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Case Conflicts in English

Last November a visitor to the Grammar Shop of the Alpha Agora asked about the construction, “I thought her not so pretty” and I only got around to replying today. Here are my thoughts. They point up an interesting difference between languages with case systems (nouns with endings which change with changes in sentence functions) and without them. English is in the final stage of losing its cases.

There are several verbs that accept direct objects with ‘predicate’ adjectives, most have to do with mental processing. It is parallel to consider, as in “I consider that she is pretty” or, shortened, “I consider her pretty,” “I imagined her pretty;” “I imagined that she would be pretty” or “I imagined her pretty.”

It is a peculiar prerogative of English which allows predicates of nouns in the objective case. In languages like German and Russian, where the objectives (accusative) case is used only for direct objects and direct objects cannot be the subject of a phrase, such constructions are impossible. Notice that in the shortened sentences above her is the direct object of the main sentence and subject of the dependent clause “her (=she is) pretty”.

We do this elsewhere, too, usually using the infinitive construction. In the sentence “I asked her to do it,” her is the direct object of asked and the subject of do it at the same time. In languages with real case systems, this is impossible. It is possible in English because the case system has vanished except for the pronouns I, we, he, she and our comfort level with constructions like between you and I show that it is on the way out even for these pronouns.

5 Responses to “Case Conflicts in English”

  1. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    I’m not sure if I follow your reasoning, but if I do, Russian (and German) does allow the accusative in “It is a peculiar prerogative of English which allows predicates of nouns in the objective case. In languages like German and Russian, where the objectives (accusative) case is used only for direct objects and direct objects cannot be the subject of a phrase, such constructions are impossible.” Here’s an example: Ни разу, нигде люди, которые считают Россию азиатской страной, предъявлены не были, и, более того, никаких конкретных утверждений на эту тему не было озвучено. http://www.polit.ru/lectures/2005/07/11/koh.html

    The object may function as the subject in highly inflected languages as well. Let’s take Latin, for example: Sinite pueros venire ad me (Let the children come to me). Petrum is in the accusative but is the subject of the clause introduced by the infinitive esse, so it works just like English. Other languages that allow the same thing are Portuguese (Deixai vir a mim as criancinhas) and Spanish (Dejad los niños venir a mí).

  2. rbeard Says:

    I don’t see an example of an accusative subject in the Russian example; where is it? Россию is the only accusative noun I see and it is not the subject of the sentence unless you believe in small clauses (like Chomsky). I don’t. Some verbs have secondary objects (indirect objects, etc.) and this is one of them.

    Something is wrong with your Latin example (it contains neither “petrum” nor “esse”). But let” is a problem in all inflectional languages that do not express it with a simple affix but generally Let + verb behaves like a complex verb rather than as two verbs. Notice all your examples contain “let”. If the corect analysis of these verb structure is “let-come these children”, as I think it is, then the problem is obviated.

  3. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    I see I messed it up. I thought about writing something and ended up rewriting it and leaving traces behind (good think I’m not a criminal, otherwise I’d be in jail now). The sentence about Petrus is Puto Petrum bonum esse (I think Peter is good). Petrum is in the objective form (the nominative is Petrus) but is at the same time subject of the unconjugated verb esse (to be) which is sometimes referred to as accusative subjective. Regarding the Russian example, I think I understand what you mean now. Even though Россию is in the accusative, азиатской страной is in the instrumental. I can’t think of a Russian example now, but you can have two accusatives in German (one is the direct object, the other as the predicate of the direct object), as in: Oberbaurat Philipp Hoffmann nannte den Prachtbau am Michelsberg sein wichtigstes Werk, where both den Prachtbau (the direct object) and sein wichtiges Werk (the predicate) are in the accusative.

  4. rbeard Says:

    Here is more of the very conversation Luciano and I continued via e-mail:

    I see I messed it up. I thought about writing something and ended up rewriting it and leaving traces behind (good think I’m not a criminal, otherwise I’d be in jail now). The sentence about Petrus is Puto Petrum bonum esse (I think Peter is good). Petrum is in the objective form (the nominative is Petrus) but is at the same time subject of the unconjugated verb esse (to be) which is sometimes referred to as accusative subjective. Regarding the Russian example, I think I understand what you mean now. Even though Россию is in the accusative, азиатской страной is in the instrumental. I can’t think of a Russian example now, but you can have two accusatives in German (one is the direct object, the other as the predicate of the direct object), as in: Oberbaurat Philipp Hoffmann nannte den Prachtbau am Michelsberg sein wichtigstes Werk, where both den Prachtbau (the direct object) and sein wichtiges Werk (the predicate) are in the accusative.

    –Luciano

    ———————————————–

    REPLY:

    Luciano,

    The German example is exactly like the Russian except German, like English in these cases does not use an oblique case for the second object in this sentence.

    I need an example where the verb can be anything, not just a copulative verb: Fran told Jenny to rite/read/get/return/burn/… the book, “Jenny” in the accusative case.

    Chomsky disagrees and has spawned a cottage industry of articles explaining the thousands exceptions to his “small clause” theory. These are not embedded clauses but verbs that take two objects: direct-indirect, direct-essive (the Finnish case), etc.

    –RB

  5. reichelle ann sy mapili Says:

    i’m a grade 5 student…………and i don’t understand objective cas in noun………and object complement

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