Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 4.1. What is case? 4.2. Uses of the cases
4.2.1. Nominative 4.2.2. Accusative 4.2.3. Genitive 4.2.4. Dative 4.2.5. Instrumental

4. Case

4.1. What is case?

Case is the inflection of nouns, pronouns and adjectives to signal their functions in sentences and clauses. Those who have studied Latin or German know the concept of case well, for it is important in those languages.

In Modern English, however, case has nearly disappeared. Adjectives have no case endings at all. Nouns are generally inflected for case only when singular, and then only by adding ’s to form the possessive. In these sentences, the difference in form between the two italicized words is one of case:[1]

The plural possessive, s’, is for the most part merely a graphical convention, though we do occasionally make an audible possessive plural by adding ’s to an anomalous plural form like men.
The king is in the hall.
The king’s bodyguard is in the tavern.

We make more case distinctions with pronouns than we do with nouns. We use one form for subjects:

We will learn this language.
She sold lemon platt.

We use another form for direct objects, indirect objects and objects of prepositions:

They beat us at bridge.
Don’t lie to me.
Reader, I married him.

And we use still another form for possessives:

Our swords are better than your swords.
My mother warned me about their wiles.

Modern English distinctions such as king/king’s, I/me/my, he/him/his and we/us/our have descended to us directly from Old English, though over the centuries the number of distinct case forms, and even the number of cases, has declined. Modern English pronouns have at most three cases, which grammarians call subjective, objective and possessive. Old English, on the other hand, had five: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and instrumental.

4.2. Uses of the cases

Case, as mentioned above, tells us something about the function of a noun, adjective or pronoun in a sentence or clause. You will find that quite often you must recognize the case of a word before you can decide whether it is a subject, object, or something else, just as you may have to recognize the distinction between king and king’s to understand a Modern English sentence.

But it is worth pointing out as well that you will not always be able to recognize the case of a word by its ending. For example, the nominative singular form of the Old English word for “name” is nama, but the other singular forms are all naman, and the nominative and accusative plural forms are also naman. That there are five cases in Old English and that any noun can be either singular or plural might lead you to expect ten distinct forms of every noun. But there are only four distinct forms of the word nama ‘name’, and no Old English noun has more than six distinct forms.

Obviously, Old English must have had some feature other than case to help speakers and listeners decide what a noun, adjective or pronoun was doing in a sentence. In Modern English, word-order tells us most of what we need to know. In the sentence “Rover bit Fido,” we understand that the subject of the sentence is Rover, the verb is bit, and the object is Fido because the standard word-order in a declarative English sentence is Subject-Verb-Object. There are more permissible word-orders in Old English than in Modern English, but Old English word-order is not at all “free,” as some sources may tell you. In fact there are just a few common word-orders. If you learn what to expect, you will find that word-order is a help in Old English, just as it is in Modern English.

Word-order will be discussed more fully in Chapter 12. The point we are making here is that case is only one of the signals, along with word-order and your feeling for what makes sense in a particular context, that tell you how a word is functioning in a sentence.

Before we throw a lot of case forms at you (in the next chapter), we will discuss the functions of each case.

4.2.1. Nominative

The nominative case has few functions, and since there are few complications in its use, it is very easy to understand.


The subject of any sentence or clause will be in the nominative case.


The complement (the word on the other side of a copula or “linking verb,” usually “to be”) is always in the nominative. In this sentence:

Sēo sunne is swīðe brād
[The sun is very broad]

both sunne (the subject) and brād (the complement) are in the nominative case.

Direct address.

When the speaker addresses someone directly, the name or title by which he calls the person he is speaking to is nominative. In this sentence

Ġeseoh þū, cyning, hwelċ þēos lār sīe
[See, king, what kind of teaching this is]

cyning ‘king’ is nominative.

4.2.2. Accusative

Direct objects of transitive verbs are usually in the accusative case. Thus in this sentence:

His āgen swustor bebyrġde his līċ
[His own sister buried his corpse]

līċ ‘corpse’ is accusative. Objects of certain prepositions are sometimes or always accusative, and the accusative can be used adverbially in certain expressions of time.

In Old English the accusative has partly fallen together with the nominative. For example, nominative and accusative are never distinguished in the plural or in any neuter noun, pronoun or adjective, and they have also fallen together in the singular of strong masculine nouns.

4.2.3. Genitive

To put it very broadly indeed, the genitive modifies or limits a word (usually a noun) by associating it with something. For example, in the phrase þæs cyninges sweord ‘the king’s sword’, the sense of sweord is modified by our saying that it belongs to the king: we’re not speaking of just any sword. In this respect, a word in the genitive case is like an adjective, limiting the reference of the word it is associated with.

Most genitives fall into one of three categories:


This is the ancestor of the Modern English “possessive case.” It does not always indicate actual possession, but often some other kind of association. For example, sanctes Ēadmundes mæssedæġ ‘the feast of St. Edmund’ does not mean that the day actually belongs to St. Edmund, but rather that he is venerated on that day.


The partitive genitive represents the whole collection of things to which a particular thing or subset of things belongs, for example, ǣlċ þāra manna ‘each of the men’, ealra cyninga betst ‘best of all kings’. As the translations with “of” suggest, Modern English has a roughly similar construction made with the preposition of; but Old English used the partitive genitive much more extensively than we use this partitive construction, for example, maniġ manna ‘many men’, twelf mīla lang ‘twelve miles long’. Expect to find the partitive genitive used with any word that expresses number, quantity or partition.


This genitive attributes a quality to a thing, for example,

þæt lamb sceal bēon hwītes hīwes
[the lamb must be of a white color]

Here the translation with of echoes the genitive construction and shows that similar constructions are still possible in Modern English, but it is now more idiomatic to say “white in color.”

A few prepositions sometimes have objects in the genitive case, and some verbs have genitive direct objects. Genitive constructions may also be used adverbially, especially in expressions of time.

4.2.4. Dative

In all of the Germanic languages the dative case is an amalgam of several older cases that have fallen together: dative, locative, ablative, and instrumental. Old English retains traces of the instrumental case, but for the most part that too has fallen together with the dative.

In view of its diverse origins, it should be no surprise that the dative case has a variety of functions. Of these, the easiest for the speaker of Modern English to understand is that of object of a preposition. The objects of certain prepositions (æfter, æt, be, fram, mid, of, ) are usually or always in the dative case. With other prepositions the case may be either dative or accusative, depending on the writer’s dialect or the meaning of the preposition.

But the dative can be used without prepositions, and then the modern reader must be aware of its possible meanings:


Here the dative signifies that one is in some way interested in the outcome of an action. This category includes the “indirect object”:

Ġif him his sweord
[Give him his sword]

But the dative of interest also covers situations in which something has been taken away:

Benam hē him his bisceopscīre
[He took his bishopric away from him]
Direct object.

Some verbs have their direct objects in the dative case. It is not always easy to tell the difference between a direct and an indirect object: for example, should we translate him hīerde as “obeyed him” or “was obedient to him”? But in this matter it is sufficient for the student to be guided by modern usage and leave the technical aspects to the linguists.


The dative often indicates possession, for example:

Him wæs ġeōmor sefa
[Theirs was a sad mind (i.e. Their minds were sad)]

Often the dative of possession may also be interpreted as a dative of interest.


The dative may express likeness or equality:

and ġē bēoð þonne enġlum gelīċe
[and you will then be like the angels]

The dative that expresses unlikeness is rare enough that beginners probably should not worry about it.

Instrument, means, manner.

These senses of the dative overlap, and so are grouped together here. In Modern English we generally express them with prepositions like “with” and “by,” for example, “Ecgferth struck Æthelbryht with his sword”; “He was wounded by a spear”; “We sing the mass with joy.” In Old English, too, instrument, means and manner can be expressed with prepositions, especially mid and fram. But they are very commonly expressed by the dative alone, for example,

for þan iċ hine sweorde   swebban nelle
[therefore I will not kill him with a sword]
(Beowulf, l. 679)
þū scealt yfelum dēaðe sweltan
[you must die by a wretched death]

This usage is especially common in poetry. To express the instrument, Old English may use the instrumental case (which exists only in the masculine and neuter singular), but it may equally well use the dative.

When translating the dative, it is often necessary to supply a preposition, because in Modern English prepositions very commonly express what used to be expressed by the dative alone.

4.2.5. Instrumental

The instrumental case was disappearing during the centuries when Old English was being written. It has a distinct form only in masculine and neuter singular adjectives and pronouns; everywhere else the dative is used.

Instrument, means, manner.

These uses occur mainly in early texts, for example:

hē forðon fǣġre ænde his lif betȳnde.
[he therefore concluded his life with a beautiful end.]

This usage is not common, but it does occur in the Chronicle entry for 755, which students often read:

Ond þā ġeascode hē þone cyning lȳtle werode
[And then he learned of the king (being) with a little force]
Expressions of time.

Such expressions are largely formulaic, for example, ǣlċe dæġe ‘each day,’ þȳ ilcan ġēare ‘in the same year’. They occur frequently in both early and late texts.