Case (grammar)

In grammar, case shows the job of a noun, adjective or pronoun in a sentence. It is a set of forms which depend on the syntax (how the words go together). Case is an example of inflection, which is an affix (a part of a word that is added to other words) that signals a grammatical relationship. Long ago, Old English used cases, but modern English uses only two cases except in some pronouns.[1]p197

History of case

In the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.), which originally came from Latin, nouns pack several ideas into one word. These ideas are:

  • Gender: nouns must be masculine (Latin: ends in -us), feminine (ends in -a) or neutral (ends in -um). Then adjectives must 'agree' with the nouns, that is, by having the same endings. English is one of the few European languages which does not have gender in nouns (usually).
  • Case: nominative (subject), accusative (object), genitive (of the noun), dative (to, for or with the noun); each has a singular and plural form.

In many languages like Latin, German, Russian, Spanish, Korean and Japanese, a noun's case is shown at the end of a word (the nouns change depending on their role in the sentence). Nouns change their endings to show that they are doing something, that something is done to them, that they just happen to be there during the action, or that they own something. Therefore, the order that the words are put together in a sentence is less important in these languages, whereas in English it is needed to understand the sentence.

Modern English

In English, this complicated system is not much used. Instead, word order and auxiliary (helping) words are added as needed.

"The most important grammatical development [in English] was the establishment of a fixed pattern of word-order to express the relationship between clause elements".[2]p44

English does have these cases for nouns and pronouns: common case and genitive (possessive).[2]p202 Each may take a plural. Examples:

  • Nouns: Girl; girls; girl's; girls'. The last three cannot be distinguished in speech (except by using context).
  • Pronouns: This is your hat; this hat is yours. A few pronouns have three cases and four forms: I (subject), me (object), my (genitive before noun), mine (independent genitive).

In English adjectives are unchanged: red hat, red hats.


  1. McArthur, Tom (ed) 1992. The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Crystal, David 1995. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University Press.