I, me, you, him, he, who, whom, its, hers, their, you, them: These pronouns all exhibit the phenomenon of case. They are pronouns that are spelled differently depending on their function in the syntax of a sentence. Questions about their proper use can generate great puzzlement among everyday users of English. Case refers to the relationship of nouns to the sentence, and what that relationship is: does the word refer to the actor (subjective case) or the acted upon (objective case)? Is a noun on top of something, in front of something, for someone or something, going to someone or something? In English, we mainly use prepositions to express these relationships. We throw a mackeral to the cat, or we throw the cat a mackeral. In any case, we don't change the way we spell cat; it has no case. But if I throw the ball to him or I throw him the ball, I spell him differently than if he threw the ball. In other languages, the ending of the noun indicates wherther a noun is to/for something (the dative in Latin) or from/with/in/by something (the ablative in Latin). In English, for example, the indirect object in the sentence Posada threw Sabathia the ball is Sabathia. We could say the indirect object Sabathia is a dative of position, because the position of the word expresses that the ball was thrown to Sabathia.


In the July 9 issue of the London Review of Books, reviewer Leofranc Holford-Strevens looks at


The Oxford Handbook of Case 
The Oxford Handbook of Case

edited by Andrej Malchukov and Andrew Spencer

Only a true grammar geek might greet such a book with actual joy (as I did -- time to put on my beanie!), but it is a fascinating tome. Holford-Strevens opens his review by noting:

"English-speakers who have not had the good fortune to be exposed early to Greek or Latin, or even to their own language as it existed before the Norman Conquest, tend to find the notion of grammatical case baffling despite the survival in English of a genitive case (renamed possessive) and the distinction between subject and object pronouns in the first and third persons."

He's right. We do find case baffling. Comprehending this book in its entirety seems to have been beyond even Holford-Strevens's considerable capabilities, but a peek at his review reveals such amazing stuff as the information that there exists "rare and exotic cases, such as Australian aversive cases (for fear of X) and Himalayan altitudinal cases that distinguish motion up, down and on the level." We are assured that "it is no mere freakshow, for we are warned that by world standards European languages are unusual in making the experiencer the subject of the verb."


Whew! Back down to earth here, what can case help us with in our everyday English?

First, we can distinguish correctly between "I" and "me" and between "who" and "whom," as explained in a former post here on BN's Max Syntax, Let's Be Objective.

Second, we can work with the genitive, or possessive case as it is called in English, with confidence.

There is some question among grammarians about whether the possessive in English really is the genitive, but let's put that aside. Certainly one function of the genitive is to indicate possession, and the ’s ending in English does do that.

Possessives are formed by adding ’s to the subject case of a noun. Julio, Julio's; the kitten, the kitten's; the car, the car's. If a group possesses something, and the group is expressed in a plural that ends in -s, do not add the ’s just the ' : the cars', the kittens'. If the group is expressed in a plural that does not end in ’s, add the ’s: the children's, the gaggle's.

What about the question of a Yankees pitcher, or a plumbers union? Hmm. This depends partly on the style of the publication but also on some thoughts about case and function. Sometimes the word before a noun that modifies that noun is neither an adjective nor a possessive. It can be an attributive noun. Think of woman president, high school principal, and the like. So, one can consider Yankees an attributive noun rather than a possessive and not need to worry about those apostrophes.

And of course, the question of whether a singular proper noun ending in s gets either an 's or just an ' is a matter of style. Many publications choose to add the 's to proper names, such as Degas's; many have the caveat that that usage is fine as long as the word that ends in -s should not end with an -eez sound, as in Rameses'. Many make an exception for the names Jesus and Moses.

But style and punctuation questions are a bit far afield from grammar and syntax. Let us case-hardened readers return for a refreshing dip in the LRB review, enjoying a bit about: "the dative for the person affected favourably or unfavourably by the action, what Latin grammarians call dativus commodi vel incommodi. Polish uses the dative both when Peter opens a tin of sardines for Paul and when he opens the door for him, Paul being in either instance enabled to perform an action. English uses the dative only when the action Paul is enabled to perform will be carried out on the direct object, so that Peter opened Paul a tin of sardines is (she says) legitimate (I should find it easier with him, but no matter), since Paul eats the sardines (though not the tin), but Peter opened Paul the door is not, since he merely passes through the doorway. On the other hand, Polish would not use the dative if Peter shut the door on Paul; whereas in Latin Massilienses portas Caesari clauserant, ‘the Marseillais had closed the gates against Caesar,’ is perfectly idiomatic."

Refreshing! I love this stuff.
Message Edited by Ellen_Scordato on 07-15-2009 02:31 PM
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