • venqax

    What about Ukrainian, Polish, Gaelic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Albanian (Gheg and Tosk), Norwegian, Danish, Romanian, Aromanian, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Romansh, Welsh, Farsi, Hittite, Luwian, Bulgarian (not Bulgar), Occitan, Sardinian, Macedonian (modern or ancient, Manx, Faeroese, etc.? I need more examples to be sure.

  • RobinC

    Very helpful. I’m studying German and the Dative case is confusing for me because of the Dative Case – indirect object issue which is not something I think about much in English.

  • Stefan

    Unfortunately this information is wrong. English has 2 cases (at most; some insist it has none). Genitive does not exist in English.

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