Case part two

rogersgeorge on November 24th, 2011

We use the subjective (nominative) case for two things in English—the subject of a sentence or clause, which everyone gets pretty much correct pretty much all the time. The other place for the nominative is in a construction called the predicate nominative. Remember that term? I’ll explain it later. First we need two items of background.

First, think about how basic sentences are constructed in English. One basic sentence goes Subject, Verb, Direct Object. In that order. Since English has dropped a lot of inflectional endings, the order is usually important. Tom saw Mike is different from Mike saw Tom. (Notice that both names have the same form in both places) A lot of languages put a syllable or so at the end of a word to indicate how it’s used in the sentence. In Greek, for example, we might have something equivalent to Tomos saw Mikeon and Mikeos saw Tomon. That -os and -on are inflectional endings. It’s handy, in a way, to have inflectional endings because if you write Mikeon Tomos saw, your reader would know who saw whom without needing the word order. In fact the Greeks played with word order a lot because they could, with all those inflectional endings, and they had a lot of them.

Direct objects aren’t in the nominative case; they ‘re in the objective case, even if English doesn’t use an inflection to say so. Hence the ‘whom’ in the previous paragraph. That -m on whom is an inflectional ending. Literally, if I had written “who saw who.” I could have been writing about someone looking at his reflection in the mirror. (You might object that the reader can figure it out from the context. True, but that violates one of the main tenets of good writng. I mention it in that freebie order form in the right margin of this blog, but if you ask me directly, I’ll just tell you.)

When you think about word order, a predicate adjective looks a lot like a direct object.

Now the second bit of background, the verb “to be.” This word, in every language I have any acquaintance with, breaks a lot of rules that apply to most verbs. For one thing, it’s always irregular. You have to learn the different forms; it doesn’t follow the patterns most other verbs follow. We say, for example,  “I see, you see, he sees” but “I am, you are, he is.” No pattern.  Another thing about “to be” is that it is equivalent to an equals sign, but almost every other verb is equivalent to doing something. When Tom sees, he is doing something. But when Tom is the boss, that means Tom=boss.

Since both ends of a sentence containing some form of “to be” are equivalent, we use the nominative. We would say Tomos is the bossos.  The correct case is easier to remember in highly inflected languages. In English, where word order is so important, we get used to the pattern of having the objective case at the end of the sentence, so we tend use it all the time. “It’s me, Oh Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer” goes the song.

My Freshman English professor told this story:

St. Peter, at the pearly gates: Who’s there?

Person: “It is I.”

St. Peter: Ah, an English teacher!

So there you have it. Verbs of being take the nominative. Officially. I suppose it’s a losing battle, but at least now you know.

And I humbly beg the indulgence and forgiveness of you Greek scholars out there.

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