In English, case refers to (the change in) the position or form of a noun (or pronoun) that indicates the grammatical relationship of the noun (or pronoun) to other words in the sentence. When a noun initiates an action, it is said to be in the nominative (or subjective) case. When it receives an action, it is said to be in the objective (or accusative) case. When it states ownership, it is said to be in the possessive case. Notably, the noun changes only its position and not its form/spelling in the nominative and the objective cases. It is only in the possessive (or genitive) case, which indicates ownership of something. that the noun changes its form (or spelling) by adding an apostrophe and s.
Hence, some grammarians argue that nouns should have only two cases, namely, the COMMON CASE (that shows no change of spelling/form of the noun) and the POSSESSIVE CASE (that shows a change in the form/spelling of the noun). But this bipartite classification of case in nouns, though valid, complicates nomenclature and creates more problems than it solves. It is therefore clearer and better for us to adopt the traditional classification of nouns into three major cases:
- Nominative (or subjective) case.
- Objective (or accusative) case.
- Possessive (or genitive) case
It must, however, be noted that three other related cases are sometimes distinguished in English – the VOCATIVE CASE (this refers to the addressee), the DATIVE CASE (this refers to the indirect object) and the APPOSITIVE CASE (this identifies the same person or object under another name).
Old English and Latin recognised the Vocative and the dative cases as distinct categories but contemporary English classifies the vocative case as an aspect of the nominative case and the dative case as an aspect of the objective case. The appositive appears in either the nominative or the objective case.
1) NOMINATIVE (OR SUBJECTIVE) CASE
A noun is said to be in the nominative (or subjective) case when it acts as one of the following in a sentence:
- The subject-noun of a verb.
- the predicate nominative, serving to define/explain the subject.
- the word in direct address (Vocative).
- the appositive of another word in the nominative case.
a) As the subject – noun of a verb (or as sentence subject):
- Okoye bought a posh car.
- The car was smashed.
- That young man in brown suit stoned our dog.
- There for the sake of Jesus Christ go the Okekes.
Note that it is not the subject of the sentence but the noun in the subject that is said to be in the nominative case. Only when the subject of the verb happens to be a simple noun can we refer to the subject as the nominative.
Also note that you can detect a noun in the nominative case by asking who? or what? before the verb.
The answer gives you the subject – noun. e.g
- Who bought a posh car? Okafor.
- What was smashed? the car.
b) As predicate Nominative, defining or explaining the subject:
A noun is said to be the predicate nominative when it defines or explains the subject by appearing after a linking/copula verb to refer back to the subject-noun. Since a linking or copula verb expresses a state of being rather than an action and acts as a kind of equal sign linking subject and predicate, any noun that comes after such a verb and still refers back to the subject is termed predicate nominative. Examples of such linking verbs are: be and all its variants (is, was, will be, have been, had been, etc), become, seem, appear, prove, look, feel, taste, smell, sound.
- John is a good boy. (predicate nominative, referring back to John).
- Ngozi became a lawyer. (predicate nominative, referring back to Ngozi).
- Eze and Ibe are close friends (predicate nominative, referring back to Eze and Ibe).
Note that the predicate nominative may also be called PREDICATE NOUN, PREDICATE COMPLEMENT, or SUBJECTIVE COMPLEMENT.
(c) As Nominative of Direct Address (Vocative):
A word used to address a person directly or a name that signifies and calls the attention of the addressee directly is called nominative of address.
- Ngozi, take your hands off my affairs.
- Your academic problems, dear students, are our problems.
- What are you doing here, young man?
(d) As an Appositive of another word in the Nominative Case:
A noun that is in apposition with another noun in the nominative case is said to be in the nominative case too.
- Udegbe, the governor’s uncle, jumped bail.
- Chief Ume, our man, has become unpopular.
- Nkoli, the dancer, danced very well yesterday.
(2) OBJECTIVE (or ACCUSATIVE) CASE
A noun in the objective ( or accusative) case can act as:
(a) the Direct Object of a Transitive Verb:
- She embarrassed Jonas.
- His place let another take.
- Jesus Christ, the Son of God, saves mankind.
Remember that you can determine the word acting as the object of a verb by asking the question whom? or what? after the verb in the sentence. The answer yields the noun in the objective case:
- She embarrassed whom? Ans: Jonas.
- Let another take what? Ans: his place.
(b) the Indirect Object of a Verb:
- She gave Joseph what he deserves.
- Jesus Christ taught mankind peace and love.
- The Director granted the lecturers their request.
To determine the indirect object, which usually comes before the direct object, ask to whom? to what? or for whom? for what? after the verb:
- She gave to whom? Ans: Joseph.
- Jesus Christ taught whom? Ans: mankind.
(c) the Object of a Preposition:
Any noun that comes after a preposition is said to be the object of the preposition:
- He is in the room.
- It is for Mary.
- James sat in the mango tree.
(a) an Appositive (or a noun in apposition with another noun) in the Objective Case:
- The police detained Agadaga, Ike’s illustrious son.
- The teacher gave the duster to Okong, the class rep.
- Let’s share the bread of life, the word of God.
- Obi married Fumilayo, a Yoruba girl.
(3) POSSESSIVE (OR GENITIVE) CASE:
A noun is in the possessive case (i.e. the genitive case) when it adds an apostrophe and s or simply an apostrophe to indicate:
- Ownership; e.g. Obinna’s pen, Ude’s Clinic, Okeke’s house.
- Source or Origin; e.g. Adam’s sin, Moses’ law. Obi’s son. God’s state
- Manufacturer or Authorship; e.g. Achebe’s novels, Johnson’s baby powder.
- Association, Connexion, Attribute, or Duration; e.g. men’s shoes, Christmas’ tree, a month’s salary, women’s work.
FORMATION OF THE POSSESSIVE
The possessive singular is formed by adding both an apostrophe and an s to the single nominative form of the noun.
- John’s table.
- earth’s surface.
- Dickens’s works.
- hair’s breadth.
- Keats’s poems.
- razor’s edge.
But the possessive plural is formed by adding only an apostrophe to an -s ending plural noun or by adding both the apostrophe and an s to a plural noun which does not end in s.
- boys’ school.
- children’s bag.
- sisters’ day.
- people’s opinions.
- Thomas’s doubts.
- men’s club.
Compound nouns in the possessive case are generally treated as single words for this reason, they indicate their possessive by adding an apostrophe and s to last word of the compound;
- father-in-law’s message.
- fathers-in-law’s requests.
Where the possessive case denotes joint possession, add the apostrophe and s to only the last word of the pair (or group), but where it denotes separate possession of things by two or more persons, add the apostrophe and s to each of the nouns.
- Okafor and son’s shop.
- Emma and Okey’s firm.
- Soyinka’s and Rotimi’s dramas.
- Achebe’s and Oyono’s novels.
Note that the possessive case of some classical names, some less common English names, some Biblical names, and some other singular nouns ending in -s or -ce is formed by putting only the apostrophe, especially when the next word begins with s or c to avoid the piling up of sibilants (s sounds).
- Archimedes’ law.
- Aristophanes’ comedies.
- Hercules’ club.
- Keats’ poetry (also Keats’s poetry).
- Pericles’ fame.
- Seuss’ cartoons.
- Moses’ law.
- Conscience’ sake.
- Jesus’ sake.
- goodness’ sake.
USE OF THE POSSESSIVE
a) Use the apostrophe and s when the possessor is a person or an animal:
- Onyinye’s doll, not the doll of Onyinye.
- The dog’s bone, not the bone of the dog.
b) Use the possessive case with the names of personified . objects and abstractions;
- Natures’ call.
- The Court’s verdict/decree.
- Duty’s call.
- Fortune’s wheel.
- Death’s icy hand.
c) Use the of phrase when the possessor is a thing:
- hands of a clock.
- pages of a book.
- legs of a table.
- principles of physics.
- leaves of a tree.
- walls of a city.
d) Also, use the of construction when the possessor noun is immediately followed by a phrase or clause;
- Who will listen to the songs of a man with cracked voice.
- The name of the man who wants to see you is James Ibe.
e) Use neither the apostrophe and s nor the of construction in certain well-known compound nouns in which the first noun serves as an adjective to indicate the position of the second noun.
- street lamp.
- office door.
- bathroom towel.
- dining-room table.
f) Similarly, use neither the apostrophe and s nor the of construction in compound nouns where the first word of the compound serves as a noun adjective indicating towns/districts, periods/seasons, clothes, equipment. vehicles, stories, etc.
- Abakaliki farms.
- football pitch.
- Ikwo transport.
- shoe polish.
- Enugu airport.
- wrist watch.
- Harmattan wind.
- tea cup.
- Christmas holiday(s).
- skating shoes.
- Summer holidays.
- adventure stories.
- Sunday lunch.
- crime stories.
But where the expression of time refers to second, minute, hour, day, night, week, fortnight, month, or year, add the apostrophe and s to the noun- adjective to form the possessive case of the compound noun.
- a day’s job.
- four months’ holiday.
- an hour’s rest.
- yesterday’s newspaper.
- three year’s honouraria.
- five day’s absence.
Note that the possessive case acts as modifier of the noun it precedes; e.g. Ngozi’s bag. But in some constructions. the nouns modified by the possessive may be omitted leaving the possessive word at the end of the sentence. (e.g. This is Ngozi’s bag. It is Ngozi’s.) But this omission of the modified noun can only occur when the possessive is in the objective case and not when it is in the subjective case.