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Concourse 2

Case and the genitive


Note: if you have arrived here looking for a guide to the genitive, click here to skip to it.


What is case?

Case is a grammatical category which indicates the relationships between nouns (or noun phrases).
For example, in the English sentences:

  1. The man kissed the woman
  2. The woman kissed the man

In English, we only know who did what to whom by the order of the words.  The subject comes first in both sentences so we know that is the doer of the action.  The object follows the verb so we know that is the receiver of the action.  If we reverse the order, we reverse the sense.
We have now identified two of the three cases in English: the subjective case, also called the nominative and the objective case, also called the accusative.
(If none of the above makes any sense to you, follow the guide to pronouns in the initial training area of this site.)

three cases

The three cases in English

Modern English has only three cases and it is often not clear from the form of words which case is being used.  Here are the three with examples of the case highlighted:

  1. Subject or Nominative
    one case
    This refers to the doer of a verb:
        John came in
        The hammer did the trick
        She went away
        A lot of discussion followed

    Subjects are noun phrases, usually, but can be finite clauses as in, e.g.:
        The fact that John was allowed out early surprised me
    or non-finite clauses as in e.g.:
        Turning on the tap let the water flow into the garden
        To do that would be very foolish
  2. Object or Accusative
    two cases
    This refers to the thing or person acted on or the goal of a movement:
        I told Mary
        I spent all the money
        She hit him
        They embarked on a long voyage upriver
    Again, objects are usually noun phrases but can be finite clauses as in, e.g.:
        I think he has written to her
    or non-finite clauses as in, e.g.:
        I imagined seeing a unicorn
    In some, functional grammar, analyses, the complement of  preposition is referred to as the prepositional object as in, e.g.:
        to the railway station
        over the bridge
       behind the garage
    Many languages which have more developed case structures distinguish between the direct object (the accusative) and the indirect object (the dative).  Modern English no longer makes this distinction.
    Other languages may reserve a single case for prepositional objects and others may use a range of cases depending on the meaning of the preposition (or, in some cases, irregularly and randomly).
  3. Possessive or Genitive
    three cases
    This is often assumed to refer to ownership but the term Possessive, as we shall see, is misleading because the case refers in English to more than ownership:
        The car's engine caught fire
        My opinion was ignored
        It's mine to spend as I like
        The decision of the court is to set him free.
        I have John's letter in front of me.
    As we shall also see, the Genitive in English is quite complicated and genitive structures vary in meaning as well as occurring as integral parts of object and subject phrases and clauses.

English does not alter the noun or any determiner to mark Nominative or Accusative cases so only word order is a guide to the grammatical function.
Pronouns are usually marked but not in all cases because the system is defective.  The pronouns you and it, for example, serves as both the Nominative and Accusative forms:
    She told you (Accusative
    You told her (Nominative)
    It broke (Nominative)
    They broke it (Accusative)
The Genitive is marked in English but with some limitations, discussed below.

An argument can be made for a fourth case in English, the dative.  The case is marked in many languages, such as German and applies to a certain type of object.  In English, it can be said to apply to the indirect object noun phrase used with a ditransitive verb such as give, send, make or .  The indirect object is either

  1. the person or thing affected by the action, in which case it can usually be re-phrased with a to expression as in, e.g.:
        She sent me a letter
        She sent a letter to me
  2. the person or thing which is the beneficiary of the action, in which case it can usually be replaced with a for expression as in, e.g.:
        She made me a birthday card
        She made a birthday card for me.

However, in English, there is no change to the noun to signify case and no change either to signify a difference between indirect and direct object pronouns so the dative case is usually invisible (which doesn't mean it doesn't exist).

A list of ditransitive verbs in English is available via a link at the end.


Other languages do things differently

A large number of languages, including Slavic languages, Germanic languages (except English), Italic or Romance languages, Persian, Turkish, Greek and a host more are described as synthetic, meaning that words are formed by the synthesis of a root and an affix.  This is not a clear-cut category because some languages are more enthusiastically synthetic than others and even an isolating language such as English shows some tendency to alter the form of the word to mark case, especially with pronouns.

If you speak some German, the following will be familiar to you:

  1. Der Mann küsste die Frau
  2. Die Frau küsste den Mann

Sentences 3 and 4 are direct translations of sentences 1 and 2.  Notice, however, that there is subtle difference: the definite article for the man changes from der to den in sentence 2.  This is because German is one of many languages which distinguishes between cases by changing the form of words.  It can also change the form of adjectives and nouns to reflect the case.  In this example, the article for the woman is the same in both cases.
The second thing to note is that reversing the word order does not reverse the meanings of the sentences:

  1. Die Frau der Mann küsste
  2. Den Mann die Frau küsste

A German speaker might be mildly surprised by the word-order change but under no illusions about who did what to whom because the Accusative ending on the article is intact so we know that the man is the object in sentence 6 and it was she who did the kissing.

Exactly the same thing is possible in a whole range of languages.  Here's how it looks in Greek, for example:

  1. Ο άνδρας φίλησε τη γυναίκα (O andras filise ti gineka)
  2. Η γυναίκα φίλησε τον άνδρα (I gineka filise ton andra)

Here you can see that more changes occur:
o is the definite article for the man in the subject (Nominative) case and it changes to ton in the Accusative.  The noun for man also loses the final sI is the article for the woman and it changes to ti for the Accusative case.
The point, however, remains that changing the order of the words will not confuse the hearer about who did what to whom.

Why does this matter to English language teachers?

Think for a moment and then click here.


How many cases are there in other languages?

Lots.  The better news is that most European (i.e., Indo-European languages) have no more than eight or nine and many don't really have a case grammar at all (although all languages have cases).  These nine are:

indicating movement away from something or a cause
For example, the house is in the ablative case in
    The car drove away from the house.
    We stopped work because of the weather
the ablative form of the weather is selected in many languages.
the direct object (see above).  In English, all prepositions are followed by the accusative.
the indirect object, e.g.:
    She gave me a kiss
she is the nominative, me is in the accusative and a kiss is in the dative case (although Modern English never distinguishes the last case)
We can move these around in English but we have to add to to signify the dative case:
    She gave a kiss to me
which would, for example be:
    Sie gab mir einen Kuss
in German with mir in the Dative case and einen Kuss in the Accusative (signalled by the addition of -en to the article).
the ergative case applies to verbs in which the ostensible grammatical subject of the verb is, semantically, the object of the verb.  For example:
    The door opened
means, in fact:
    Something or someone opened the door
    The door was opened
    The potatoes boiled
    Someone boiled the potatoes
    The potatoes were boiled
In English, we allow this use of ergative verb forms but do not mark either the verb or the noun for case.  Other languages allow the same use but it is an identifiable case with special verb and noun forms.  For example, in Basque:
    I boil the water = Ura irakiten dut
    The water is boiling = Urak irakitzen du.
indicating possession (at least)
For example,
    My house is here
contains the genitive determiner, my.
In some languages, the form of the noun will also change to signify the genitive case.  For example,
    centre of the town
in Czech is
    centru města
with the ending on the word for town changing from o to a.
indicates something being used for a purpose
For example, in
    I hit it with a hammer
the word hammer is in the instrumental case.
In Polish, for example, the word hammer translates as młotek but with a hammer translates as młotkiem.
indicating a location
For example, in some languages the form of the box in
    We left it in the box
would change to indicate locative case.
So, for example, the Czech for Prague is Praha but in Prague translates as v Praze.
the subject (see above).  This case is, in most languages, the unmarked form of a noun and its determiners.  I.e., it is considered the prototypical form and is the one which dictionaries will cite when referring to meaning of a noun.
indicating the addressed person or thing
For example, in
    Good morning, Mary!
some languages will change the form of Mary to indicate that she is being addressed.
So, for example, in Greek
    Dimitris arrived
translates as
    Ο Δημήτρης έφτασε (O Dimitrees eftaze)
    Hello, Dimitris
translates as
    Γεια σου Δημήτρη (yasu Dimitree)
with the 's' ending dropped to indicate that Dimitris is being addressed.

It is not possible to describe the exact function of cases in all languages because there is a lot of variability in how the languages deploy the cases if and when they do.  German, for example, uses the dative case or even the genitive to describe cause and Greek uses the genitive where other languages will use the dative, an adjective or a compound noun.  Some languages have cases not in this list.
Some more examples:

and the list goes on.


Why does this matter to English language teachers?

Apart from the general case to be made in favour of language teachers knowing how the languages their students speak function, there are other implications.  Click here when you have thought of some.

feet on case

The genitive in English

with his feet on her case  

The genitive in English is often called the possessive case but the situation is a bit more complicated than just indicating possession).
An example is

  1. The reaction of the man to the woman's kiss was unexpected.

This tells us whose reaction and whose kiss we are talking about.  It also exemplifies the inadequacy of talking about possessives in English because it is not likely that we see a reaction or a kiss as something one owns.

A glance at the list above will reveal that all the languages so far mentioned have a genitive case so the concept will not be foreign.  The uses of the genitive will, however, sometimes be hard to figure out.  In example sentence 9 above, we actually have two genitive forms:

Here are five examples of the use of the genitive in English.  Can you fill in the middle column with what relationship between the nouns the case is indicating?  Click on the table when you have an answer.

genitive task
(Source: Quirk et al, 1972:193)

So the genitive in English has four other uses in addition to showing possession.  Other languages will work differently so you need to use the analysis to make sure you are presenting and analysing things accurately and not allowing your learners to believe that the form in English is just to do with ownership.

Which form to use?

English is quite unusual in having two genitive forms to call on and most languages make do with just the one.  Deciding which to use is not at all easy.  Which of the following are normally not acceptable?  Jot down the letters (a to x) of the ones you wouldn't accept.
Click here when you have a list.

  1. the car's cost
  2. the cost of the car
  3. the pencil of Mary
  4. Mary's pencil
  5. the government's policy
  6. the policy of the government
  1. the dog's ears
  2. the ears of the dog
  3. the future of the country
  4. the country's future
  5. London's parks and gardens
  6. the parks and gardens of London
  1. the town's inhabitants
  2. the inhabitants of the town
  3. a day's work
  4. the work of a day
  5. my life's ambition
  6. the ambition of my life
  1. the legs of the chairs
  2. the chair's legs
  3. the children's toys
  4. the toys of the children
  5. the house's roof
  6. the roof of the house

There's a very simple test on some basics here or you can try something more challenging.

Chalker, S, 1987, Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan
Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press