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The category of case

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It serves to express relations between words and the differences between syntactic functions of words. In the course of linguistic investigation the category of case in English has become one of the vexed problems of theoretical discussion. Usually we say that there are two cases in English. But some scholars say there are more than two cases, others – no cases at all.

Analysing this problem we can single out 4 special views worked out at various times by different scholars:

1) The theory of positional cases (J.C.Nesfield, M.Deutchbein and others). In accordance with this theory, the unchangeable forms of the nouns are differentiated as different cases by value of functional positions occupied by the noun in the sentence. Cases: Nominative (subject to a verb) e.g. Rain falls.


Vocative (address) e.g. Are you coming my friend?

Dative (indirect object to a verb) e.g. I gave him a penny.

Accusative (direct object or object to a preposition) e.g. The man killed a rat. The earth is moistened by rain.

Case, by definition, is the variable morphological form of the noun and this theory substitutes the functional characteristics of the part of the sentence for the morphological features of the word class.

2) Theory of the prepositional cases (connected with the old school grammar teaching)


Combinations of nouns with prepositions in certain collocations should be understood as morphological case forms: Nominative a table

Genitive – of the table

Dative to the table

Accusative a table

Locative on the table

Instrumental with the table, by the table


G.Curme believes there are 4 classes in English (Nom., Gen., Dat., Accus.). According to Curme case relations can be rendered morphologically (grammatical endings), with the help of prepositions, by word order, by context. He names these prepositions “inflexional”, i.e. grammatical elements, equivalent to case forms. Thus, a problem of analytical cases appears. Some grammarians refer combinations like ofthe table,onthe tableto analytical grammatical forms. We can’t agree with this because:

- the auxiliary element is semantically empty, prepositions preserve their lexical meaning.

- analytical forms must be apposed to synthetic ones. Besides, prepositions may be used with the common and the possessive case.

3) “Limited case theory” was formulated by Sweet, Jesperson, Smirnitsky, Barkhudarov. This theory recognizes a limited inflexional system of two cases in English, one of them marked and the other one unmarked.

4) Theory of possessive postposition (Vorontsova). Essense: English noun has completely lost the category of case in the course of its historical development. All the nounal cases, including genitive, are considered as extinct and the lingual unit which is named by force of tradition “genitive case”, in reality is the combination of the noun with a postposition ‘s.

Reasons: ‘s is not a morpheme because

- the use of it is not obligatory. It’s optional: e.g. The frock of my mother.;

- ‘s is used both in plural and singular forms (in contrast with true morphemes);

- ‘s can be attached not only to individual words , but to groups of words: e.g. The man I saw in the morning’s programme.

- ‘scan be attached to different parts of speech (yesterday’s events), not only nouns.

Reasons against:

- It’s not surprising that there are two ways of expressing syntactic relations. There can be different variants (lexical, grammatical).

- “yesterday” in English can be treated as a noun and, as it has possessive case.

- “The man I saw in the morning” can be treated as a compound noun.


The solution of the problem is to be sought in a critical synthesis of the positive statements of the two theories: the limited case theory and the possessive postposition theory.

Thus, today we reveal the grammatical category of case by the binary opposition of common and possessive forms: e.g. boy – boy’s (the strong member is marked by the inflexion of the particle nature). It’s evident from the fact that it’s added in post-position both to individual nouns and to word-groups.

There is a theory that the marked member of this opposition is derived from the Old English possessive pronoun. In Old English period they said: John his hat, my God his gracious letters. By the process of contraction it was changed into John’s hat, God’s letters. ‘s became a grammatical ending. Later, by analogy it was combined with feminine and plurals. The form with ‘s is called Possessive case. Nowadays, they don’t employ the term Genitive case because of the difference between them. The meaning of the genitive case is broader than that of Possessive. The genitive case of Old English was used to express not only attributive relations but also the objective relations just as it is possible in Russian. It is wrong to assume that the meaning of the possessive case is that of possession only (answering the question Whose?). It expresses many different but related meanings.


Regular use: Father’s chair (= only he usually sits on);

Relationship: Angela’s son (= Angela has a son);

Favourite: fish is John’s favourite dish;

Actions: Scott’s journey (= the journey Scott made);

Purpose: A girl’s school (= a school for girls);

Characteristics: John’s stammer (= John has a stammer);

Others: Building oil rigs is a man’s work (= suitable for)

Mozart is a composer’s composer (= appreciated by).

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