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Grammatical Case in English

Romani ite domumGrammatical Case is used to talk about how nouns and, especially, pronouns‏‎ change their form when they have a different role in a sentence‏‎.

For example, look at these:

John loves Leslie.
Leslie loves John.

The subject of the first sentence is John. The object of the second sentence is the same person, John. The name is exactly the same and does not change whether it’s a subject or object.

On the other hand, look at this:

I love Leslie.
Leslie loves me.

In this case I and me refer to the same person, however when it is the subject of the sentence it has one form and when it is the object of the sentence it has another form. A word which changes its form like this is called inflected. English‏‎, in general, is not regarded as an inflected language even though there are a few inflected forms left.

Case, then, is about how some nouns and pronouns are inflected (or change their form, in other words) depending on where they are used in a sentence.

English Inflections/Case

In English the only remaining inflected forms are with some pronouns which change whether they are the subject or object of a sentence, or a possessive. Each of the highlighted words in these examples refers to the same person:

I own this book.
This book belongs to me.
This is my* book.
This book is mine.

* Some regard the possessive adjectives‏‎ as another example of the inflection of pronouns. Technically speaking however these are placed in front of a noun so they are not pronouns but adjectives.

See the main article, Pronouns‏‎.

The only other case of inflection in English is with possessives. Some pronouns change as above, but all nouns have a possessive form, often made by adding an apostrophe ‘s:

John owns this book.
This is John’s book.

The dog sleeps here.
This is the dog’s bed.

See the main article, Possessive Apostrophes‏‎.

Case and TEFL Teaching

Is it important to teach your TEFL students about case?

In all likelihood their own mother-tongue has elements of case in it and so they will already be familiar with the idea. In fact, they are more likely to pick up the concept of case more easily than English native speaking students.

But a lesson on case itself can get confusing. We would suggest that you deal with the subject only if it arises in the class. Don’t labor the point and keep things as simple as possible.

Historical

In some languages case is very important. In Latin, for example, there are several different cases and forms which do not exist in English. These cannot be translated precisely into modern English but roughly they are:

  • nominative (usually the subject of a sentence, e.g. I)
  • genitive (usually possessive, e.g. my)
  • dative (a noun which is given something, e.g. to me)
  • accusative (usually the object, e.g. me)
  • ablative (a noun which has motion away from it, e.g. from me)
  • vocative (a noun which is addressed by another, e.g. you)

In the past English was more of an inflected language, however due to a number of invasions in England and the need for communication, inflection was slowly dropped in favor of using prepositions‏‎. It is far easier to use and remember, from John than to remember the correct inflected ending to add to John to put it into the ablative case!

Useful Links

Inflection‏‎ in English Grammar – a look at the wider issue of inflection in English.

The image relates to the Monty Python film, Life of Brian
where Brian writes up some anti-Roman graffiti. A centurion catches him
but then makes him correct his bad Latin grammar and write the graffiti up
100 times as a punishment.

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