Case

In English grammar, you don’t talk about case particularly often. Unlike some languages such as German, which inflects nouns, articles, adjectives, and pronouns into four distinct cases, English grammar has only three cases, all three of which are inflected in personal pronouns and one of which is inflected in all nouns.

Case Case

Create learning materials about Case with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Contents
Table of contents

    Grammatical Case

    In modern English grammar, there are just three main cases, so here's a short explanation of them and how they're inflected in nouns and pronouns.

    Pronouns

    Nouns

    Nominative (subjective) case

    I (first-person singular)

    You (second-person singular)

    He/ she/ they (third-person singular)

    No inflection

    Accusative (objective) case

    Me (first-person singular)

    You (second-person singular)

    Him/ he/ them (third-person singular)

    No inflection

    Genitive case

    Mine (first-person singular)

    Yours (second-person singular)

    His/ hers/ theirs (third-person singular)

    -’s, -s’

    As you can see, there are only four broad areas for case in English (three areas in pronouns and one in nouns). Now, you probably want to know more about inflection and case conceptually.

    Case Grammar

    In grammar, case is a kind of inflection.

    Inflection is how a word changes to suit a particular grammatical function.

    Case is one such grammatical function. Other inflections include gender (not present in English nouns as a class), number (present in English), and more.

    The case of a word changes based on its role in the sentence (e.g., whether it acts, is acted upon, or possesses something).

    For example, if a noun is the subject of the sentence, it might change case. In English, this would happen if you use the personal pronoun for yourself (I/me/mine).

    ❌ You wouldn’t say:

    Mine is having a nice day.

    ✅ You would say:

    I am having a nice day.

    This is because you use the personal pronoun “I” when you are the subject of the sentence. In English grammar, there are three cases for personal pronouns, which correspond to personal pronouns as the subject, personal pronouns as the object, and personal pronouns as possessing.

    Additionally, there is one case for any noun if it possesses something.

    Case. A nice day. StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - Although there are limited uses of grammatical case in English, it remains an important concept to understand.

    Case Types

    There aren't that many types of cases in English grammar, so it shouldn't be too taxing to review them all more in-depth.

    Case in Modern English Personal Pronouns

    Here is a more complete chart of cases in modern English personal pronouns.

    Singular

    Plural

    Nominative

    First-person

    I

    We

    Second-person

    You

    You

    Third-person

    He, She, It, They

    They

    Accusative

    First-person

    Me

    Us

    Second-person

    You

    You

    Third-person

    Him, Her, It, Them

    Them

    Genitive

    First-person

    My/Mine

    Our/Ours

    Second-person

    Your/Yours

    Your/Yours

    Third-person

    His, Her/Hers, Its, Their/Theirs

    Their/Theirs

    In the chart, you’ll notice that the genetive pronouns often split. This distinction is between the independent genetive and the dependent genetive.

    The independent genitive can stand on its. “That is mine.”

    The dependent genitive requires an object. “That is my friend.”

    An independent genitive is independent because it can be independent of other words. A dependent genitive is dependent because it depends on other words.

    You might have noticed that English lacks a robust system of cases for second-person pronouns. While first-person and third-person pronouns have appropriately different plural cases, second-person pronouns use “you” repeatedly. In English, you might remedy this by saying “you all,” the contracted "y'all," or “you folks” in the plural nominative or plural accusative. However, to further clarify the genitive for a plural second-person pronoun turns up odd constructions like, “You all’s" or "Y'all's." Hmm!

    The Case of “Who”

    There is one notable instance where case changes with generic pronouns.

    Generic pronouns refer to non-specific things.

    “Who” is a personal generic pronoun while “what” and “which” are non-personal generic pronouns.

    While “what” and “which” do not change in the nominative or accusative (and do not have genitives), “who” changes.

    Case"Who"In a sentence...

    Nominative

    Who

    Who goes there?

    Accusative

    Whom

    I'm speaking to whom?

    Genetive

    Whose

    Whose mittens are these?

    This just about covers case in pronouns.

    You might be wondering: what about myself, yourself, herself, and those other “self” pronouns? These are called reflexive pronouns. Reflexive pronouns indicate that the subject has acted upon itself.

    “She hit herself with a branch.”

    However, whether “reflexive” is a case unto itself is debatable. One argument against “reflexive” as a case in English is that reflexive pronouns are more for emphasis or clarity rather than being strictly necessary. As a fact, “She hit her” is perfectly grammatical, even if “her” refers to “she.” It’s just unclear.

    Case in Modern English Nouns

    If you remember the initial chart, there is only one use of case in the Modern English noun, and that is the genitive -’s and -s’.

    Genitive means possessive!

    Let's say the noun is “women.” To put “women” in the genitive case, you’d simply add a -’s.

    Women’s rights.

    -s’ is used if the word already ends in an s. This happens often for plural nouns. For example, say you want to put the plural of “friend” in the genitive case.

    That is our friends’ backyard.

    Whether you put an -’s or a -s’ at the end of a proper noun depends on the style you are using. For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style favors -'s. However, both are correct:

    Silas’s

    Silas’

    Sometimes, a style has you look at what follows the -s! For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style wants you to avoid three successive s. It would have you write "Silas's horse" but "Silas' saddle."

    Fun fact: Other languages include prominent instrumental and vocative cases. These cases indicate what someone uses to complete an action and who is being addressed, respectively. Even more of a fun fact, English has something like the vocative case, although it uses a comma called the vocative comma ("Hello, friend").

    Case Examples

    If you want some practice, write a few example sentences based on the cases in these prompts.

    1. Write a sentence using a third-person plural dependent genitive.

    2. Write a sentence using the second-person plural accusative.

    3. Write a sentence using the first-person singular nominative.

    Here are three sample responses. The specified case is highlighted.

    1. We grabbed their scarves.

    2. They like you folks.

    3. I know that.

    Case. A green scarf with yellow trim. StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - In English, a plural dependent genitive (their) must pair with a plural noun (scarves).

    Case Explanation

    You might want an explanation of how English can only have three cases — and in such a limited capacity — while other languages require a complex inflective system. This is because English is an analytic language.

    An analytic language uses word order, auxiliary verbs, and prepositions to indicate what is happening in a sentence.

    In other words, English has its own complexities unrelated to case. Languages with many cases are called synthetic languages.

    Synthetic languages use a large number of inflections to indicate what is happening in a sentence.

    For instance, in Latin, word order doesn’t matter. Case tells you all you need to know. On the other hand, English requires word order for a sentence like:

    Bill hit Paul.

    Here, because Bill appears first, we know that Bill did the hitting and Paul was hit. Prepositions can also help explain things in English.

    Bill smiled at Paul.

    Here, the word “at” helps us know that Bill did the smiling and Paul was smiled at.

    Interestingly, English was not always this way. While Modern English is an analytic language, Old English was a synthetic language.

    Linguistic Analysis of Case

    Without going too deep into linguistic analysis, it’s worth going back in time and taking a peek at how Old English differs from Modern English in terms of case.

    Old English had four cases for its nouns: nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative. You’ll recognize three of them from Modern English pronouns. The last one is dative.

    The dative case is used for an indirect object.

    In the following sentence, the man would be written in the dative case, if Modern English had such a case.

    John gave a cup of coffee to the man.

    This is because John (the subject) gives the cup of coffee (the direct object) to the man (indirect object).

    Additionally, Old English had gender as well as strong and weak adjective declensions. Old English bears much in common with German, actually! Hopefully, though, this insight into Old English also gives you some context for Modern English case.

    Case - Key Takeaways

    • In grammar, case is a kind of inflection.
    • Modern English grammar only has three cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive.
    • Nominative is for subjects, accusative for objects, and genitive for possession.
    • Modern English pronouns use all three of these cases.
    • Modern English nouns as a whole only have one special case — genitive — for possession (e.g., Chris's or the boy's).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Case

    What is an example of case in grammar?

    The way that personal pronouns change from “I” to “me” to “mine” is an example of changing case. In English grammar, there are only three cases, most of which only inflect pronouns.

    What is the purpose of grammatical cases?

    Grammatical case helps make sense of the sentence, helping to show who does what to whom. As an analytic language, though, English leaves much of that job to word order, prepositions, and other bits and bobs.

    What grammatical category is case?

    Case is a kind of inflection. Inflection is how a word changes to suit a particular grammatical function.

    What is a grammatical case?

    The case of a word changes based on its role in the sentence (e.g., whether it acts, is acted upon, or possesses something).

    How do you know what grammatical case to use?

    Case changes based on its role in the sentence. For instance, if the first-personal personal pronoun is the subject, you use "I."

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many cases does Modern English have?

    Which case do English nouns have?

    This case indicates that something is the subject.

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Case Teachers

    • 8 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App