Grammatical Case in English

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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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13 thoughts on “Grammatical Case in English”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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

  6. The English ‘genitive’ is not really a case, nouns in ‘genitive’ cannot stand on their own, no preposition demands genitive, and the most important – no verb demands it as one of its arguments. It should be rather called ‘possessive forms’ or ‘possessive adjectives derived from a noun’.

    It is historically a genitive form, but it does not matter for the modern grammar.

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

    Is not really correct. The preposition “to” demands the “objective case” as it can be seen in examples “to her”, “to me”, but nouns have no specific forms for the objective case.

    Another problem is that objective case is sometimes required for subjects. For example:

    “Mom and me went to the store.”

    It’s very hard to explain why here most speakers will use objective “me” despite it being obviously a part of the subject. It’s because conjunction “and” demands it. Another non-obvious example:

    “I like this.”
    “Me too.” (why “me” here? again not trivial)

    Better names, when you have only two case-like forms, cross-linguistically, are “nominative” and “oblique”.

    BTW my native language has 6-7 cases, depending how you count. Even in English, using cases isn’t trivial.

  7. * Stefan on October 05, 2015 11:49 am
    Unfortunately this information is wrong. English has 2 cases (at most; some insist it has none). Genitive does not exist in English. *

    This is definitely wrong. During my English studies at one of Germany’s most renowned language schools we learned from British and American native speakers alike:

    1. Nominative – the man (answering the question “who or what?” – subject)
    2. Genitive – the man’s / of the man (answering the question “whose?”)
    3. Dative – to the man / from the man (answering the question “to whom” or “from whom”? – indirect object)
    4. Accusative – the man (answering the question “whom or what”? – direct object)

    I hope this helps a little although this thread was already posted some years ago. Maybe current users will benefit from my brief explanation.

  8. Christoph Arndt: uh, I beg to differ – not on the matter, that there are definitely more than two cases, but on the question of the accusative case:
    *4. Accusative – the man (answering the question “whom or what”? – direct object)*
    I believe should be answering the question “who or what?”
    “I see John walking down the street” – requires the question:
    “who do I see walking down the street?” not “whom do I see walking down the street?”
    Whom belongs to the dative or indirect object in the combined “objective” case as it seems to have become.
    Sorry, but this seems to be wrong on a number of grammar pages – please correct me if I am wrong!

  9. oz.as,
    In your example, “Who do I see walking down the street,” the subject is “I” and the verb is “see.” To discover whether the verb has an object, you ask, “see what?” The answer—if you are a speaker who still uses the object form of this interrogative pronoun—is “whom.” I may be missing something in your reasoning, but as far as I can tell, “see” in this sentence is a transitive verb and “whom” is its direct object (accusative).

  10. Oh goodgrief! I came to search how many cases in the English language, just to verify something. One site actually showed SIX cases in the American English language. Then I run into this site that states 3. Then I start reading the comments and we even have a 2 and 0.

    The only thing I totally agree on, is while learning German, I often got confused with Dativ! And I agree we have nominative and akkusativ…er…accusative.

    I am leaving more confused than when I started. LOL

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