Case in Grammar

by Craig Shrives

What Is Case in Grammar? (with Examples)

Case shows a noun's or a pronoun's relationship with the other words in a sentence.

Here are the main cases you will encounter in English:
grammatical case

In English, nouns do not change their forms in any of the cases other than the possessive case (e.g., Lee becomes Lee's). Pronouns, however, change their forms in the possessive case (e.g., he becomes his) and the objective case (e.g., he becomes him).

When studying a foreign language, you will quickly encounter the following terms:

Easy Examples of Case

The table below shows how nouns and pronouns change (or don't) in the various cases.
Possessive CaseVocative
you (singular)youyouryoursGet off, you.
he / she / ithim / her / ithis / her / itshis / hers / its
you (plural)youyouryoursYou, scram!
dogdogdog'sHands up, dog.
dogsdogsdogs'Run away, dogs.

More Examples of the Subjective Case

The subjective case (shaded in these examples) is for a noun or pronoun that is the subject of a verb (i.e., the person or thing carrying out the action). For example:
  • Lee went to Greggs. He supports Greggs.
  • Weighing 23,237 pounds, the world's largest meat pie was made by 17 catering students from Stratford-upon-Avon College.
  • (You will notice the whole noun phrase is shaded, not just the head noun (pie). In English, nouns don't change their forms in the various cases, but in other languages they might – as might any adjectives or determiners of the head noun. More on this to come...)
The subjective case is also used for a subject complement (shown in bold). A subject complement completes a linking verb (e.g., to be, to seem, to smell). For example:
  • Almonds are a member of the peach family.
  • (Are is a linking verb.)
  • It was he.
  • (Through common usage, "It was him" is also acceptable.)

More Examples of the Objective Case

The objective case (shaded) is for a noun or pronoun that is one of the following: Direct Object. You can find the direct object by finding the verb (shown in bold in the two examples below) and asking "what?" or "whom?" (in other words, by finding what the verb is acting upon). For example:
  • Frogs don't drink water. They absorb it.
  • If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you first must invent the universe. (Astronomer Carl Sagan)
Indirect Object. You can find the indirect object (shown in bold in the two examples below) by finding the recipient of the direct object. The indirect object is usually the beneficiary of the action. (Remember that everything in the objective case is shaded.)
  • Give her this message.
  • (This message is the direct object. Her is the indirect object, i.e., the recipient of this message.)
  • Computers are useless. They can only give you answers. (Painter Pablo Picasso)
  • (The direct object is answers. You is the indirect object, i.e., the recipient of answers.)
Object of a Preposition. The object of a preposition is the noun of pronoun governed by a preposition (e.g., around, against, with, in, on, by, of). (The prepositions are bolded in these two examples.)
  • Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg travelled around the world in 80 days.
  • Kites rise highest against the wind not with it. (Prime Minister Winston Churchill)
Read more about objects in grammar.

More Examples of the Possessive Case

The possessive case (shaded) shows possession. With nouns, it is shown with an apostrophe. Pronouns in the possessive case come in two forms: possessive determiners (e.g., my, your) and possessive pronouns (e.g., mine, yours).
  • An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.
  • Bader's philosophy was my philosophy. His whole attitude to life was mine. (Actor Kenneth More, who played RAF fighter ace Douglas Bader in "Reach for the Sky")
Read more about using apostrophes. Read more about possessive nouns. Read more about possessive determiners. Read more about possessive pronouns.

More Examples of the Vocative Case

The vocative case (shaded) shows when something (usually a person) is being addressed directly. Words in the vocative case are offset with comma(s).
  • Ladies and gentleman, please take your seats.
  • Come here, you big lump. Take your noogie like a man.
  • I know your auntie, David.
Read more about commas and the vocative case.

Examples of the Accusative Case

You are most likely to encounter the term "accusative case" when studying a foreign language. The accusative case's main function is to show the direct object of a verb. In English, the accusative case falls under the objective case.
  • Anteaters prefer termites.
  • Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for stars. (Comedian Fred Allen)
  • Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
When studying other languages, you might also encounter a list of prepositions that take the accusative case. For example, in German, the following take the accusative case: bis, durch, entlang, für, gegen, ohne, and um.

Examples of the Dative Case

You are most likely to encounter the term "dative case" when studying a foreign language. The dative case's main function is to show the indirect object of a verb. In English, the dative case falls under the objective case.

Here are some examples of nouns and pronouns as indirect objects (i.e., in the dative case):
  • If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank. (Woody Allen)
  • (The direct object is some clear sign. The indirect object (i.e., the recipient of the action) is me. Therefore, me is in the dative case.)
  • Count not him among your friends who will retail your privacies to the world. (Latin writer Publilius Syrus)
  • (The indirect object often follows a preposition like to or for.)
Particularly when studying other languages, you might encounter prepositions that take the dative case. For example, in German, the following take the dative case: aus, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, and zu.

You might also encounter dual-case prepositions, which can take the accusative case or the dative case. Typically, they take the accusative with a verb involving movement from one place to another but the dative when there's no movement involved.
  • The mouse ran under the bed.
  • (Here, in German for example, the bed would be in the accusative case (unter das Bett) because there is movement towards the bed.)
  • The mouse is under the bed.
  • (Here, in German, the bed would be in the dative case (unter dem Bett) because it's about being located under the bed; i.e., there's no movement towards it.)
In English, it's all the objective case, and we never change the bed anyway ("eww" from a hygiene perspective but "yay" from a grammatical one).

Examples of the Instrumental Case

You are most likely to encounter the term "instrumental case" when studying a foreign language, particularly a Slavic one. The case's main function is to show that a noun is the means by which the action is achieved. In English, we do this with prepositions, typically by and with, and the objective case. We don't use the term instrumental case.
  • Idem na posao autobusom.
  • (This is Bosnian for "I travel to work by bus." The Bosnian word for bus is autobus. The -om ending puts it in the instrumental case, showing it's the means by which the action (travel) is achieved.)
Well, we've covered a bit of German and a bit of Bosnian in this entry, and there's a good reason for that. Learning about the various cases is essential for learning languages because in many the nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, and even numbers take different forms depending on their case. For Brits, case is easy. Some of us are a bit sloppy with the apostrophes in possessive nouns or the vocative case, but we're all awesome at getting pronouns right in their various cases. That said, here are three noteworthy points related to case.

(Point 1) Don't get possessive apostrophes wrong.

The rules for creating possessive-case nouns cause a headache for some, and grammar checkers often can't help because wrong versions are often feasibly correct versions from the grammar checker's perspective.
  • I have one dog, not two, one. I definitely have just one dog. My dogs' kennel is green. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong (it should be dog's), but a grammar checker wouldn't spot it because dogs' kennel (meaning kennel of more than one dog) is a grammatically sound phrase. The grammar checker ignores the sentences before. It just checks dogs' kennel.)
Read more about using apostrophes. (NB: We have a short YouTube video that explains how to use possessive apostrophes.)

(Point 2) Don't forget to use a comma for the vocative case.

You might not have heard of the vocative comma, but there are plenty of times when you should be using one.
  • Hi, John
  • See you later, darling.
  • Clean your room, Mark.
  • Dear Lee, thanks for the all the whelks.
Also, keep an eye out for this. When your sentence ends with a word in the vocative case, be sure to end your sentence properly before starting a new one. For example:
  • Take it from me, dear, it's not true. wrong cross
  • (This is called a run-on error. You can't end a sentence with a comma and then write another sentence.)
  • Take it from me, dear. It's not true. correct tick

(Point 3) Don't put apostrophes in possessive-case pronouns.

Apostrophes are used with possessive-case nouns (e.g., parson's nose), but they're not used with the possessive-case pronouns, especially not yours, hers, ours, or theirs, which are particularly prone to this mistake.
  • Bull reindeer lose their antlers in winter. The cows lose their's in the summer. wrong cross
Also, there's no apostrophe in the possessive determiner its. No, really there isn't. It's is always a contraction of it is or it has.
  • A cat always lands on it's feet. wrong cross
Read more about its and it's.

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