Declension

You've likely heard of the term conjugation before — the inflection of verbs to show grammatical and syntactic function — but do you know about declension?

Declension Declension

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Table of contents

    In simple terms, declension is the conjugation of other word classes (such as nouns, pronouns, and adjectives).

    Although declension isn't as common in English as it is in other languages, such as Latin or German, it's still important to understand how we decline nouns and pronouns to show things like case and number.

    Declension Meaning

    Let's begin by looking at the meaning of the word declension.

    The term declension refers to the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and articles (basically, every word class except verbs) to show the word's syntactic function within a sentence. When we say syntactic function, we're referring to the grammatical relationship between constituents (part of a sentence, e.g., words, phrases, and clauses) within a sentence.

    Inflection: A morphological process that involves adding affixes to a word or changing a word's spelling to show different grammatical functions, such as case, number, or person.

    The inflection of verbs is called conjugation.

    The declension process can be seen when we discuss possessives. For example, when the subject of a sentence owns the object of a sentence, possession is shown by inflecting the subject (remember, the subject of a sentence is usually a noun or pronoun). The declension process typically involves adding an apostrophe and an s to the end of a noun or changing the spelling of the pronoun altogether.

    "That is Katy's cake."

    Here, we can see that the noun Katy has undergone a declension process in order to show the relationship between the subject (Katy) and the object (the cake).

    Declension happens across many languages, and the process works differently in each. For example, adjectives in French and Spanish go through a declension process to show grammatical case, but adjectives in English do not. In fact, declension in English is no longer common. Whereas Old and Middle English contained a lot of declensions, in Modern English, declension only applies to nouns, pronouns, and descriptive adjectives.

    Good to know: Declension is a noun — the verb is to decline.

    Declensions, Image of cake, StudySmarterFig 1. That's Katy's cake.

    Declension in English

    As we mentioned, declensions in English aren't as common as in other languages, but that doesn't mean they aren't important.

    In Modern English, declension typically happens to nouns and pronouns; however, we can also decline adjectives too.

    Noun Declension

    In English, the declension of nouns and pronouns can show three different syntactic and grammatical functions: case, number, and gender.

    Case

    There are three different grammatical cases in English, subjective (aka nominative), objective, and genitive (aka possessive).

    In English, nouns only go through a declension process in the genitive case, whereas pronouns change in all three cases. Let's take a closer look at each of these cases.

    Although there are several different types of pronouns (e.g., relative, demonstrative, etc.), when discussing pronouns in different cases, we are usually talking about personal pronouns.

    Subjective Case

    A noun or pronoun is in the subjective case when it is acting as the subject of the sentence. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing performing the action of a verb or who/what the sentence is about.

    "Katy ate the cake."

    Here, Katy is the subject of the sentence. As Katy is a proper noun, the word does not need to be inflected at all.

    Let's now look at some examples of pronouns as the subject:

    "She is on her way to college."

    "He drove here."

    "They are enjoying a meal together."

    Here we can see that the subjective case pronouns are:

    • He

    • She

    • They

    • It

    • I

    • We

    • You

    The subjective case is sometimes called the nominative case.

    Objective Case

    A noun or pronoun is in the objective case when it's acting as, you guessed it, the object in a sentence. The object of a sentence is the person or thing that is being acted upon.

    "She gave the cake to Katy."

    In this sentence, Katy is now the subject, but, as you can see, the word has not changed.

    Here are some examples with a pronoun as the subject. Notice how the spelling and words change:

    "She gave the cake to her."

    "The teacher told him to be quiet."

    "He wanted them to be happy together."

    From the examples, we can see that the pronouns in the objective case are:

    • Him

    • Her

    • Them

    • It

    • Us

    • Me

    • You

    Genitive Case

    The genitive case, also known as the possessive case, is used to show a noun or pronoun's belongings.

    In the genitive case, both nouns and pronouns go through a declension process. Let's start with nouns.

    To show a noun's possession in English, we simply add an apostrophe and an s to the end of the word.

    "Hey, that cake is not yours! It's Katy's."

    Now for the pronouns. There are two different types of pronouns in the genitive case: attributive and predicative. Possessive attributive pronouns are typically followed by a noun, whereas possessive predicative pronouns replace the noun.

    • The attributive pronouns are: my, his, her, its, our, your, and their

    • The predicative pronouns are: mine, his, hers, ours, yours, and theirs

    "The cake is hers."

    "She gave them their books."

    "That's mine."

    "Don't forget your umbrella!"

    Number

    Nouns are declined in terms of number into their singular and plural forms. Regular nouns are declined by simply adding an s to the end of the word, whereas irregular nouns go through a spelling change (or sometimes remain exactly as they are, e.g., sheep.)

    Regular nouns:

    Apple → Apples

    Book → Books

    Girl → Girls

    Tree → Trees

    Irregular nouns:

    Man → Men

    Foot → Feet

    Fish → Fish

    Child → Children

    Fish vs. Fishes

    Did you know that the term fishes is correct in some situations?

    When there is more than one of the same species of fish, the plural form is fish. However, when there are many different species of fish, the plural form is fishes.

    = fish

    = fishes

    Declensions, Image of fish, StudySmarterFig 2. Fish, not Fishes.

    Demonstrative pronouns also go through a declension process to show number. The singular demonstrative pronouns are this and that. On the other hand, the plural demonstrative pronouns are these and those.

    Gender

    Unlike other languages, like French or Spanish, English nouns typically are not declined in relation to gender. Sometimes suffixes are added to the end of a noun to highlight the female gender (e.g., stewardess); however, this is quickly becoming redundant in modern society.

    Personal pronouns can decline to show gender. The masculine pronouns are he, him, and his, and the feminine pronouns are she, her, and hers. The pronouns they, them, their, and theirs can be used as plural or singular gender-neutral pronouns.

    Adjective Declension

    Descriptive adjectives (adjectives that modify nouns/pronouns by describing them) can go through a declension process to show degrees of comparison.

    Descriptive adjectives typically have three forms: positive (base form), comparative, and superlative. For comparatives, we typically add the suffix "-er" to the end of the word. For superlatives, we add the suffix "-est."

    Positive: Big

    Comparative: Bigger

    Superlative: Biggest

    Positive: Old

    Comparative: Older

    Superlative: Oldest

    For adjectives that have more than two syllables, we typically place the adverbs more or most before the adjective rather than adding suffixes.

    Declension Examples

    Now we know all about declensions, let's recap what we've learned by looking at some handy charts with declension examples in English.

    Case:

    Subjective CaseObjective Case Genitive Case
    HeHimHis
    SheHerHer/Hers
    ItItIts
    TheyThemTheir/Thiers
    YouYouYour/Yours
    WeUsOur/Ours
    KatyKaty Katy's

    Gender:

    Masculine Pronouns Feminine Pronouns Gender Neutral Pronouns
    He SheThey
    Him HerThem
    His Her/Hers Their/Theirs

    Number:

    Singular Nouns/pronounsPlural Nouns/pronouns
    Book Books
    Foot Feet
    ThisThese
    That Those

    Adjectives:

    Positive Comparative Superlative
    Young Younger Youngest
    Tall Taller Tallest
    Expensive More expensive Most expensive

    Declensions - Key takeaways

    • Declension refers to the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and articles to show the word's syntactic function within a sentence.
    • Inflection is a morphological process that involves adding affixes to a word or changing a word's spelling to show different grammatical functions.
    • In modern English, declension is most prominent in nouns and pronouns. The declension of nouns and pronouns can show three different functions: case, number, and gender.
    • There are three different cases that affect declension: subjective, objective, and genitive. An example pronoun of each is I, me, and mine.
    • To show number, singular nouns remain the same, whereas plural nouns either receive the suffix -s or have their spellings changed.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Declension

    What is an example of declension?

    An example of declension is adding the suffix -s to the end of a noun to show plurality.

    Does English have declension?

    Yes, Modern English does use some declensions. Typically, nouns and pronouns are declined to show case, number, and gender.

    What is the difference between conjugation and declension?

    Both conjugation and declension refer to the inflection process. Conjugation is the inflection of verbs, whereas declension is the inflection of all other word classes.

    What are declensions used for?

    In English, declensions are most commonly used to show case, number, and gender. For example, the pronoun hers is in the genitive case and shows possession.

    Why did English lose declensions?

    The reason declensions became less prominent in English is not entirely known. It may be because of the influence from Old Norse, or because the pronunciation of declined words became too complex.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Fill in the blank:Declension is to nouns what _____ is to verbs.

    Which word classes can go through the declension process?

    True or false, declension is more common in German than in English?

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