Many languages of the world depend on a structural feature that you might never have heard of: a grammatical case system. If you’re learning such a language, learning it well is important, because even seemingly small mistakes can change the entire meaning of a sentence or cause it to be completely incomprehensible.

Despite the significance of the case system for many languages, it is not present in English. As a result, simply explaining what grammatical cases are and why they are so important is a surprisingly difficult endeavor that requires quite a bit of dedicated class time; that’s is what my teaching experience tells me, at least.

In this article, we’ll explore what a grammatical case system is, what sort of cases exist, and why they are all but absent in English. Without further ado, let’s get started.

What is a grammatical case?

In short: case is a grammatical category that refers to inflections which make it clear exactly what function a given word fulfills in a given sentence. These infections may be applied to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, numerals, and, in some languages, adverbs. Words are transformed into a given case by either adding a suffix or by changing entirely (as is the case with personal pronouns).

Challenging the conventional of always arranging things in odd numbers
Photo by James Cousins / Unsplash — Different Function, Different Container

Here are a few examples of grammatical cases (there are tons of them) and a simplified overview of what they do:

  • Nominative case → indicates that a word is the subject of a sentence (he is tall)
  • Dative case → indicates that a word is the indirect object of a sentence (give the letter to me)
  • Accusative case → indicates that a word is the direct object of a sentence (read the book)
  • Instrumental case → indicates that a word is used as a means to achieve an action (eat with a spoon)
  • Vocative case → Indicates who you are addressing/talking to (tell me, Jacob, what is this?)
  • Genitive case → Indicates possession (the toy of the child) or that one thing is part of another (German’s vocabulary)

English gets away with using "normal" word forms in the above example sentences because the information that would be communicated by grammatical cases in other languages (see below sections) is instead being communicated by English's strict word order.

As strange as the concept might sound, grammatical cases are actually present in the majority of Indo-European languages, such as Greek, German, and Farsi, as well as in languages from the Slavic and Baltic groups. A fully-developed system was also present in Latin, though it has disappeared from most modern Romance languages. Grammatical cases can also be found in Caucasian, Turkic, Semitic, and Japonic language families. Uralic languages feature extensive systems; for example, Finnish has 15 grammatical cases, and Estonian has 14.

Let’s take a look at the grammatical case systems of a few languages.

The modern case system of English

Even though English has largely lost its case system, some of its vestiges can still be seen in personal pronouns, which change according to grammatical case. These are:

  • Subjective case (indicates the subject of a sentence): I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, whoever;
  • Objective case (functions as an indirect or direct object): me, you, him, her, it, us, them, whom, whomever;
  • Possessive case: my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its/its, our/ours, their/theirs, whose, whoever.

Grammatical case systems tend to evolve. It is not uncommon for certain grammatical cases to merge with other ones, as happened, for example, in ancient Greek, where the locative case merged with the dative case. This also happened in English, with the dative (indirect object) and accusative cases (direct object) merging into the objective case (me can be both a direct and indirect object).

German’s case system

In German, the grammatical case system is largely seen in articles (a, an, the) and adjectives. German nouns used to have case endings, too, but they have been mostly lost.

Additionally, German articles indicate the grammatical gender of a noun, and each gendered article has its own declension paradigm. This means that learning the way each article changes is crucial for mastering German.


Below are example declensions using nouns and definite articles (the).


Dog (masculine)

Cat (feminine)

Child (neuter)

Apples (plural)


der Hund

die Katze

das Kind

die Äpfel

Genitive (“of the”)

des Hundes

der Katze

des Kinds

der Äpfel

Dative (“to the”)

dem Hund

der Katze

dem Kind

der Äpfeln

Accusative (subject)

den Hund

die Katze

das Kind

die Äpfel

Note how the nominative form of dog is hund but the genitive form is hundes — this is what we meant by “limited noun declension” in the paragraph above. German nouns tend to remain consistent regardless of case, but some nouns do change in some forms. Here’s another example:

  • Nominative: der Pilot — the pilot
    Der Pilot fliegt ein Flugzeug. (The pilot flies a plane.)
  • Genitive: des Piloten — of the pilot
    Das ist die Verantwortung des Piloten. (This is the responsibility of the pilot.)
  • Dative: dem Piloten — to the pilot
    Er gab eine Aktentasche dem Piloten. (He gave the briefcase to the pilot.)
  • Accusative: den Piloten — the pilot
    Die Flugbegleiterin klatschte den Piloten. (The flight attendant smacked the pilot.)

Proper names for cities have two genitive nouns:

  • Primary genitive: der Hauptbahnhof Berlins (the main train station of Berlin)
  • Secondary genitive: der Berliner Hauptbahnhof (Berlin's main train station)

Russian and Slavic languages

Slavic languages are known for sharing relatively similar grammatical structures and vocabulary, so while we’re only providing the declension paradigm for Russian, it would look relatively similar in any other Slavic language.

In Russian, as well as in other Slavic languages, cases are realized by adding an ending to the end of a noun and/or adjective.


Cat (masculine)

Dog (feminine)

Sky (neuter)

People (plural)

Nominative (what/who?)





Genitive (of what/whom?)





Dative (to what/whom?)





Instrumental (with what/whom?)





Accusative (what/whom?)





Prepositional (about what/whom?)

О коте

О собаке

О небе

О людях

Up to ten additional cases have been identified by linguists as being used in Russian, but most of them are only partially used and/or are outdated. In other Slavic languages, such as Ukrainian and Czech, more cases are utilized than in Russian.


There are even constructed languages that feature a case system, albeit ones that are not as developed as those of natural languages. Esperanto makes the accusative case by adding the suffix -n to direct objects (whether singular or plural):

  • la knabino feliĉan knabon kisis (the girl kissed a happy boy);
  • la knabino feliĉa knabon kisis (the happy girl kissed a boy).

(Note how without the -n suffix, feliĉa modifies the subject, but with -n, it modifies the object.)

Photo by Nick Fewings / Unsplash

Why some languages need grammatical case and others don’t

Linguistic typology is a branch of linguistics that classifies languages based upon the elements of their grammar and structural features. There are several “grammar types,” however, in this article, we’ll mostly focus on two of them: synthetic and analytic.

Note that both of those words have a technical definition which differs from what you might expect.

  • Analytic does not mean analysis, but rather the separation of something into its constituent parts — each word in an analytic language is a pure, unalterable block of meaning
  • Synthetic does not stand for artificial, but rather refers to the creation of something new based on an existing pool of elements — take existing words and make modifications to generate additional meanings

These two words are, in fact, an answer to the question of why English has no cases. It belongs to a different category of language than those which rely on a case system: one whose grammatical structure does not depend on cases to convey meaning.

Analytic vs synthetic languages

Analytic languages are languages that primarily convey relationships between words in sentences by way of helper words, such as particles (the infinitive to, not), prepositions (by, with, on), articles (a, an, the), etc. Another important element of analytic languages is word order, which normally tends to be fixed according to a specific pattern or a set of patterns.

You're basically taking language blocks and then arranging them in certain established orders.

Alphabet blocks aren't only for letters! Every set also includes number blocks.
Photo by Susan Holt Simpson / Unsplash

Thanks to these fixed structures, languages like English and Mandarin have no need for grammatical case and gender, nor for a developed set of verb conjugations. So long as we follow commonly understood word orders, everything is fine.

If we don’t, however, things come crashing down like a Jenga tower.

In more practical terms, consider a sentence like the cat chases the ball.

  • Analytic languages: In English, you know an object is in the accusative case (even if you don’t actually know what the "accusative" case is) because it follows a transitive verb: the cat chases the ball. If we flip the sentence around, suddenly the chaser and chasee change: the ball chases the cat.

    We are constrained to word order; it’s impossible to change the way these words are positioned without losing the original sentence’s meaning.
  • Synthetic languages: In languages with a case system, word order doesn’t matter as much. Because the ball gets an accusative case tag and the cat gets a nominative (subject) case tag, you can arrange the sentence however you want and it still makes sense — even something like the ball the cat catches.

    (People still tend to employ some word orders more than others, but unlike speakers of analytic languages, they don't have to do so.)

It is impossible to classify a language as strictly analytic or synthetic, as there is often a crossover. Analytic and synthetic are more like the extremes of a spectrum, and languages fall at different places along that spectrum. English tends to be a more analytic language, but it still does have some synthetic traits: I run vs he runs.

Despite the simplicity and an overall semantic precision of analytic languages (stricter word order means simple words carry more weight in a sentence, which means that “finer” synonyms have to emerge to convey specific nuances), they allow for less creative freedom then their synthetic counterparts. As many words as you know, you're still bound to basic word order rules.

In conclusion

Grammatical case is an essential element of many languages. It helps establish the relationships between words — you might think of it as a “glue” that holds words together. This is done by inflections added onto the end of words, and the benefit gained from this complexity is more freedom to arrange a sentence as you wish.

Dig technical grammar stuff?