Consider the sentence:

John's book is blue.

What is the grammatical case of "book" here? The two obvious choices are nominative or genitive.

Most information online suggests it is nominative, since the noun phrase "John's book" is the subject. However, this doesn't seem right to me. Within the phrase, "book" seems clearly possessed, and in e.g. Latin I'm fairly certain it would be declined as-such.

(I'm also interested in replacing e.g. "John's" with "My". I don't think (?) this changes the answer.)

  • 3
    English does not have a case system for nouns, other than the genitive (possessive) and a few pronouns which have distinct nominative and accusative case. In your example, "book" is thus 'plain' case.
    – BillJ
    May 21 '18 at 18:45
  • 2
    Genitive is used for a possessor, not for what is possessed.
    – Greg Lee
    May 21 '18 at 22:35
  • "Liber Johannis caerulus est". Nope, 'liber' is nominative case in Latin
    – Mitch
    May 24 '18 at 20:47

Case refers to a specific type of inflection of a word when used in certain syntactic environments. So for example, the words they and them are nomally thought of as being instantiations of the same word. Which one of them we find in a particular sentence depends on their grammatical relations within that sentence. We call the first ɴᴏᴍɪɴᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ and the second ᴀᴄᴄᴜsᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ, largely by virtue of the fact that the first inflection is associated with subjects and the latter one with objects.

English common nouns, however, do not inflect for case—although noun phrases can take a genitive clitic. When people talk about the case of common nouns (as opposed to pronouns) in English, they talk about them being ᴘʟᴀɪɴ ᴄᴀsᴇ. However, what this really means is that they are not a single word noun phrase with the genitive clitic 'S attached.

People who have studied languages like Latin sometimes try to talk about the case of uninflected nouns when talking about languages that don't have case. What they are doing, though, is confusing the grammatical—or semantic—relations of a word with its (non-existent) case. So they relate the gramatical relations of a word with the case it would have in a language like Latin and try to project that case onto the caseless word.

People also, more reasonably perhaps, try to extend the case of a noun within a noun phrase to the case that it would have if it were a pronoun. So they might say (I know I myself have done this in the past, when I was fuzzier than I try to be today), that John in John ate the elephant is 'nominative' because a pronoun in subject position would be nominative. This is not a great idea though, because it makes it sound as if nouns actually have some kind of property, 'case', which they don't actually have. We are in reality just describing the grammatical relations when we try and pull tricks like this (saying that John is nominative just means that John is the subject, nothing more).

Furthermore we cannot pull this kind of stunt with the Original Poster's example, because pronouns cannot funtcion as the head of NP's with possessive determiners. In other words we cannot replace book with a pronoun here and retain the same meaning (although we could play word games where we played with citations of a pronoun).

In conclusion, in the Original Poster's example the word book could be described as 'plain case' if one wanted to emphasise that it had no genitive clitic attached. However, it has no case in any meaningful sense of the term.


I agree with what Araucaria's answer says: it's not really possible to say that English common nouns have "cases" like Nominative, Accusative etc. The "genitive" construction -'(s) is used with common nouns, but its analysis is complicated since it may be realized as a "clitic" or "edge affix" that attaches to a noun phrase rather than to a noun. And regardless of whether the English "genitive" -'(s) construction is ever a case, it's obvious that "book" in your sentence is not a "genitive" in this sense, because there is no following -'(s).

I think you've misunderstood how case works in a language like Latin or Old English, though. Possessed nouns can absolutely be in nominative case. The typical setup in an Indo-European language is to use a special case (genitive) for the possessor, not for the "possessum".

  • So the construction works just as one would expect a Latin or Old English construction with a genitive inside a nominative subject to work, yet one may not use the terms "genitive" or "nominative" to describe it, because, according to you, English common nouns don't have "cases". In my view this is complete nonsense, as also is @Araucaria's answer. I thought we had got over this early 20th c. empiricist fever that required us to assume languages can differ in arbitrary ways,
    – Greg Lee
    May 23 '18 at 19:47
  • @GregLee: If Modern English has case in the same way as Latin and Old English, then what is the case of a word like "John" in "John and Mary's house"? May 23 '18 at 19:53
  • @GregLee: I'm so confused by the concept of "syntactic case" that I would prefer to use different terms for it. Omer Preminger has said "insofar as English has anything you’d want to call ‘nominative’ [...] it’s [...] the thing we’ve been calling ‘accusative’ or ‘objective’ case" ("Case in 2017: some thoughts", p. 29) May 23 '18 at 19:58
  • I don't know. Does it help me to figure it out if you make a law that I cannot call it "genitive"? (That would be my guess, though, since it would be pronominalized as "his".)
    – Greg Lee
    May 23 '18 at 19:59

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