Grammar Guerilla: Cases Still Matter in English

Guerilla-GorillaNot very long ago, as recently as the 1950s and 60s, the most remote public school student in America learned a little Latin. By remote I mean, e.g., rural villages in Nebraska. By the 1970s, however, Latin went the way of phonics (which was highly effective in teaching students how to read for themselves but which was replaced by the stupid “See and say” method) because the teachers and administrators no longer themselves understood and thus were no longer able to articulate the value of learning Latin. Memorization also largely died in this period.

Why the lament? Because when Latin was removed from schools, in favor of who knows what, we lost an important tool for understanding the English language. As an undergraduate I was told that, even though English is a Germanic language, about 60% of English has Latin roots. When we quit teaching Latin we also stopped teaching students about the cases in English.

What are cases and do they matter? Grammarians speak of cases to describe the function of different kinds of nouns and adjectives. You use different cases even if you are not aware of it. There is a subject case (in Latin it is the nominative). There is the direct object case (the accusative), the indirect object case (the dative), the instrument case (ablative), and the source/possession case (the genitive).

He (subject) threw her (genitive) ball (direct object) against the wall (indirect object).

We express these cases in English by distinguishing the form of pronouns. We use he and she for the subject case,  him and her for the object cases. Using them correctly helps avoid needless confusion.

Consider these three sentences by Jonah Goldberg, one of my favorite writers and one of the leading candidates to take up the mantle of William F. Buckley. In a recent essay on the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson by that citadel of open-minded, free thought The Atlantic, where it is acceptable to advocate the vacuuming of the brains of unborn infants but a crime against humanity to call that act murder or to advocate punishment for murdering infants, Goldberg wrote:

Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) courageously hired Kevin because he wants his magazine to be a public square for different points of view. Goldberg is also fascinated with “homeless conservatives” in the era of Trump. Kevin is a critic of the president — even more so than me.

What (Jonah) Goldberg wrote is that Williamson is more critical of Jonah Goldberg than he is critical of President Trump. In context, however, it seems that Jonah meant to say that Williamson is more critical of Trump than Jonah is critical of Trump. We infer that from the context. Whether Williamson is critical of Jonah is relatively immaterial to the argument but whether he is even more critical of Trump than Jonah is critical of Trump is material to his argument. The third sentence is needlessly confusing, however, because Jonah used the wrong case of the pronoun. Instead of writing “— even more so than me” he should have written “— even more so than I.” Had he used the subject case (I) instead of the object case (me) there would have been no confusion. Because he used the object case instead of the subject case the reader had to re-read the sentence several times to determine his intent, his meaning.

Why did Goldberg use the wrong case? Perhaps because it has come to sound stuffy to use the subject when making a comparison but the subject case is correct and clearer. Consider Psalm 61:2 “From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (NASB). Why is the subject case correct here? Because, as my friend Tom Martin (now Associate Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University) pointed out to me (in his car, on the way to work at another school) in 1994, the verb to be (I am) is implied. It is “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I am” not “higher than me.” The use of the object case comparisons has become common colloquial speech and perhaps in spoken English it is clear enough but in this instance and in others, failure to use the correct case causes confusion.

The bigger point is that we have been sold a mess of educational pottage in place of true education. Our local school district requires 40 credits in English and 10 credits in “Fine Arts or World Language.” By comparison, the district allows for 75 elective credits. I do not know what is included in that number but Latin is not among them. The Baby Boomers complained endlessly (contributing to the death of Latin public school), that few of them were ever going to use Latin after school but that was never the point. Learning Latin was a way to teach them how to understand their own language, how to memorize, and to open their minds to new (old) possibilities. For example, future seminarians who hope to learn Greek would do well to learn Latin now. After a couple semesters of Latin, Greek will be much easier to learn. When it comes time to learn Greek, one will have all the categories in place and will understand how the language works.

By learning Latin school children were learning how to learn. They were learning how to memorize and how to analyze a sentence. They were accumulating tools that they could continue to use for the rest of their lives. By learning Latin they were gaining a new window on their own (or adopted) language. The Greek students in my school tell me that they are really coming to understand English for the first time, and this as graduate students. When I tell them that who is in the nominative (subject) and whom is in the accusative or dative case (object cases), they understand instantly and are able immediately to use them correctly, because they have the categories to understand the difference between the cases. Instantly they are able to use the correct pronoun. They are able to speak and write more clearly and is that not a major function of school, to enable students to speak and write more clearly?

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  1. “What (Jonah) Goldberg wrote is that Williamson is more critical of Jonah Goldberg than he is critical of President Trump” – Are you sure it’s that way round? (Please feel free to delete this post, especially if it’s achieved its purpose)

  2. There is a complication in your example. Presumably, if someone says “But isn’t ‘of me’ genitive, rather than accusative?”, your answer will be “‘Is a critic of’ is in the role of a four word verb, of which ‘the President’ and ‘me’ are objects. If, on the other hand, someone had written ‘Jonah Goldberg is a critic of the Los Angeles Times’, it might be open to question whether the verb is ‘is a critic of’, meaning that he criticises the Los Angeles Times, or simply ‘is’, meaning that he works as a critic for the Los Angeles Times”?
    I was first exposed to grammatical cases when my Granny started teaching me French. It didn’t disturb me to find out from my Mummy there were also cases in the language she was teaching me (Latin), but what really blew my mind was being shown by my teachers in high school that there were cases also in ENGLISH!!!!! I’d thought only foreigners had them.

  3. Hi Dr Clark,
    I’m a undergrad linguistics student. I don’t mean to be contrary, but your article is a good example of why using Latin to teach elementary English grammar isn’t a good idea (though knowledge of Latin itself is certainly helpful!]. To put it simply, English is a default-accusative language, where “case-unspecificed” or “unattached” pronouns are put into the accusative case, the opposite of Latin, where they are ordinarily put into the nominative case. Differences such as these have been a historical source of inappropriate grammar prescriptions, where grammarians sought to prescribe the rules of Latin grammar for English, giving rules such as that pronouns should appear in the nominative in the aforementioned use, that sentences shouldn’t be ended with prepositions, or that infinitives shouldn’t be split. Such rules are not native to English and were the result of foreign prescriptions by an elite which was well-versed in latin grammar, working with the basic assumption that Latin with by nature orderly and refined and that such order should be introduced into English through prescription. This had the predictable effect of deforming native English grammar, not only through the application of these Latinate rules, but also through various “hypercorrections”, such as the overuse of the nominative case of pronouns, generalizing even to the accusative, on the part of the learners, errors which persist in English to this day. Sociologically, this approach makes education more difficult for those with less access to the prescribed grammar, such as those who only speak English and introduces unnecessary rules that don’t improve communicative competence; I had no problem understanding Goldberg’s communicative intent and would not have noticed an “error” had it not been pointed out. Such issues of access to preferred or standardized grammar, even with regards to Standard English, provide serious, and often unnecessary, hurdles to education for minority students, whose dialects are equally standard and functional when compared to Standard English, but much less valued for sociological reasons. Moreover, I believe that what you are advocating, an improved education in grammar, could be given through thorough instruction in English grammar, including discussion of cases and their proper uses. After all, English does have several different pronoun cases to work with [hanging preposition intentional]. Moreover, these benefits that you attribute to Latin education can be found equally in instruction in any foreign language, since all natural languages have complex and comprehensive grammars. A reference grammar of Spanish is just as long as a reference grammar of Latin. Practice at language analysis is perhaps more important than simple grammatical instruction, and language analytic ability is a strong predictor of success in second-language learning. I know that often the old ways are better, and such is certainly the case when comparing reformed orthodoxy to what passes as such in the present era, and such is even the case with regards to much of education, given the ideologization that is common in public schools, but with regards to language education, there are legitimate reasons for changes in instructional approaches, founded in linguistic and pedagogical research (and you’ll be happy to hear that phonics approaches have been found by researchers to be of greater effectiveness than word-identification approaches and have seen a resurgence). For a paper discussing the “default case” in English, among other related issues, Mcfadden 2007 “Default case and the status of compound categories in Distributed Morphology” is helpful.

    • Speaking as another linguist — and as another Latin-lover — I can confirm that Charles is completely correct here. English and Latin have a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European, but they have diverged in oh so many ways over the millennia, including case. Like every descendant of Proto-Indo-European, not only has the number of cases changed, but the way individual cases are used grammatically changed as Indo-European languages morphed. While there is a great deal of overlap in how the accusative case in Latin is used and how the objective case in English is used, they are not the same thing. Comparing them as if they were is misleading.

  4. As one who did study Latin–& is grateful for the experience–I believe the demise of careful rhetoric was more a result of discontinuing instruction in diagraming sentences than of the loss of Latin.

    • Dan,

      My argument is not we lost cases because we lost Latin but that Latin is extremely helpful to understanding English, modern linguistics (apparently) notwithstanding. My argument is that the loss of Latin was part of a broader shift in public education (following Dewey) away from the objective and toward the subjective. Further, the loss of Latin meant that students weren’t given a valuable tool on which they would be able to draw to continue learning their own language.

      In my experience learning Greek and Latin was revolutionary. I had diagrammed sentences in high school (I took every English course my school offered and some they didn’t) but it was not until I learned (as it happened) Greek and then Latin (like everything else, I did that backward too) that English really began to make sense.

      Linguists and others can tell me that it isn’t true or it shouldn’t be true but I know what I experienced and I know what my Latin students have told me for most of 20 years. It revolutionized their understanding of English.

      • I feel that I should clarify my argument. What I mean is that learning a foreign language, Latin included, is certainly helpful for understanding grammar in the abstract, but it should not be used as a prescriptive guide for particular aspects of grammar.

  5. My experience – as a student of both Hebrew and Greek years ago – is that if a student doesn’t know what an adjective is in English, then he won’t know what an adjective is in Hebrew or Greek, either. As you say, most people don’t learn Latin anymore, but it seems they’re not learning much English grammar, either, thus making it more difficult to learn any foreign language.

    • Richard,

      We get students regularly who aren’t well grounded in English grammar. They learn Greek/Hebrew and in that process they come to understand English grammar.

  6. Try this Google search to see how NOT too teach Latin:
    life of brian latin lesson youtube

    Learning Latin grammar helped me in subsequent study of Germany, French, Greek and Romanian.

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