If I told you that Sarah called Michelle, you would know that I do not mean to say Michelle did not call Sarah. And if I told you that Sam sent Mike an email, you would know that I do not mean to say Mike sent Sam an email. So how is it you know that? The answer, of course, has to do with word order. The subject begins a clause in the standard word order of an English sentence, and the subject is then followed by the verb. And all works well until it doesn’t.
If I next told you that Sarah called Michelle more often than me, what exactly do I mean? That Sarah called Michelle more often than I did, or that Sarah called Michelle more often than she called me? Two very different meanings, and understanding the word order will not help in determining which meaning I intended to communicate. The answer here lies in the word me. We know that the word me is closely related to two other words, I and my, so how are these three words related and how would that information help sort out the meaning of Sarah called Michelle more often than me?
The grammatical phenomenon that confronts us here is called case, a strange word whose origin we are best advised for now not to ask too much about. The term case refers to the form (that is to say, the spelling) or the position of a word that will indicate its grammatical function in a phrase or clause. Case applies only to nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Modern English has three cases with three strange but ultimately significant names: nominative, possessive, and objective, and each of these cases has a number of grammatical functions assigned to it. The subject of a verb is in the nominative case, the possessor of something is in the possessive case, and the object of a verb or preposition is in the objective case. Know these simple rules and you’re in a position to avoid a lot of confusion.
To say that case refers to the form or position of a word has to do with the fact that not every grammatical function is revealed by how a word is spelled. In our first example, the noun Sarah is spelled the same whether it is acting as the subject of the clause (Sarah called Michelle) or the object of the verb (Michelle called Sarah); so if a word does not change its form to signify its grammatical function, then it must rely on its position, on where it appears in a phrase or clause. We know that Sarah was the one calling because that noun is positioned before its verb. And likewise we know that Michelle received the call because that noun is placed after the verb, not before it. Nouns change their spelling only once to indicate case, and that is in the possessive, where we use an apostrophe to point to the possessor of something: Sarah’s invitation, for example, means the invitation that belonged to, or originated from, Sarah.
So if nouns only change their spelling in the possessive case, then that means that they are spelled exactly the same in the other two cases—hence the importance of knowing the standard word order: subject + verb + object. Unlike nouns, some pronouns, however, change their spelling much more frequently than nouns to indicate a change in grammatical function. The difference between I, my, and me is simply the difference between the nominative, possessive, and objective cases, which is why one would say I called Sarah, not me called Sarah: the subject of a verb must be in the nominative, not objective, case. This then gives us the answer to another of our examples. To say that Sarah called Michelle more often than me can only mean that Sarah called Michelle more often than she called me, because the pronoun me is in the objective case, indicating that it is intended to stand as another object of the verb called (just as the noun Michelle is the first object of the same verb). To change the objective me to the nominative I is not incorrect, it just means something different: the question now is not who received more calls, but who did more calling.
The more developed the case system of a language, the less important is word order, because to the degree a word shows its grammatical function by the way it is spelled, just where you put it in a sentence is not (at least logically) a matter of overconcern. But when a language like English does not change its forms too often, word order accordingly becomes more important. And that inverse relationship is worth understanding to avoid troublesome, and sometimes discomfiting, mistakes.
If you would like to learn more about grammatical case, please join us tonight for Writing Smartly’s Tuesday Evening Grammar at 6:30 CT. You may enroll now through this registration link. Tuition is $25.