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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.)


Other languages do things differently

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.

Luggage, Go Away, Travel, Holiday, Packaging, Colorful

How many cases are there?

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 eight 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.  In 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
We can move these around in English but we have to add to to signify the dative case: She gave a kiss to me
indicating possession (at least)
For example, My house contains the genitive determiner, my.
indicates something being used for a purpose
For example, in I hit it with a hammer, the word hammer is in the instrumental case.
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.
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.

It is not possible to describe the exact function of cases in all languages because there is a lot of variability about 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 examples:

  • German has 4 cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive)
  • Russian has 6 cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, prepositional [to talk about])
  • Most other Slavonic languages also have complex case structures.  Czech and Polish have 6 (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, vocative, locative, instrumental)
  • Greek has 4 cases (nominative, accusative, vocative, genitive) and often deploys the genitive to signal an attribute [hence the overuse of expressions such as the office of the teacher rather than the teacher's office]
  • Finnish has 15 (!) cases including 6 forms of locatives
  • Hungarian has 7 cases including some which exist very rarely in other languages (such as the adessive [owing to])
  • Arabic has 3 cases (nominative, accusative and genitive)
  • Chinese languages have no inflexions but they do, of course, have ways of distinguishing cases, either by the use of particles or word ordering, much as English does to show the indirect object
  • Japanese has a range of cases including nominative, accusative and dative but how they are used is very different from European languages and case is marked by particles placed after the noun (as is the case in Korean).  Japanese does not mark case on pronouns and Korean does not even have a third-person pronoun as such
  • Romance or Italic languages, such as Spanish, French, Romanian, Catalan and Italian do not mark nouns for case so word order is stricter
  • Bulgarian has a case structure but only obviously in the pronoun system (a bit like English)
  • Turkish has six cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, abasive [without something] and instrumental)
  • English case structure is nowadays mostly confined to the pronoun system (and there's a guide to the pronoun system here)

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.


The third case in English

What's the third case in English?  Click here when you have an answer.

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, G.L. (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 (2001), Learner English, 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press