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It is sometimes averred that English does not have a case grammar.
While it is true that English makes few changes associated with case, all languages exhibit case in one way or another.  Verbs, for example, have subjects (nominative case) and objects (accusative case) and, while simple nouns do not alter to show which role they perform, pronouns, as sub-set of nouns, certainly do.
There is, for example, an obvious difference between:
    She told him
    He told her
which is signalled by the forms of the pronouns.


What is case?

Case is a grammatical category which shows the relationships between nouns (or noun phrases), pronouns, determiners and adjectives and other items in a clause.
In some languages, not only nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners are altered to show case but case may also affect the form of participles and prepositions.

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.
In sentence 1. the man did the kissing and in sentence 2. the woman started it.

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 (new tab) in the initial training area of this site.)

Modern English does not inflect adjectives to show case at all and only adds 's to nouns to show the genitive case.  Determiners such as articles, numerals and demonstratives do not change to indicate case but possessive determiners and personal pronouns are altered to show case.
In all other circumstances, nouns and adjectives are unchanged whatever their relationship to other items in the sentence is.

This is not the situation in other languages, some of which depend heavily on making changes to adjectives, pronouns and nouns to show what their relationship is to other items in a clause.
This means that in English, there is no change to the underlined words in these examples although the role the words are playing grammatically is very different.  For comparison, the translation into German, which has a complex case structure is shown and you can see that many of the words (articles, prepositions and adjectives in this case) change to show the relationships between the words in the sentences.

English German
Please put the red papers on the shelf Bitte stellen Sie die roten Papiere ins Regal
Some red papers are on the shelf Einige rote Papiere stehen im Regal
The shelf holds some red papers Das Regal enthält einige rote Papiere

There are some more examples in this guide to make this clearer.

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.  This is why, in some analyses, English does not have a case structure at all because it has so few ways of marking elements of syntax to signify the relationships.
English does, however have a case-based pronoun structure (I vs. me vs. my vs. mine, vs. myself etc.) and it can distinguish other items in terms of subject and object (who vs. whom, for example) or possession (using whose or adding 's to a noun).
Arguably, only the following 6 words are inflected in Modern English to show case: I, we, he, she, they (and in formal language also who).  Old English had a complex case structure but most inflexions have been lost in the transition to Modern English.
(This ignores the fact that the genitive in English is marked either with the 's inflexion or with the periphrastic of-phrase.)

Here are the three cases with examples 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.:
        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 began 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 a preposition is referred to as the prepositional object as in, e.g.:
        to the railway station
        over the bridge
       behind the garage
    Referring to prepositional objects makes sense in a case analysis, too, because all prepositions in English are followed by nouns or noun phrases in the accusative so, for example, we have:
        By whom was it done? (not who)
        Between you and me (not I)
        She invited them (not they)
    The object in English can be direct as in:
        I brought her
        I brought it
    or indirect as in
        I brought her it
    but English makes no distinction between direct and indirect objects in the structure of any words.
    Many languages which have more developed case structures distinguish between the direct object (the accusative) and the indirect object (the dative).  A range of languages will also distinguish between concepts of position and movement towards or away from.  In German, for example,
        It is on the table
    translates as:
        Es ist auf dem Tisch
    using the masculine dative case ending on the definite article (dem), but
        I put it on the table
    translates as:
        Ich legte es auf den Tisch
    using the masculine accusative ending on the definite article (den).
    Modern English no longer makes this distinction but Old English had the same four cases as Modern German with complex inflexions on nouns, adjectives and determiners.
    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).
    Because English does not distinguish between direct and indirect objects the case of either is sometimes described as oblique.
  3. Possessive or Genitive
    three cases
    This is often assumed to refer to ownership but the term Possessive, as is shown in the guide to it, 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.
        Whose idea is that?
        Her imprisonment was unfair
    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.  That means that:
    The delay caused a problem
is only distinguishable from
    A problem caused the delay
by word ordering.
Pronouns are usually marked but not in all cases because the system is defective.  The pronouns you and it, for example, serve 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 elsewhere.

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 or make.  The indirect object is either

  1. the person or thing affected by the action, in which case it can usually be rephrased 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).
The alteration in syntax for the indirect object in English as in:
    She read the children a story
changing to:
    She read a story to the children
is called the dative shift or dative alternation, incidentally.

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), 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 (or analytic) languages 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 above.  Notice, however, that there is subtle difference: the definite article for Mann 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.  In sentence 5, the article is der so we know that the man cannot be the object of the verb.

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:

The point, however, remains that changing the order of the words will not confuse the hearer about who did what to whom.


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).  The main cases are:

signals without something.
In English the meaning is almost solely expressed with the preposition without.
For example:
    They left without me
indicating movement away from something or a cause of something
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.
In English, the case is usually represented by prepositions such as away from, from, owing to or because of.  For example:
    The plane flew from Athens to London
    The boy ran away from us

    The train was late owing to the weather
(The last of those, in German, requires an ablative use of the genitive, incidentally.)
signals the direct object (see above).  In English, all prepositions are followed by the accusative so we say
    between you and me
    between you and I.
signals accompanied by something or someone and is quite rare (Korean has this case).  Most languages content themselves with a preposition or postposition to signal the sense.
the indirect object, e.g.:
    She gave me a kiss.
she is the nominative, me is in the dative and a kiss is in the accusative case (although Modern English never distinguishes between the dative and accusative in the form of any word).
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 dative case in English is not distinguished although prepositions such as to and for represent it as in, e.g.:
    He read a story to the children
    She cooked dinner for me
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 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.
For more on ergative verbs, which are quite common in English, see the guide to verb and clause types, linked below.
signals as something.  In, for example:
    He worked as a waiter
the noun waiter will be signalled by inflexion as essive in nature.
indicating possession, origin or description (at least)
For example,
    My house is here
contains the genitive determiner, my.
    The government's policy
contains the genitive marker 's but refers to a description of the policy rather than its owner.
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
    centrum města
with the ending on the word for town, město, changing from o to a.
English marks the genitive in two ways (see below) as well as using the pronoun / determiner whose to express the idea.
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.
Latin has such a case, usually called the ablative which includes the locative (see next).
This case in English is usually represented by the prepositions by and with although other expressions such as using, by use of and through as well as via also express the idea.
A further case, the instructive in, e.g., Finnish refers to with the aid of something.
indicates 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.
In some languages the locative is further subdivided into categories such as absolute position (on the hill), orientation (on the left of the hill) and direction (towards the hill).
It is helpful to mention to learners whose first languages distinguish this case in the grammar that it corresponds, roughly, in English to the prepositions in, on, towards, by and at.
Japanese distinguishes destination from origin by having two separate verb cases: ablative (from a place or origin) and elative (to a place or destination).
A few languages (notably Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian) also have subdivisions of the locative:
  • adessive (at something)
  • aditive / allative (onto something)
  • comitative (with something)
  • elative (out of something)
  • inessive (into something)
  • superessive (below / under something)
the subject (see above).  This case is, in most languages, the unmarked form of a noun and its determiners and adjectives.  I.e., it is considered the prototypical form and is the one which dictionaries will cite when referring to the meaning of words.
this is a rare case which is akin to the genitive structure in English of, e.g., a pane of glass.  It exists in Finnish and Estonian and some other languages.  In some analyses, the word some is considered a partitive article (but not on this site).
is a rare case signalling with respect to something.  So in, e.g.:
    With respect to your enquiry
the word enquiry is in the sublative case and that is signalled in some languages by inflexion.
is a rare case signalling turning into something as in, for example, in English:
    She became the manager
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 eftase)
    Hello, Dimitris
translates as
    Γεια σου Δημήτρη (yasu Dimitree)
with the 's' ending dropped to indicate that Dimitris is being addressed.

How does case work in other languages?

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.

Here is a short alphabetic list of how many common (or interesting) languages work in terms of case:

has 4 cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive governing all adjectives and nouns and differing depending on the type of reference (definite or indefinite).
has 3 cases (nominative, accusative and genitive) in most varieties.  Arabic varies widely across the areas where it is spoken and is probably better classified as a macro-language or language family.
has nine cases: nominative, ergative, dative, genitive (origin), genitive (possession), comitative, inessive (within something), illative (into something) and ablative.
has 5 cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and locative.
has a case structure but only obviously in the pronoun system (a bit like English).  Unusually for a Slavic language, the case forms have mostly been discarded.
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.
Cambodian (Khmer), Lao and Thai
have no inflexions at all and all case relationships are signalled by the use of prepositions or particles of one kind or another.
works very similarly to English in only adding an 's' to signal the genitive and using prepositions to signal other cases.
unlike other Germanic languages, has no case structure in its modern form.
case structure is nowadays mostly confined to the pronoun system (and there's a guide to the pronoun system linked in the list of related guides at the end).  Even the pronoun system is defective, however, with some items showing no changes.
Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian
all have very well-developed case structures: Finnish has 15(!) cases, Estonian 14 and Hungarian just seven.  In the case of Finnish, we can encounter nouns and determiners in: nominative, accusative and genitive cases as we would expect but also in the partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, translatative, instructive, abessive and comitative.
Estonian lacks only the accusative from that list and Hungarian is satisfied with only seven cases: genitive (used with many prepositional relationships), superessive (below, at, inside, over etc. something), sublative (with respect to something), allative, adessive, ablative and comitative-instrumental.
has 4 cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive.  It also uses case to distinguish between position or direction towards.  Prepositions are variably and unpredictably associated with certain cases.
has 4 cases (nominative, accusative, vocative, genitive) and often deploys the genitive to signal an attribute or a classifier (hence the overuse in English of expressions such as the room of the teachers rather than the teachers room or The Airport of Kalamata rather than Kalamata Airport).
has six cases: nominative, accusative / dative, genitive, ablative and locative.
Hindi and Urdu
have, in their modern forms, only two cases: direct (i.e., nominative) and oblique (applying to direct or indirect objects).
unlike other Scandinavian languages, has retained a 4-case structure: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive.
Japanese and Korean
have 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.  Japanese does not mark case on pronouns and Korean does not even have a third-person pronoun as such.  Japanese and Korean are unusual in having two nominative cases, one referring to the topic of the discourse and the other to the grammatical subject.  Japanese also has a genitive, locative, dative, accusative, elative (referring to destination) and ablative case (referring to origin).
Korean is slightly more complicated, adding a comitative case and an essive case as well as a vocative.
Case forms in both languages are affected by considerations of respect and politeness.
Latvian and Lithuanian
Latvian has 5 cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and locative and Lithuanian adds an instrumental case to the list.
Romance languages, such as Spanish, French, Romanian, Catalan and Italian
do not mark nouns for case so word order is stricter (and more like English).  The pronoun systems in these languages are well developed in terms of case structures, however.  Case relationships are routinely signalled, as in English, by the use of prepositions.
Russian and other Slavic languages
has 6 cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, propositional (to talk about, also called locative in some grammars).  Ukrainian is similar as are Polish and Slovak, and Czech adds a vocative to the list as does Serbo-Croat.
Swedish, Norwegian and Danish
are much like English with only the pronoun system affected by case (nominative, accusative and genitive in the first two language and nominative, oblique and genitive in Danish).  However, see Icelandic (above).
has seven cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, instrumental, comitative and locative.
has six cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, locative and ablative.  The ablative is used to indicate a comparative structure and may govern some postpositions (with others governed by nominative and dative forms).

Wikipedia claims that Tsez, a Northeast Caucasian language, has, counting the locative and non-locative cases together, no fewer than 64 cases.  They are not listed here.


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.

Related guides
fronting for more on how word order is disturbed to signal markedness
markedness for more on how word order in English signals markedness for case
pronouns for a guide to the pronoun system of English (which is case marked)
genitive for the guide dedicated to the one case which English invariably marks
noun post-modification which considers the genitive of structure in the context of other noun post-modifying structures
relative pronoun clauses for the guide to another area in which English marks for case and varies structure case dependently
a mini-course this is a short course in comparing languages with an example lesson
word order for more on basic word ordering in English and other languages
verb and clause types for more on ergative and other verb types in English
ditransitive verbs a list with examples and a few notes

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