Making a Case for Words in English

Many problems in English come from using the objective case where the subjective case should have been used or using the subjective case for where the objective case is correct. The errors occur mostly with pronouns, the words that take the place of nouns in order to avoid annoying repetition.

Some of these errors are so prevalent that it appears they may eventually become an acceptable part of English despite their blatant incorrectness.

For example, if there is a knocking at the door, the response to the question, “Who is it?” should be, “It is I.” But the tendency is to use, “It’s me.” That is clearly a violation of pronoun and antecedent agreement where IT is subjective and ME is objective. But, to attempt to change the habits of the world is as difficult as to change the rotation of the earth.

Another example is the incorrect application of subject case or objective case in each of the following:

Me and her are going to feed Heathrow his meat and potatoes.

Heathrow took the meat and potatoes from my friend and I.

The correct forms should be:

She and I are going to feed Heathrow his meat and potatoes.

Heathrow took his meat and potatoes from my friend and me.

Since pronouns still have variations in case form, unlike the nouns whose place they take, that is where the problems occur.

To put the names to which the pronouns refer would solve the problem.

Larry and Hermione are going to feed Heathrow his meat and potatoes.

Heathrow took his meat and potatoes from my friend Hermione and Larry (That is I.) [See how awkward the correct form, That is I, sounds because it is so rarely used?

Pronouns still use CASE forms to identify their particular usage in the context of the sentence. Unfortunately, inadequate teaching, poor learning, or a combination of the two has perpetuated the problem. One cannot correct what he doesn’t recognize as incorrect. Before you can understand the problems of CASE, you must first know WHAT case is, where it comes from, and why it is called what it is.

The past participle of the Latin infinitive cadere (to fall) is casus, from which English has derived one of its most difficult concepts for students to grasp: Case! What kind of convoluted ideology went into making THAT a part of English grammar? It is a remnant of Latin via Greek. The term merely refers to the fact that the inflections (endings attached to a base to signify meaning) actually had been depicted on a graph to show how the patterns fell progressively from the Nominative through the Locative. Use your imagination to focus on what I mean. I will give you two methods with which to work.

1. Visualize a straight line just like any one of the horizontals on a sheet of lined paper. Place, in your mind a perpendicular from its center upwards (like a huge plus sign (+) without the part sticking down below the horizontal).

Perhaps a right triangle without the hypotenuse would be easier to grasp.

2. The area between the top of the vertical and the right end of the horizontal is the “falling zone” or that area in which the Greeks considered where the incidents of the cases would fall (fell: casus) in order from the nominative to the locative.

3. Consider the vertical leg to be the NOMINATIVE CASE and the horizontal to be the last case in the series to be the LOCATIVE CASE.

4. Now consider 5 straight lines beginning at the vertex, the inner part of the right angle, shooting outward to form decreasing degrees in 20 degree increments.

5. Each of these lines represent the seven cases which are enumerated below:

a. NOMINATIVE: This is the case for all words that function (act like, perform as, are designated as, look like) SUBJECTS, or PREDICATE NOMINATIVE.

b. GENITIVE: The genitive case {from the past participle of gignere [to beget ( see John, I, 1), genitus]} refers to all words that show possession, measurement or source.

Hunh? You know, this ball is John’s ( possession), I.e., it is the ball of John. That is possession.

What about measurement? Ahhh – John walked a distance of a mile. OF A MILE measures a distance so that the word MILE in Latin would take the genitive case.

Source: We are residents OF ROME; the book is made OF PAPER PRODUCTS ( double genitive: source and possession).

c. DATIVE: By its name alone and without any knowledge of Latin, a reader would have no clue why this mysterious case is called DATIVE. Look at the source. It comes from the Latin word DARE [pronounced dah ray] which is the infinitive for the English word GIVE (etymology is found at the end of the entry in a good dictionary). How is “give” pertinent to DATIVE? The DATIVE case applies to words that represent recipients of that which is given. Hence, in the sentence: Mama gave Heathrow his share of meat and potatoes, – Mama is the giver; Heathrow is the receiver; and meat and potatoes are what were given to Heathrow ( who was really in the mood for pasta). Heathrow, in Latin, would be in the Dative case; but, in English it would be called an indirect object for no other reason than there was no good way to express the relationship directly. In fact, the term Indirect Object in English sheds no light on its meaning or relevance. That is probably the reason for its atrophy – its ultimate disuse – as a relevant term in English grammar.

d. The third line would represent the ACCUSATIVE case, the one into which any words that are DIRECT OBJECTS (For whatever reason they are called that – ) in English. The word ACCUSATIVE itself is actually a mistaken interpretation (mistranslation?) for the Greek word AITIATIKE, which represents that which is CAUSED by, or the RESULT of the verb. The immediately aforementioned is really more than you, dear reader, really need to know. Hence, when Heathrow received his meat and potatoes, those items were the result of the giving, and he, Heathrow, was the recipient (indirect object, dative case) of the verb. Just to toss in a little complication for flavor, the Latin ACCUSATIVE CASE is also used for certain prepositions that show direction, etc. Too esoteric for you? Okay. Skip that and I will address those issues in another article.

e. The fourth line is for the oh, so complex ABLATIVE CASE in Latin, a case that has so many twists and turns it deserves an entry all to itself. On the surface it is the case that embraces specific objects of prepositions that show separation (as in THE SENATOR LEFT ROME), or the manner in which an action is done, or the agency through which an action is done, or the means (without a preposition) by which an action is done, or the direction away from which an object leaves the scene. Furthermore, the ablative case has adopted the essence of what is affectionately known as (and cursed) the ABLATIVE ABSOLUTE. Its equivalent in English is the oft ignored Nominative Absolute, which has the same function: to create a phrasal unit that in itself has no grammatical relationship to the main or dependent clauses in a sentence but which DOES have some pertinent information to render its existence valuable. I could have a sentence of its own, but it probably doesn’t deserve one.

f. The fifth line goes to the LOCATIVE or VOCATIVE case, whichever you prefer to NOT put at the bottom. I chose the VOCATIVE, which has its root in the word VOCARE, meaning to CALL. Hence, the vocative case is designated specifically for DIRECT ADDRESS, or speaking directly to a person, place, or thing (as one may do with personification in poetry).

e.g., Heathrow (Vocative case), your meat an potatoes are ready.

g. The last line, which forms the base of the right angle, goes to whichever of the two didn’t go on the previous line. In this case, it is the LOCATIVE CASE, which is reserved for specific places as in: Heathrow is at home waiting for his meat and potatoes. The word HOME, in Latin, would take the Vocative case.

What happened to all these cases in English? They still exist, but English as melded some of them into one.

The nominative case, also known as the Subjective Case, has as its members all words that are subjects, predicate nominatives, and predicate adjectives. However, just as rules are meant to be broken, there are exceptions. The subject of infinitives are in the Objective Case. Thus, in the sentence: I knew Heathrow to be the one to eat meat and potatoes, in Latin, Heathrow would be in the objective case (as subject of the infinitive, to be; and ONE would be in the objective case as the subject of the infinitive TO EAT.

The Genitive case is now known as the Possessive case and its indicators are either the word OF or the apostrophe ess (‘s) added to a word or any such substantive.

All the other cases have been absorbed into one English catch all case called the OBJECTIVE case. It takes in all objects of prepositions, direct and indirect objects, and all functions of the ablative as well as the locative. The vocative has been renamed and called by its function: direct address.

But, the most distinctive change is that the endings (inflections) have been eliminated. Simplicity? Laziness? Practicality? Just the winds of change? Whatever the reason, the endings are gone. Their ghosts are still somewhat evident in some pronouns, but that is another article to be addressed in the future.

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