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What Are The Grammatical Cases?

Don’t let the words nominative and ablative intimidate you.
What Are The Grammatical Cases?

People don’t think about grammatical cases very much when they’re speaking, especially if they’re speaking their native language. You don’t necessarily need to be taught what nominative, dative and genitive are in your first language, because it’s part of the grammar you naturally absorb. When you’re learning a new language, however, case might become a crucial topic to know about.

Part of the reason English speakers don’t need to know much about grammatical cases is that they don’t affect English grammar very much. With the exception of pronouns, nouns are pretty much the same no matter what case they’re in. But whether you’re learning a language like Polish where case does matter a lot or you’re just interested in how sentences work, learning about grammatical cases is very useful. Here, we’ll go one by one through the cases, featuring English sentences as examples.

Breaking Down The Grammatical Cases

First, we need to mention that this is not a comprehensive list of every possible grammatical case. The famously difficult Hungarian language, for example, has 17 different ones. These are the most common ones you’re likely to run into. Many of them are differentiated in English by what pronouns work in their place, or by what preposition the noun appears with.

Nominative

A noun in a nominative case is the one performing the action of the sentence. In English, it often directly precedes the verb. It also corresponds to being the subject of a sentence.

Answers The Question: Who or what is performing the verb in the sentence?

Pronouns: I, he, she, they, we, it

Examples

  • The man ran across the bridge.
  • Jenny couldn’t believe her own excitement.
  • They saw her yesterday.

Accusative

A noun in the accusative case is generally the person, place or thing being acted upon in the sentence. In English, that usually comes immediately after the verb, and it corresponds to being the direct object of the sentence. Sometimes, the accusative will also include the preposition “for” as long as the following noun refers to the recipient of the verb’s action.

Answers The Question: Who or what is the verb of the sentence being performed on?

Pronouns: me, him, her, them, us, it

Associated Preposition(s): for

Examples

  • They gave the promotion to him.
  • Amir drove for us.
  • You should see the tall, strange skyscraper.

Dative

Accusative is the direct object, and dative is the indirect object of a sentence. It’s often associated with the preposition “to,” as it refers to the noun that the verb of the sentence is being done to. In some cases, the dative noun will appear immediately after the verb.

Answers The Question: To whom is the verb of the sentence being done?

Pronouns: me, him, her, them, us, it

Associated Preposition(s): to

Examples

  • They gave the promotion to him.
  • The shopkeeper gave her the book.
  • I hit the ball to first base.

Objective/Oblique

As you can see above, the dative and accusative use the same set of pronouns, which are called the object pronouns. That’s because in modern English, those two cases are combined into a single objective, or oblique, case. (Objective and oblique are technically slightly different, but that difference is of more interest to linguists than people learning a new language.) 

Genitive

The genitive case refers to nouns that possess another noun. The vast majority of nouns in the genitive case are followed by an apostrophe and an S.

Answers The Question: Who or what does this noun belong to? Or, of what does this noun come from?

Pronouns: mine, his, hers, theirs, ours, its

Associated Preposition(s): of

Examples

  • I need to return Elin’s car.
  • This dog of ours has a lot of energy.
  • He heard the sound of the clock.
  • He couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Vocative

The vocative case refers to nouns that are being addressed by a speaker. They’re very often proper nouns.

Answers The Question: Who or what is the speaker addressing?

Examples

  • Listen to me, Cecilia.
  • Hello, cat.
  • Mino, did you hear the news?

Locative

As you might be able to guess from the name, the locative case is for nouns that tell you the setting or location of a place. In addition to physical location, the locative case can refer to temporal location. It often includes the prepositions at, in or on.

Answers The Question: Where or when did the verb happen?

Associated Preposition(s): at, in, on

Examples

  • I hadn’t seen her in the past.
  • She ate her sandwich on the beach.
  • Miranda got her dress at the thrift shop.

Ablative

The ablative case refers to a specific type of movement: the movement away from something else. It’s often preceded by the preposition “from.”

Answers The Question: From where or whom did the noun come?

Associated Preposition(s): from

Examples

  • The ball flew in from the outfield.
  • Do you live far from here?
  • He’s from Istanbul.

Instrumental

Once again, you can get a hint at this case’s meaning from its name. The instrumental case refers to the nouns that are used to perform the verb of the sentence. It can be associated with a number of different prepositions, particularly “with” and “by.”

Answers The Question: How or by what method was the verb of the sentence done?

Associated Preposition(s): with, by

Examples

  • He cut the zucchini with a knife.
  • It was deemed illegal by a court.
  • It seems like everything these days can be done by computer.
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Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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