Case in grammar

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The grammatical term case refers to a marker of the function a noun, or noun phrase, performs in a clause. In Present-day English, there are three cases. These can only be seen in a few pronouns which inflect for case. (Other languages can have up to fifteen cases, and nouns and adjectives may also inflect for case. In these languages - but not in English - adjectives tend to agree with the nouns they qualify.)

The three cases in English are listed below, with examples from the 1st person singular personal pronoun, I, me, my.

  • The subjective (traditionally 'nominative') case. This is the case for the Subject of a clause - the 'do-er' of the verb. Example: "I' did it."
  • The objective (traditionally 'accusative') case - the case used for the Direct Object of a Clause: the person on whom the action of the verb was performed. E.g. "The dog bit me."
  • The possessive (or 'genitive') case - the case that marks the 'possession', or ownership, by the person. E.g. "My family."

Case in English is only marked in the pronouns. For some examples and common problems that arise, see:

You are unlikely in ordinary use to hear of many of the other cases. Three exceptions apply when academics may be talking about Latin or Greek, or many other more modern languages.

  • the vocative case marks the person to whom you are speaking. (It is sometimes shown, in older English, with the syllable 'O!' or 'Oh!' before it.)
  • the dative case, which marks the Indirect Object - the person to whom something has been given, or said, etc. This has not existed in English for a thousand years.
  • the ablative case, which was used to mark the cause, instrument or agent of a passive verb; and various other relations of time and place. (Etymologically it means 'motion from [a place]', being derived from the root ablātus, the past participle of the Latin verb auferre 'to carry away' (there is a rare English verb 'to ablate', meaning 'to take away').) The ablative is known particularly for its use in an absolute construction.

For those who are studying foreign languages and find the concept of case difficult - particularly in languages such as Finnish, which has 15 cases - it may help to think of a case marker as having the same essential function as a preposition, only as an inflection rather than a separate word.

See also case for other meanings of the word.