I often read that English retains 'vestigal' case markers, particularly for the genitive, although some argue that 's is a clitic. Pronouns remain the largest source of marked words indicating the syntactical function. My question is this: As word order is generally the most crucial method of indicating a nominal's syntactic function as a subject or an object, should word order be considered a method of implementing case marking in English?

Edit: I will refine my question based on responses given. My original question focused too much on 'case marking'.

I thank Greg and user6726 for their thoughtful replies. I have concluded that 'case markers' and 'word order' are two separate methods of indicating a nominal's syntactic function. (Sticking with syntax, for now.)

Hierarchically, they are both methods of 'X'

Word order . . . . Case marker

I would like to know the linguistic term for 'X'. My original assumption was 'Case system'

Thank you to all participants for your help in getting me to see that word order is not a variety of case system.

Greg Lee was right when he categorically said that word order is not a type of case marker.

user6726 has given a broad overview of how case is used in languages other than English and rogermue has given some specific examples of how certain English structures emulate case functions.

Atamiri tied it together (for me) by noting that word order and case markers have certain abstract similarities and, in some cases, perform a similar function. (It appears that case markers are potentially more powerful.) Greg Lee made a similar point about semantic rolls although I was originally considering only syntax.

4 Answers 4


The answer is no if you mean morphological case. Word order in English is a method of signalling grammatical functions.

But there's the notion of "abstract case" and then one might say that word order correlates with abstract case assignment (in the parlance of generative grammar). There's a more abstract notion of "configuration" and in the so-called configurational languages, configurations (that is, hierarchical word order) determine grammatical functions, such as subject, object, etc. In nonconfigurational languages such as Latin, word order plays no role in syntax sensu stricto (though it is important at the level of pragmatics since it is a means of expressing information structure).

I don't think your 'X' has a name in linguistics but both word order and (morphological) case are used to express grammatical roles.

  • I think "both word order and (morphological) case are used to express grammatical roles" captures the logic behind my original misconception that case and word order are similar. What is apparent is that they both fulfill grammatical functions with some overlap. Your notion of 'abstract case' is very helpful here. Sometimes I wonder if the apparent transparency of word order (when compared to morphology) leads us to overlook its function. Especially for those, like me, who have only learned languages such as English and Chinese where order is critical.
    – Tom
    Feb 10, 2015 at 13:10
  • @Tom Yes, they are similar in their function. "Abstract case" basically is what the morphological case would be in an equivalent Latin or Russian sentence. But there are languages that have no morphological case and "free" (nonconfigurational) word order, such as Macedonian or Abkhaz. The topic is really interesting and quite complicated once you look at other languages.
    – Atamiri
    Feb 10, 2015 at 13:57
  • Is morphological case not a method of signalling grammatical functions? Feb 10, 2015 at 21:07

That would be a mistake, IMO. "Case marking" has a specific meaning, and presupposes that a language has case (e.g. "nominative", "accusative" or whatever). There is some relationship between case and thematic rule / grammatical function, but they are not the same thing.

Alright, Greg hit the button before me. But, case is a morphological modification of a word -- not necessarily a suffix, so it could be a prefix, infix, or "mutation".

[Furthermore....] The primary concept that is relevant here is, roughly speaking, about how some nominal element relates syntactically to other elements of the sentence -- I'm being deliberately open-ended. One example is the relationship between "Bill" and either "cat" or "sold a cat" in "Bill sold a cat". That relationship can be indicated by word order (as in English), by some kind of abstract featural property realized as morphological affixation of some kind (as in Russian or Kipsigis), or by a seriously complicated system of gender agreement patterns in Khoekhoe; and there are other ways. In English, certain syntactic relations are primarily signalled by word order (and there is very little, though not no form-changing as is the case in Chinese). In Sanskrit and Walpiri, these relations are signalled via affixation (and not so much with word order).

The general form of the question that you're raising seems to be, what are the possible value-pairs of X and Y in the linguistic statement "X can be used to signal Y"? My conclusion is that "X,Y" can in principle be anything. There are no doubt database lacunae in finding all logically possible examples.

Now, the term "case" is conventionally used to cover a particular X,Y relationship. The "means of signalling" is diverse, but can be covered by "concatenation of elements", cashed out as an affix or near-affix (like a clitic), or an abstract feature that may spread through a phrase: it would not include governance of verb agreement or word order. The "thing signalled" is about a relationship between a nominal and other things -- back to the open-ended thing. First, that relationship can be just semantic, not structural. A simple example is that one-word answers to questions about subjects take nominative, about objects take accusative, about locations take locative, and so on, in Saami and Russian (as I understand), and maybe in most languages (not all). Second, in a number of Iranian languages, the relationship between elements in an NP, i.e. nouns and adjectives, is marked with an "Izafe/Ezafe" suffix -- so it's not just about NPs and other NPs or VPs. And sometimes a case can't really be said to mark a relationship between a nominal phrase and something else -- so in Saami, the essive case expresses notions like "Being an N", "As as N".

The doomed, gloomy picture that I'm painting arises from the fact that the concept "case" stemmed from observation of properties of particular set of languages with morphological affixation, and the coherence of "case" in those languages (German, Sanskrit, Finnish, Arabic etc.) is morphological (i.e. (Classical) Arabic nouns can't be simultaneously marked nominative and accusative). Problem arise when you partial analogies between some new system and a more classical case system.

As you can probably tell, I don't think that "case" is a generally-useful concept for clarifying that relationship, instead I think one is better off looking at the thing signified, or the means of signifying, depending on whether your interest is more in semantax or morphology.

  • Perhaps my use of 'case marking' is too specific. My understanding of 'case' (not markers, per se) is a system of indicating a nominative as being the subject, object, etc. in a sentence. As English uses position relative to the verb to indicate subjects and objects I was wondering if this was English's way of indicating (broadly, as opposed to marking specifically) case.
    – Tom
    Feb 10, 2015 at 2:09
  • It would help if we knew what you are trying to exclude: for example are "focus", "source", "agent", "theme", "passive agent", "topic" in the set of things that your "cases" denote? What is the "case" of "hoe" in "This hoe is difficult to take a picture of"?
    – user6726
    Feb 10, 2015 at 3:24
  • The language I know best (English) and the two I have studied (Thai, Chinese) don't have much use for case markers so when I discovered them I was intrigued. Initial research tended towards a syntactic function but your comments have reminded me that I should consider semantics, too. I guess 'hoe' is functioning as a nominative in your example - I think of syntax first. Semantically, it might be the theme - but I've always been a bit vague about that. I have reworded my question based on your suggestions. I should have started with the correct question to get the answer I am seeking.
    – Tom
    Feb 10, 2015 at 4:18
  • @Tom You might want to take a look at German, which has four cases. Or at Latin, which is an extreme case of a nonconfigurational dependent-marking language.
    – Atamiri
    Feb 10, 2015 at 17:47

No, simply because a case is marked by a suffix, and an order of words is not a suffix. However, if you follow Fillmore's proposal that cases mark semantic roles (Agent, etc.), it would be reasonable to say that word order in English has the same function as case does in case-marking languages: they both mark semantic roles.

  • You are right if case can only be indicated with a suffix, but I wonder if that definition ("case is only indicated with suffixes attached to the noun") is too narrow? "I" and "me" seem to indicate case without the use of a suffix. I am trying to avoid muddying the waters with consideration of semantics but maybe considering one without the other is a fool's errand.
    – Tom
    Feb 10, 2015 at 1:53
  • Well, if I'm more careful and allow for case to sometimes be shown by a special form of a word, it doesn't change the answer. A special form of a word is not an order of words, any more than a suffix is.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 10, 2015 at 1:57
  • Are there no languages where case is marked by a prefix? Do Semitic languages have cases and how are they marked? Feb 10, 2015 at 21:11
  • Theoretically there are: wals.info/feature/51A#5/9.449/22.676. However, Zulu is said to have case prefixes, in which case English does too, namely "with", "of", "from", "to"... S. Rose analyzes the accusative of Chaha as a prefix, and comitative, oblique as "prepositions/particles/case markers".
    – user6726
    Feb 12, 2015 at 19:54

I see it this way: A case as dative can be expressed by an ending as in Latin, it can be marked by a preposition as "to" in English, and it can be marked by position alone as in the English verb structure verb + dative (of person) + accusative. All three clearly show the case of the noun. ( I know that the general view in English grammars is that English has no cases or dative as in Latin where cases are expressed with endings. But I think this view is a bit narrow. "indirect object" is in my view just another name for dative, the new term doesn't give any new insight into the function of cases. The function of dative can be expressed by more means than ending alone.)

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