13) Case for nouns and pronouns

Case for nouns and pronouns

Case is usually described quite vaguely as a way of classifying the relationship between the noun or pronoun and the other words in the sentence. There is only one situation with nouns where this case actually changes the form of the word in a sentence and that is during possession, such as ‘Ben’s jumper’ which has the apostrophe after the ‘n’ rather than be ‘Bens’. Some, therefore, will say there are only two types of case: the possessive, as just noted, and everything else. However, because the pronouns used vary based on the three different cases, we will be looking at all three.

In each of the following 3 sections we will begin looking at its relations to nouns and pronouns. Before we start though, because pronouns are the ones which change with case, here are some examples of corresponding pronouns in the subjective and objective case, simply as a reference table:

Subjective case Objective case
I me
you you
he him
she her
it it
we us
they them
who whom
whoever whomever

OK, so let’s start with subjective / nominative case:

1) Subjective / nominative case

Some examples of pronouns in the subjective case are:

I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who and whoever.

There are four different occasions when the noun is described as nominative, or subjective. They are as follows:

1.1 Subject of a verb

1.1.1 Nouns that are the subject of a verb.

When the noun is acting as a subject of the verb in a sentence it is considered under the nominative or subjective case. For example:

The dog bit the man.

Who bit the man? The answer is the ‘the dog’ which is the subject of the verb ‘bit.’ Therefore, ‘the dog’ would be under the nominative / subjective case. No change occurs to the noun in this situation; we are merely giving it a label.

1.1.2 Pronouns that are the subject of a verb.

Some examples of pronouns in the subjective case are:

I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, whoever

Here is an example where a pronoun is the subject of a verb in a sentence:

He punched the man.

Who punched the man? The answer is ‘He’ which is the subject of the verb ‘punched’. Therefore, the pronoun ‘he’ would be under the nominative/subjective case. This is important with pronouns because it changes which pronoun we use. For example, the above sentence wouldn’t be ‘Him punched the man’ because ‘He’ is the subject, and therefore in the nominative/subjective case. If ‘He’ wasn’t the subject, but instead the object, it would have been ‘him.’ For example it is:

John begged him to pass the ball. (correct)

not

John begged he to pass the ball. (incorrect)

Here ‘him’ is the object because it is having something done to it by the subject ‘John’. We find the direct object by finding the subject (‘John’) and the verb (‘begged’) then adding ‘whom?’ or ‘what?’ (subject + verb + whom/what?). This gives us the question: ‘John begged whom?’: The answer is ‘him’.

However, make whoever ‘him’ is the subject, and it becomes ‘he’ as in:

He laughed while John begged him to pass the ball.

Now we have ‘he’ in the subjective case because it is the subject of the verb ‘laughed’. Additionally, we have ‘him’ in the objective case in the subordinate clause ‘while John begged him to pass the ball’, where ‘John’ is now the subject.

Now let’s look at first, second, and third person.

If we are looking at first person singular in the nominative case, when the pronoun is the subject of the verb, the sentence would be:

I punched the man.

or, if plural:

We punched the man.

If we are looking at second person singular in the nominative case, when the pronoun is the subject of the verb, the sentence would be:

You punched the man.

and, in plural’ this does not change; it is still ‘You punched the man.’ It’s quite interesting they stay the same, isn’t it? To reiterate, imagine someone pointing at one person and saying ‘You punched the man.’ Then imagine the person pointing at a crowd of people and saying ‘You punched the man’. The same pronoun is used. I suppose there aren’t a lot of situations where we would refer to a group of people, or animals, as simply ‘you.’ We might qualify it with other words such as:

You guys did it.

or

You lot are horrible.

which sounds more natural.

If we are looking at third person singular in the nominative case, when the pronoun is the subject of the verb, the sentence would be:

He punched the man.

if masculine, or:

She punched the man.

if feminine.

There is also one other situation here, described as ‘neuter’ or ‘neutral.’ This is when something in the third person singular is neither masculine (he) or feminine (she). In this case the sentence becomes:

It punched the man.

A better example might be:

It bit the man.

Finally, for the plural it would be:

They punched the man.

A common mistake is to write something like:

John and me are having an interesting conversation. (incorrect)

Can you see why this is wrong? Well, the subject in this sentence is ‘John and me’ and we know that if a pronoun is a subject then it is in the subjective case. The subjective case would be ‘I’ not ‘me’. To make this clear, we wouldn’t write:

Me is having an interesting conversation. (incorrect)

Instead, we would write:

I am having an interesting conversation. (correct)

So, the correct answer would be:

John and I are having an interesting conversation. (correct)

We usually write the name of the other person – in this case ‘John’ – before we write ‘I’, for politeness.

For comparison, if the pronoun was an object, and therefore in the objective case, it would say

John enlightened me. (correct)

not

John enlightened I. (incorrect)

1.2 Predicate nominative

1.2.1 Predicate nominative for nouns

A predicate noun is a noun which occurs in the predicate part of the sentence. Predicate nouns are also in the subjective case, although this doesn’t lead to any inflection.

As has been discussed earlier, the predicate is what is being said about the subject in a sentence. As a reminder, in the sentence:

The leader is corrupt.

The subject is ‘The leader,’ and ‘ is corrupt’ is the predicate.

We also know that a noun is a word, phrase, or clause which names a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action.

The predicate noun combines these two terms, making it a word, phrase, or clause which names a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action and occurs in the predicate part of the sentence.

Predicate nouns are found after the linking verb. The linking verb is an important verb which acts to link the subject and the rest of the sentence talking about the subject. In the sentence ‘the leader is corrupt’ the linking verb is the word ‘is.’ One way of recognising these verbs is to note that they can be replaced with ‘equals.’ For example ‘The leader = corrupt.’ There are around 50 other linking verbs, and they can even be more than one word, such as ‘has been.’ Let’s look at some other examples of linking verbs within sentences:

The books are released in January.

The books = released in January.

 

Crocodiles look scary.

Crocodiles = scary.

 

Gorillas become dangerous when you look them in the eyes.

Gorillas = dangerous when you look them in the eyes.

The purpose of the linking verb is to articulate a state of being, rather than the action we see in many other verbs. Consequently, the predicate noun, which comes after a linking verb, works to rename – or in some way identify – the subject. In the sentence ‘The leader is the president‘ the predicate noun is ‘the president.’ To reiterate, ‘the president’ is part of the predicate and is linked to the subject ‘The leader’ by the linking verb ‘is.’ This has led to ‘The leader’ being renamed as ‘the president.’ Let’s look at another sentence:

That animal is a gorilla.

That animal = a gorilla.

Here, the subject is ‘that animal’ the predicate is ‘is a gorilla’ and the predicate noun is ‘a gorilla’. The predicate noun is renaming the subject ‘the animal’ into ‘a gorilla’.

It isn’t always nouns that come after linking verbs though, we also have predicate adjectives. These will be dealt with later, but let’s look at an example, in case it is causing confusion now.

That animal is massive.

Here we have the subject ‘that animal’ + the linking verb ‘is’ + the predicate ‘is massive’. This time we have the adjective ‘massive’ after the linking verb, which is modifying the noun phrase ‘that animal’. Why is it an adjective and not a noun? Well, a noun is a word, phrase, or clause which names a person, animal, place, thing, quality, state or action. The word ‘massive’ is not renaming the animal, it is more modifying it by giving an extra detail about it; it is telling us something about the size of the animal.

Because predicate nouns modify the subject, they are sometimes also called the ‘subject complement’.

1.2.2 Predicate nominative for pronouns

Situations where we replace the predicate noun with a pronoun are less common. Usually, they will be at the end of a sentence, and often sound a little archaic, like something from an old novel, or play. For example:

The ruler is I.

The ruler = I.

Here the subject is ‘the ruler’, the linking verb is ‘is’ and the predicate is ‘is I’. The predicate pronoun is ‘I’ which is renaming ‘the ruler’ as ‘I’ and is therefore in the subjective case. The reason it is considered in the subjective case is because ‘The ruler’ and ‘I’ are basically both the same because ‘I’ is renaming ‘The ruler’ – that is to say, ‘I’ is the predicate nominative. It would be wrong to say

The ruler is me. (incorrect)

because ‘me’ is used when we are in the objective case, but this final word is a combined subject with ‘The ruler’. This one is probably hard to grasp because people don’t tend to follow the rule too much, and that is probably another reason why it may sound archaic as well.

In reality, we more often see the personal pronoun at the beginning, as in:

I am the ruler.

A example from the second person would be

The suspect is you.

The suspect = you.

Here, the subject is ‘the suspect’, the linking verb is ‘is’, the predicate is ‘is you’ and the predicate pronoun ‘you’ is renaming ‘the suspect’. This is in the subjective case, but ‘you’ is actually the same in the objective case’. Again, we would probably more commonly say:

You are the suspect.

A example from the third person is

The tallest was she.

The tallest = she.

Here the subject ‘the tallest’ is being renamed by the predicate pronoun ‘she’. Note:

The tallest was her. (incorrect)

is wrong, and is an easy mistake to make.

One way of checking you are right is to try seeing how it sounds the other way around:

She was the tallest. (correct)

Her was the tallest. (incorrect)

To most English speakers ‘She’ is going to sound correct naturally, without having to think too much why. Still, the correct way to remember it is that the subject is at both the beginning and the end in predicate nominatives, so they are both in the subjective case.

As with predicate nouns, because predicate pronouns modify the subject, they are sometimes also called the ‘subject complement’.

1.3 Direct address / Vocative Case

1.3.1 Nominative of direct address for nouns

The vocative case, or direct address, is used when somebody, or something, is being directly addressed. For example:

Murderer, drop your sword or you will be slain.

Here the noun ‘murderer’ is in the subjective case because he, or she, is the one who is being addressed. A more commonplace example might be:

Christopher, wash up your dishes after using them.

Here the noun ‘Christopher’ is in the subjective case because he is the one who is being addressed.

There is one rule worth remembering during direct address, which can be especially important when the name of the thing being addressed is at the end of the sentence, and is offset by a comma. For example:

When did you find out he was a King, Anderson?

Here, the comma after ‘King’ offsets the noun ‘Anderson’ to show that you are asking a person called Anderson when he found out another man was a king. In this situation ‘Anderson’ is in the subjective case because he is the one who is being addressed. However, get rid of the comma and you have a different meaning, as in:

When did you find out he was a King Anderson?

Now it sounds like we are asking when the person being addressed discovered that this King was part of the Anderson lineage. OK, the ‘a’ sounds awkward here, it would sound better as:

When did you find out he was King Anderson?

1.3.2 Nominative of direct address for pronouns

The main usage of the direct address with pronouns is using the pronoun ‘you’, as in:

You, get over here now.

which is a little rude, isn’t it? I’m trying to think of times where it wouldn’t be aggressive to use this case with pronouns. How about:

You, please come over to me – but only if you like – because I love you so much and I’m only calling you by the term ‘you’ because you said that you prefer that.

Moving on.

Let’s look at the first, second and third person.

In the first person singular there don’t appear to be many situations where this would be used. It would be strange to say something like ‘I, get over here now.’ Likewise, in the plural, it would be odd to say ‘We, get over here now.’

The second person is where this is largely used, as already mentioned with ‘You, get over here now.’ Again, ‘You’ can relate to singular, or plural, but in plural would probably be qualified with something like ‘You guys, get over here now.’

In the third person, again, this is never really used. A sentence like ‘He/She/It/They, get over here now,’ doesn’t make much sense. It is not surprising that this only works in the second person, because it is the second person which is used to address the reader, and this is the direct address, after all.

1.4 Appositive

1.4.1 Appositive nouns

An appositive noun is one which is in apposition with another noun, and, therefore, renames that noun. Being in apposition means being placed next to the noun, and referring to that noun. They are usually offset by commas, dashes or brackets.

For example:

The cat, Jacob, sat on the mat.

Here we have the appositive noun ‘Jacob’ in apposition with the noun phrase ‘the cat’ and renaming it. It is subjective because the subject of this sentence is ‘The cat’ and ‘Jacob’ is renaming the subject, essentially becoming the subject itself. We could actually think of the whole subject as ‘The cat, Jacob’, or, if it were re-written, ‘Jacob the cat’ which is a more typical noun phrase.

One interesting thing about appositives is you can take them out and the sentence still makes sense. For example:

The cat, Jacob, sat on the mat.

The cat sat on the mat.

One thing about using these in sentences is they can interrupt the flow a little bit. It is worth considering whether it is better to write

The cat, Jacob, sat on the mat.

or

Jacob the cat sat on the mat.

Have a play around in these situations to see which is clearer and flows the best.

I should note, there is the option to introduce the appositive with another word, as in:

The cat, whose name was Jacob, sat on the mat.

Here we actually have the appositive noun clause ‘whose name was Jacob’ renaming the noun phrase ‘the cat’.

Remember we can also offset with dashes:

The cat – whose name was Jacob – sat on the mat.

and brackets as well:

The cat (whose name was Jacob) sat on the mat.

We deal with those in the punctuation section of the site.

One final thing to mention is that it can be easy to mix up appositive nouns with appositive adjectives, just like predicate nouns and predicate adjectives are similar. We deal with them later, but, just for a comparison now, an appositive adjective would be:

The cat, a small male, sat on the mat.

Note that a noun names something, whereas ‘a small male’ is working as an adjective, modifying the noun phrase ‘the cat’ by telling us about its size and gender.

1.4.2 Appositive pronouns

Let’s look at the example of an appositive pronoun:

The leader and his last loyal friends – he and they alone – held off the mob for 5 hours.

Note that ‘he’ and ‘they’ are in the subjective case here. It is more these sorts of forms where appositive pronouns are found, rather than single words alone.

2) Possessive/genitive case

2.1 Possessive case in nouns

The possessive is used to show possession which can stretch from direct ownership to other relationships like composer, manufacturer, origin or other strong relationship with the noun. The possessive case is the most important case for nouns because it involves modification to the noun, usually called inflection. The possessive is signified by an apostrophe, or an apostrophe plus an ‘s’ to the possessor’s name. Let’s look at examples of each of the above:

Direct ownership: ‘Julie’s car.’

Composer: ‘Beethoven’s symphony.’

Manufacturer: ‘Intel’s processors.’

Origin: ‘The North Sea’s oil.’

Strong Relationship: ‘Daniel’s mother.’

As is accentuated by the ‘strong relationship’ example, it is not just possession, but some form of relationship, connection or association which is strong. You could even say something like ‘Bernard’s Street’ because this is the street that Bernard lives in. Bernard doesn’t possess that street, but he has a strong connection with it. Furthermore, you could even look at an attribute like ‘David’s compassion,’ which is more clearly something he possesses, even if it isn’t necessarily tangible. Finally, even a period of time can possess something in the world of grammar, with sentences like:

Your bike will be repaired in a week’s time.

Can a week possess time? The better question is probably ‘can one possess oneself?’ The answer seems to be yes. For example:

Chris’ hand.

What is interesting is that the week is possessing, or being associated with, its entire self; a bit like ‘Chris’ self.’ Then again, you could try to just remember the week as being associated with itself which seems reasonable.

There is another rule which is commonly seen with time and apostrophes, but which applies more broadly. This basically says that when you have a singular noun you add an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’, but when you have a plural noun you add only an apostrophe, or ‘s’ followed by apostrophe, if you are thinking about what you do to the singular version of a noun to make it into a plural possessive. For example, you may notice ‘a week’s time’ has an apostrophe followed by an ‘s,’ but ‘two weeks’ time’ has the apostrophe after the ‘s’. This is also the case in other measures of time such as:

a day’s time.

two days’ time

and

a month’s time

two months’ time

Why does this rule exist? One way of thinking about this is looking at the base word we start with. So, taking the latter example we are using the words ‘month’ and ‘months’: 

Singular: month

Plural: months

We then want to make them possessive. So with the singular we add an apostrophe + an ‘s’ and we get:

month’s

However, it wouldn’t make sense to do that with the plural because it already has an ‘s’ on the end (‘months’), and we don’t want to make it spelt the same as the singular because that would be confusing. Therefore, we simply add an apostrophe, to make sure we retain the fact it is a plural word:

months’

Some examples not relating to time are:

Singular: A girl’s desk

Plural: The girls’ gym

Singular: An animal’s brain

Plural: The animals’ habitat

There is another time when people sometimes differentiate between apostrophe plus an ‘s’ and ‘s’ plus an apostrophe: when the noun ends with an ‘s’ in the singular. For example ‘Chris’ ends with an ‘s’ in the singular. Some people will say it should be:

Chris’ website.

to prevent the messiness of having another ‘s’, whereas others say it should be:

Chris’s website

as ‘Chris’ is a singular noun, and therefore follows the aforementioned rule that singular nouns have apostrophe plus an ‘s,’ and plural nouns have ‘s’ plus an apostrophe. One argument for using:

Chris’ website.

is that the apostrophe turns it into a possessive, and, therefore, if we wanted to talk about multiple Chrises owning multiple things in the method with the extra ‘s’ we would have to write:

All of the Chrises’s websites.

which is a a bit messy. In contrast, with the single apostrophe method we can write:

All of the Chrises’ websites.

The fundamental rule of using an apostrophe for possession is one of the areas where mistakes are most commonly made – it is easily done because it is simply the use of an apostrophe or not. Here is a pedantic game which will get people to hate you: when you are out and about, especially in city centres, see how many shop signs, or adverts, you can find which use this rule wrong, then tell your unsuspecting friends and watch their respect for you fade away.

This rule is actually quite important, as it can be unclear if used wrong. Without the apostrophe there would be no way of differentiating between the plural and the possessive. For example:

the worlds matter

could be talking about all the matter of all the worlds in the universe, or all of the matter in the world. The correct sentence for the latter would be

the world’s matter

Similarly:

the universes matter

might mean all the matter in all of the universes (if one was discussing the multi-verse theory) when the person might have meant to say all the matter in the universe. The correct way to write the latter would be:

the universe’s matter

Going back to to the earlier example:

Your bike will be repaired in a week’s time.

if the above, instead, said:

Your bike will be repaired in a weeks time.

it is more ambiguous. You might ask whether it was an error, and they meant more than one week (weeks).

2.2 Possessive case in pronouns

There are two types of possessive pronouns: those that modify nouns, and those which stand alone, and therefore don’t. Let’s look at both types

2.2.1 Possessive adjectives

A quick list of the possessive adjectives is:

my, your, his, her, its, our, their, whose.

Possessive adjectives are words which replace nouns to then modify another noun. This makes them an interesting mix of pronoun and adjective. As we have heard, adjectives are words which modify nouns. Usually adjectives are not pronouns, but in the instance where they are replacing a possessive noun, they are. For example:

Chris’ website

could become:

His website

In this example, ‘His’ is a possessive pronoun because it is replacing the noun ‘Chris’ with a word which is typically a pronoun. Moreover, it is also an adjective because it is modifying the noun ‘website’. These can be very useful in shortening sentences, and preventing repetition in writing. For example:

Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is so big he recently got lost and wasn’t seen for 3 weeks. Consequently, Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is now up for sale.

could be shortened to:

Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s mansion is so big he recently got lost and wasn’t seen for 3 weeks. Consequently, his mansion is now up for sale.

Here we have the possessive adjective ‘his’ replacing the noun ”Nathaniel Alexander Abraham Pickerwicker VII’s’ to modify the noun ‘mansion’.

or

The Galapagos islands’ tourism is a thriving industry because The Galapagos islands’ combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.

Could be shortened to:

The Galapagos islands’ tourism is a thriving industry because its combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.

Here the possessive adjective ‘its’ is replacing the noun phrase ‘The Galapagos islands” to modify the noun phrase ‘combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance’. We can argue the latter is a noun phrase because it is naming a singular thing, is part of the subject of the subordinate clause ‘because its combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers’ and can be replaced by a singular noun and pronoun.

We have to be careful with the pronoun ‘Its’. It can be very easy to write ‘it’s’ because we are used to adding apostrophes on to the end of possessives. With possessive pronouns no apostrophe or ‘s’ is added. ‘It’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, so you would be saying ‘It is combination of interesting wildlife and historical significance is irresistible to travellers.’ if you use ‘It’s’ in this situation. Just to clarify:

Its = possessive

It’s = It is

2.2.2 Absolute possessive pronouns

A list of absolute possessive pronouns is:

mine, yours, his, hers, ours, and theirs.

Absolute possessive pronouns are the possessive pronouns that do not modify nouns, instead being able to stand alone with meaning. Let’s look at some examples showing them replacing nouns:

Christopher’s are the red socks.

Mine are the red socks.

Here the absolute possessive pronoun ‘mine’ is replacing ‘Christopher’s’. Neither ‘Mine’ nor ‘Christopher’s’ are modifying a noun here: they are both able to stand alone. It is this being able to stand alone which makes ‘mine’ an absolute possessive pronoun here, and not a possessive adjective.

This sort of pronoun prevents us from talking in the third person, which would be a strange thing to do. So taking the last example, and the knowledge that ‘Christopher’ is my name, I would say ‘Mine are the red socks.’ rather than refer to myself in the third person by saying ‘Christopher’s are the red socks.’ Julius Caesar is famous for referring to himself in the third person in his book Commentarii de Bello GallicoIn.  In fact, it turns out that someone who talks about themselves in the third person is called an ‘Illeist’ and illeism has many uses including as a literary device in fiction to hide character identity before a twist, to de-individualise soldiers and to make an account appear more objective than it really is.

The above is an example from the first person, so let’s look at one from the second and third.

An example from the second person is:

David’s is the big plate.

Yours is the big plate.

Here the absolute possessive pronoun ‘yours’ is replacing the possessive noun ‘David’s’ and stands alone.

An example from the third person is:

Jane‘s is the apple.

Hers is the big plate.

Here the absolute possessive pronoun ‘hers’ is replacing the possessive noun ‘Jane’s’ and stands alone.

Their, there and they’re

A common mistake is to mix up the possessive adjective ‘their’ with ‘there’ or ‘they’re’. Let’s have a look at each in turn to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Their

‘Their’ is usually used as a plural possessive adjective to modify a noun. For example:

The Smith’s house is big.

Their house is big.

Here we have the plural possessive adjective ‘their’ modifying the noun ‘house’ by showing its possessor, and indicating the possessor is plural. We would often see it with an antecedent noun so we know which people ‘their’ is referring to, as in:

The Smith’s are a rich family and their house is big.

Now we have the antecedent noun phrase ‘The Smith’s’ giving us the name of the people ‘their’ refers to when it is modifying ‘house’.

One quick way to avoid writing ‘there’ instead of ‘their’ is just to ask ourselves: is this talking about the possession of something? For example:

The players walked over to their/there opponents and shook their/there hands.

Ask yourself: is this talking about the possession of something? Well the first noun being modified here is ‘opponents’ which names the people who ‘the player’s’ are competing against. ‘The player’s’ is the antecedent noun to the first ‘their/’there’ question, so we have to ask ourselves: do ‘the player’s’ possess ‘the opponents’? While this isn’t a really obvious possession, like the direct ownership of ‘John’s hat’, it is a form of a possession, as we noted earlier, when we defined possession as being able to be direct ownership, composer, manufacturer, origin or another sort of strong relationship. In this example, the ‘opponents’ are ‘the player’s’ opponents, not anybody else’s. In this way they possess a strong relationship which is part of our definition of possession, and we use ‘their’ rather than ‘there’ as in:

The players walked over to their opponents and shook their hands.

I also just changed the second ‘their/there’ question, where it is also ‘their’, which is this time modifying ‘hands’. This is again possession because it is the hands which are possessed by their opponents.

It is also easy to use ‘they’re’ because both ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ often refer to people and are both pronounced similarly. ‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’ so the best way to avoid this is to see if ‘they are’ would fit into the sentence as in:

The players walked over to they’re opponents and shook they’re hands. (incorrect)

The players walked over to they are opponents and shook they are hands. (incorrect)

The second example is much more obviously wrong.

Let’s look at ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ in more detail to make sure we really understand the differences

They’re

Another method you could try before using ‘They are’ is to ask the question ‘what are they?’ If it can be answered correctly, such as ‘always angry’ it is OK, but if it can’t be answered correctly, such as ‘neighbours are hard to keep up with’ then you know it is wrong.

Perhaps the best thing to remember is ‘their’ is possessive, and plural: it should relate to something more than one person, or animal, owns, or has a strong relationship with, such as:

Their books

Their neighbours

Their house

Their compassion

Their fear

One trick is to try replacing ‘their’ with the plural possessive, personal pronoun ‘our’ as in:

Our books

Our neighbours

Our house

Our compassion

Our fear

We can also replace ‘their’ with a singular personal pronoun like ‘her’ or ‘he’ if we are talking in the singular:

Her books

His neighbours

Her house

His compassion

Her fear

You wouldn’t be able to replace ‘they’re’ with a personal pronoun, for example:

Our always angry (incorrect)

or

He always mad (incorrect)

which both sound like the stereotypical caveman (or probably me when I try to speak Spanish).

There

The important thing to remember about ‘there’ is that it does not show possession. So, if you are wondering whether it is:

The band played there/their most popular song.

You have to ask yourself whether the band possess the song or not. The answer is ‘yes’ – they both wrote it and are playing it. Therefore, the correct sentence is:

The band played their most popular song.

An example which is correct for the word ‘there’ is:

I am going to go over there.

Note how ‘there’ isn’t possessive, instead it is naming a place.

There are also other interesting constructions like:

There are cats in the hallway.

This is interesting because ‘there’ is not really naming an explicit place, rather pointing out the fact that something (cats) exist in a particular place (in the hallway).

3) Objective case

A noun is in the objective case when it is an object. Before starting, it is worth noting that there is no inflection on the nouns in the objective case. Therefore, what is learnt for nouns is more about classifying and understanding relationships between words than it is about practicalities. However, for pronouns we see different words used for subjective and objective cases, so some more practical rules will be encountered. Here is a quick reference for the subjective and objective versions of pronouns:

Some examples of pronouns in the subjective case are:

I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, whoever

Pronouns used as objects (objective case):

me, you, him, her, it, us, them, whom, whomever

OK, so let’s look at the different times when nouns / pronouns are objects.

3.1 Direct object of the verb

3.1.1 Direct object of the verb for nouns

The noun is in the objective case if it is the direct object of the verb in a sentence.

A direct object is the element of the sentence which is having something done to it by the subject, directly via the verb, and is most often seen within the predicate of the sentence. We can find the direct object by finding the subject, then the verb and asking ‘whom?’ or ‘what?’ after it (subject + verb + whom/what?). For example:

The dog bit the man.

The subject is ‘The dog’ and the verb is ‘bit’ so we ask ‘the dog bit whom?’ and the answer is ‘the man’ – which is the direct object. ‘The man’ is the object having something done to it by the subject (‘the dog’) directly via the verb (‘bit’). Notice that ‘the man’ is also a noun phrase. This is what we mean by a noun as a direct object of the verb, and, therefore, this noun phrase is in the objective case. Let’s look at another examples:

The boring job exhausted Daniel.

Here we have the subject ‘The boring job’ + the verb ‘exhausted’ and we then ask ‘The boring job exhausted whom?’. This gives us the answer ‘Daniel’ which is a noun and the direct object of the verb ‘exhausted’. ‘Daniel’ is being worked on directly by the subject ‘the boring job’ via the verb ‘exhausted’. Therefore, ‘Daniel’ is the direct object of the verb and is in the objective case.

A final example is:

The ball broke the window.

Here we have the subject ‘the ball’ + the verb ‘broke’ and we ask the question ‘ The ball broke what?’ giving us the noun phrase direct object answer ‘the window’. ‘The window’ is having something done to it by the subject (‘the ball’) directly via the verb (‘broke’) making it an object and in the objective case.

3.1.2 Direct object of the verb for pronouns

If we go back to ‘the dog bit the man’, the direct object is the noun ‘the man’. If we were to replace this with a pronoun, it could be ‘the dog bit him.’ The direct object here is the pronoun ‘him’.

Let’s look at some more examples.

Take the sentence:

Alistair loves Tracy.

‘Alistair’ is the subject, ‘loves’ the verb, and ‘Tracey’ the direct object. We can then replace the direct object noun ‘Tracey’ with the pronoun ‘her’ (or, ‘it’ if we want to be really cruel!). This gives us the sentence:

Alistair loves her.

Note here that ‘Alistair loves she’ would have been wrong, because ‘she/he’ are used to refer to the subject of a sentence (subjective case), and ‘him/her’ to the object (objective case). For example:

He loves her.

She loves her.

He loves him.

She loves him.

are all correct because ‘he/she’ here are being used as the subject and ‘him/her’ as the object.

In contrast:

Him loves she.(incorrect)

Her loves she. (incorrect)

Him loves he. (incorrect)

Her loves he. (incorrect)

are all wrong, because ‘him/her’ are being used as the subject, and ‘she/he’ as the object.

While we have this in our head, this is a good time to tackle the common question of whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ in various circumstances. Both ‘who’ and ‘whom’ are pronouns, and they behave in similar ways to the contrast between ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’. ‘Who’ is to be used when it is referring to the subject, and ‘whom’ when referring to the object. So I raise the question, is it:

Whom murdered him?

or

Who murdered him?

Is the first word referring to the subject, or the object? To answer that question we need to figure out what the subject and the object are in this sentence. The subject of the verb ‘murdered’ is the person that murdered the man, while the object is the murdered man (referred to as ‘him’). Therefore, the first word is referring to the subject: the person who committed the murder, while the object is ‘him’. Remember, to get the direct object we can find the subject, then the verb and either ask ‘whom?’ or ‘what?’ next to it (subject + verb + whom/what?) If we do that here we get ‘whom/who murdered whom?’ This is a bit confusing in this circumstance, because we don’t know the subject yet, and because both the so far unknown subject (who/whom) and the question at the end (whom?) are so similar. If we get rid of the subject for a second and just ask ‘murdered whom?’ it becomes a little clearer – the answer is ‘him’ – which is the direct object. This means the correct sentence is:

Who murdered him?

Let’s try another. Is it:

Whom did you murder?

or

Who did you murder?

Is the first word referring to the subject, or the object? Remember, the subject is the part of the sentence doing something, and the object is the thing having something done to it. The subject of the verb ‘murder’ here is actually ‘you’ because it is ‘you’ who is doing the murdering. Moreover, the object is the person who was murdered, which is signified by the first word in the sentence (who/whom). This is a reversal of the previous sentence. Therefore, the first word is referring to the object here, and the sentence should be:

Whom did you murder?

This distinction can be hard to get, because we are used to seeing the subject at the beginning of a sentence, and the object at the end. Nevertheless, in this sentence, it is ‘you’ who is the subject, as ‘you’ are the one who committed the murder, and therefore did something to the object. The object, therefore, is the person having something done to him (being murdered!) and that is signified by ‘whom’. It is a little harder to use the direct object question in in this example, though it is doable. The aforementioned trick is to find the subject and the verb and ask ‘what?’ or ‘whom?’ next to it to find the direct object (subject + verb + who/whom?). In this case, we can take the subject ‘you’ + the verb ‘murder’ and ask ‘You murder whom?’ The answer to this question is signified by the first word in the sentence: ‘whom’. In this case, the murdered person is being signified by the pronoun ‘whom’. In fact, the sentence itself is actually asking the same question: ‘Whom did you murder?’ If the answer to the question was ‘John’, then that means the direct object would also be ‘John’.

There is a little cheat that can be used, though it is certainly best to try and understand what the subject and object are first. This goes back to the ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’ dichotomy we were talking about earlier. Take:

Whom do you think murdered him.

then get rid of the ‘whom’ and add a ‘he/him’ (or ‘she/her’) before the verb ‘murdered’ giving us:

do you think he/him murdered him

If it is ‘he/she’ that sounds right, then the correct word to use is ‘who’ because ‘he/she’ are used for the subject – as is ‘who’. If it is ‘him/her’ that sounds right then the correct word to use is ‘whom’ – as ‘him/her’ are used for the object – as is ‘whom’. So it is:

Do you think he/she murdered him? (correct)

not

Do you think him/her murdered him? (incorrect)

and therefore the correct answer is:

Who do you think murdered him?

Likewise, it is:

Did you murder her/him? (correct)

not

Did you murder he/she?'(incorrect)

and therefore the correct answer is:

Whom did you murder?

3.2 Indirect object of a verb

3.2.1 Indirect object of a verb for nouns

A noun will also be considered in the objective case when it is the indirect object of a verb. Let’s remind ourselves of what that means.

The indirect object answers the question ‘to/for what’ or ‘to/for whom’ the verb is working. It is generally found after the verb, but before the direct object. This is because the indirect object receives something from the direct object. Without a direct object, an indirect object cannot exist. Let’s look at some examples comparing sentences without an indirect object with those with:

‘John sent the letter.’ (subject: ‘John’, verb: ‘sent’, direct object: ‘the letter.’)

‘John sent Mary the letter.’ (subject: ‘John’, verb: ‘sent’, indirect object: ‘Mary’, direct object: ‘the letter.’)

In the first sentence, we are not told to whom the direct object ‘the letter’ is being sent, only that it is being sent. All we have is a direct object (‘the letter’) having something done to it via the verb (being ‘sent’) by the subject (‘John’). However, in the second sentence we are told that ‘Mary’ is the recipient of the letter, and therefore ‘Mary’ is ‘to whom’ our direct object (‘the letter’) is being sent, making ‘Mary’ the indirect object. To clarify, ‘Mary’ is the indirect object because she is receiving the direct object ‘the letter.’ So the verb ‘sent’ is working directly on ‘the letter’ and indirectly on ‘Mary.’

The best way to check for the indirect object is to find the subject, verb, and direct object first, then put ‘to/for what?’ or ‘to/for whom?’ next to it, to find out who received the direct object. I like this method because it makes us focus on the link between the direct and indirect object. Therefore, the following question will find the direct object:

Subject + verb + direct object + ‘to/for what?’ or ‘to/for whom?

For example:

‘John sent Mary the letter.’

Subject = John

Verb =’sent’

Question to find direct object = ‘sent what?’

Answer = ‘the letter’

Direct object = ‘the letter.’

Question to find indirect object (Subject + verb + direct object + to whom? = ‘John sent the letter to whom?’

Answer = ‘Mary’

Indirect object = ‘Mary’

or

‘John gave the floor a kick.’

Subject: ‘John’

Verb = ‘gave’

Question to find direct object = ‘gave what?’

Answer = ‘a kick’

Direct object = ‘a kick’

Question to find indirect object ( Subject + verb + direct object + to what? = John gave a kick to what?)

Answer = ‘the floor’

Indirect object = ‘the floor’

This latter example may be harder to make sense of because the idea of giving a kick is a strange one; ‘giving’ tends to make us think of receiving a gift, and ‘a kick’ is not really the sort of gift most of us would appreciate. Nevertheless, John is not giving ‘the floor’ he is giving ‘a kick’, so ‘a kick’ is the direct object, as it is being worked on directly by the verb ‘gave’. One more example:

‘Jane threw Ben the ball to start the game.’

Subject: ‘Jane’

Verb = ‘threw’

Question to find direct object = ‘threw what?’

Answer = ‘the ball’

Direct object = ‘the ball’

Question to find indirect object ( Subject + verb + direct object + to whom?) = ‘Jane threw the ball to whom?’

Answer = ‘Ben’

Indirect object = ‘Ben’

In these examples the indirect objects ‘Mary’, ‘the floor’ and ‘Ben’ are a noun, noun and noun phrase, respectively, and are in the objective case.

3.2.2 Indirect object of a verb for pronouns

Pronouns which are the indirect object of the noun are also in the objective case.

For example:

‘The doctor wrote Mr Jones a prescription.’

Subject: ‘The doctor’

Verb = ‘wrote’

Question to find direct object = ‘wrote what?’

Answer = ‘a prescription’

Direct object = ‘a prescription’

Question to find indirect object (subject + verb + direct object + to whom?) = The doctor wrote a prescription to whom?’ = ‘whom received a prescription?’

Answer = ‘Mr Jones’

Indirect object = ‘Mr Jones’

After all that, ‘Mr Jones’ is the indirect object noun. To put an indirect object pronoun into this sentence, all we need to do is replace the indirect object noun with a pronoun. For example:

The doctor wrote him a prescription.

In this sentence, ‘The doctor’ is the subject, ‘wrote’ is the verb, ‘him’ is the indirect object pronoun and ‘a prescription’ is the direct object noun.

Let’s look at the first, second and third person.

In the first person singular we could write:

The doctor wrote me a prescription.

while in the plural it would be:

The doctor wrote us a prescription.

In the second person singular and plural we could write:

The doctor wrote you a prescription.

In the third person singular it could be:

The doctor wrote him/her/it a prescription.

3.3 Object of a preposition

3.3.1 Object of a preposition for nouns

A preposition is a word which occurs in between two words (or phrases) in a sentence, to give us extra information about the relationship between these two words. We will go into detail with this later, but let’s explore it a bit here first.

The word the preposition comes before is usually a noun, or pronoun, meaning prepositions function most often to explain the relationship between some word in a sentence (the word that comes before) and the noun or pronoun. One way of remembering this is to think of the name: ‘preposition’ relates to being positioned behind a word (pre-positioned). An example is the sentence:

London is a city within England.

Here the preposition is ‘within’ linking the noun ‘city’ with another noun ‘England.’ A lot of prepositions are related to location like this. A further example is:

She spoke before him.

Here the preposition is ‘before’ linking the verb ‘spoke’ with the pronoun ‘him.’ A lot of prepositions are also related to time, in this way.

So what is the object of a preposition for nouns? Well, it is a noun which comes after the preposition. Take the sentence:

She spoke before John.

The subject is ‘She’ the verb ‘spoke’ the preposition ‘before’ and the object of the preposition ‘John.’ This is because ‘John’ is the noun being linked to the verb ‘spoke’ by the preposition ‘before.’ Therefore, this is in the objective case.

3.3.2 Object of a preposition for pronouns

Just as a reminder:

Some examples of pronouns used as subjects (subjective case)

I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, whoever,

Pronouns used as objects (objective case):

me, you, him, her, it, us, them, whom, whomever

If we change back the sentence:

She spoke before John.

to

She spoke before him.

we see the pronoun ‘him’ being used in the objective case. It would be incorrect to say

She spoke before he. (incorrect)

Similarly:

He spoke before her. (correct)

is correct, while

He spoke before she. (incorrect)

is wrong.

Finally:

They spoke before them. (correct)

is correct while

They spoke before they. (incorrect)

is wrong.

All of this is because pronouns which are objects of prepositions, therefore, must stick to ‘he/she/them’, rather than ‘him/her/they’ as they are in the objective case.

Let’s look at the first, second and third person.

In the first person singular it would be:

She spoke before me.

and in the plural

She spoke before us.

In the second person singular and plural it would be:

She spoke before you.

In the third person singular it would be:

She spoke before him/her/it. 

and in the plural it would be

She spoke before them.

Finally, going back to the ‘who/whom’ questions from earlier, because the object of a preposition is in the objective case, we always used ‘whom’ rather than ‘who’ when it is the object of a preposition. So it is:

He is the person to whom I sent the letter. (correct)

not

He is the person to who I sent the letter (incorrect)

With ‘to’ being the preposition in both of these examples and ‘who/whom’ being the object of the preposition.

3.4 Appositives

3.4.1 Appositive objects for nouns

As a reminder, an appositive noun is one which is in apposition with another noun which it renames. This noun is in the objective case if it is in apposition with another noun in the objective case.

So take the sentence:

She spoke before John, the defendant.

Here ‘John’ is in the objective case because it is the object of the preposition, and ‘the defendant’ is in apposition to this, therefore it is also in the objective case. In this way, appositional phrases share a grammatical rule, almost like they are runners in a race, passing the baton to the next one in their team.

3.4.2 Appositive objects for pronouns

Finally, pronouns used in the same way will follow the objective case. There aren’t a lot of instances where this is used, but something like:

She spoke sequentially to John and Amy, him then her.

is a (rather strained) example. Here ‘him’ and ‘her’ are appositive to the objective case nouns ‘John’ and ‘Amy’ making them also be in the objective case. It wouldn’t be right to say:

She spoke to John and Amy, he then she. (incorrect)

because ‘he’ and ‘she’ are in the subjective case.

OK, so that is the end of the cases and their effects on nouns and pronouns. It is also the end of the section on nouns and pronouns overall. Hopefully, at the end of this, we are a little bit better at putting the microscopes over sentences and analysing them.

4) Questions

1) What is grammatical case?

2) What is the normative / subjective case and how does this change nouns and pronouns?

3) What is the possessive case and how does this change nouns and pronouns?

4) What is the objective case and how does this change nouns and pronouns?

That is all for case in nouns and pronouns. Now let’s move on to a new word class: verbs.

NEXT: 14) Verbs

Posted in English Grammar