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Is it correct to say that, nowadays, English has the dative case, or was it only present in Old English?

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up vote 17 down vote accepted

It actually depends on what kind of theoretical framework you are operating under.

If your question is whether English has some sort of overt affix that attaches to words that marks dative case unambiguously, then the answer is no. (If ambiguity between accusative and dative case is fine, then many of the pronouns, as well as whom, could be considered to be marking dative).

However, case marking does not have to necessarily be done with an affix, it can be done with a preposition. In English, the preposition to is used to mark dative case. For example:

  • To me, this is an easy problem.
  • I gave ten dollars to them.
  • She's like a sister to him.

You could say that this "replaced" case marking, but, in fact, this is case marking! The word to has essentially no meaning except to mark the specific function in the sentence of the noun it modifies.

To compare, in German (a language with a clear dative case), the equivalent sentences would all have a dative pronoun in place of the entire "to X" phrase.

(Note: Sometimes for is used as well, although I think one could argue that for might also contribute some additional meaning — to is the "purest" dative marker. Also, keep in mind that not all instances of the to preposition are simply dative case markers. For example, as part of the infinitive, or as a locative preposition: "I went to the park".)

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A good exposition (+1). But I wanted to add that in some constructions the dative sense is expressed without a preposition either. Verbs like "give" and "show" which normally require both direct and indirect objects can have the indirect object without a marker, as long as it comes first: "He gave me the book" = "He gave the book to me". Also, some verbs which do not require an indirect object can take an unmarked object as beneficiary: "He cooked me a meal" = "He cooked a meal for me". – Colin Fine Feb 24 '11 at 17:35
@Colin Fine: I was focusing on instances of overt case marking, but I should have mentioned that too. Thanks for writing it up clearly so I don't have to bother! :) – Kosmonaut Feb 24 '11 at 18:20
One could at the most argue that to insertion is a "mechanism" to achieve dative case, not that "this is case marking" -- in that the preposition is not a dedicated device for the purpose: "...not all instances of the to preposition are simply dative case markers." BTW you have (inadvertently?) stated "to is the "purest" dative marker" (emph. mine). – Kris Nov 1 '12 at 5:10

There are clearly a number of views on this matter. Firstly, it's worth mentioning that some frameworks have the notion that every noun phrase must be assigned some case or other. But Case can then be an underlying phenomenon rather than an overt one.

If you accept such principles, then the question effectively becomes one of deciding if in English "I gave him the book", him is in the same case as in German "Ich gab ihm das Buch" (assuming again that you accept the notion that German ihm is "dative case"), and possibly whether English "for him" and/or German "für ihn", "an ihn" etc can also be examples of dative case.

There's really no consensus on this, but some things to consider:

  • in languages with overt case marking, coordinated nouns pretty much always share the same case: so to my knowledge, a German would always say "mit David und ihm" ("with David and him", with "ihm" being in the case governed by the preposition "mit"), and would never say the equivalent of e.g. "with David and I", as does readily occur in English; so we have grounds not to try and shoehorn English into a "canonical" case system;
  • English "dative" objects can become subject pronouns in the passive, as though they were "direct" objects; if English behaved like German with its overt case marking, then that overt case would be maintained in the passive (contrast English "He was given the book" with German "Ihm/*Er wurde das Buch gegeben", where only "Ihm", dative, and not "Er", nominative, is possible)
  • in various languages, there is some alternation between an overt dative and a prepositional phrase, similar to English "I made him a cake"~"I made a cake for him"; "I sent him a package"~"I sent a package to him" e.g. German dative can often be replaced with "an/für..."; in as much as "lui", "le" are overtly dative, French often allows "lui/pour lui" to alternative, Spanish "le/para él" etc,
  • On the other hand, "dative" objects in English do have some special properties meaning they don't behave like "normal" direct objects: e.g. they don't tend to relativise as readily ("I saw the guy you mentioned" vs "??I saw the guy you gave a headache")

So on the one hand, English "him" etc can have some properties of what we might see as "canonically dative", but on the other hand, it has some properties that aren't, and it's clear that English isn't a language with canonical overt case marking.

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Case really requires inflection. It would be proper to say that English has constructs that fill the function of the dative case in other languages, but we really only have the declension of a very small list of pronouns and the plural forms of a relatively short list of "homely" nouns remaining of what was once a highly-inflected language. – bye Feb 24 '11 at 18:38
@Stan -- I'm relatively sympathetic to the point of view of requiring inflection, but it is a particular viewpoint, and the notion of underlying universal Case is also a reasonably mainstream view. N.B. Some languages appear to have systematic case systems but mark them with something other than inflection, e.g. with a suffix much more like English 's (but more systematically). – Neil Coffey Feb 24 '11 at 20:24

It's hardly right to say that English still has a separate dative case. The case exist in the theoretical sense (in “he gave me flowers”, the grammatical case of me is the dative case), but it is not expressed by specific pronouns. Indeed, uses prepositions such as to or for.

The only remnants of the dative case in modern English are pronouns such as “whom”, “him”, “her”, etc., which have absorbed both the accusative and dative case.

The Wikipedia entry on the topic has decent, if basic, information on the topic.

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+1 Also for being the only answer with a relevant citation. – Kris Nov 1 '12 at 5:13

English cases are most obvious in pronouns, which have subjective, objective, possessive and reflexive cases. The objective case corresponds to what other languages often use as the accusative and dative cases as with me in She hugged me and He gave me the book.

So the dative case is not distinct in English, but saying that English does or does not have a dative case is (for me) a matter of personal preference. Better not to say either.

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In traditional Sanskrit grammar (the only grammar I'm somewhat familiar with), a distinction is made between vibhakti, the actual "case" a noun takes, and "kāraka", the role of the word, roughly the semantic equivalent of case. Looking around for translations, the latter in English linguistics seems to be called thematic relation. So it's right to say the "Recipient" thematic role exists in English (as it probably must in any language), but English doesn't usually mark thematic roles with case, so the dative case is not separate as such. – ShreevatsaR Feb 24 '11 at 9:32
@ ShreevatsaR: Interesting; so doesn't Sanskrit grammar use the level between morphology and semantics, synataxis, in which a (pro)noun can be called indirect object and a complement to the verb? – Cerberus Feb 24 '11 at 15:07
Henry: in principle, it's not a matter of personal preference, but one of scientific fact. If we don't yet have the knowledge to establish that scientific fact with 100% certainty, this is a different matter, but absence of that certainty doesn't mean we should just make something up rather than analysing the available evidence to the best of our ability... – Neil Coffey Feb 24 '11 at 15:07
@Neil: I shouldn't call it a matter of making things up; the thing is rather that we have certain traditional models and definitions, and that the choice between definitions is not too different from personal preference, unless one model should be in all respects inferior, which is not the case here. – Cerberus Feb 24 '11 at 15:11
@Orbling -- Erm since when can't language be a scientific discipline. Google "linguistics"... :-) I repeat: whether or not German "ihm" is the same phenomenon of English "(to) him" is not in principle a matter of opinion, it is a matter of scientific fact, just as is the question of whether there exists life on other planets: we may not have enough knowledge to answer that question with certainty, but there is in principle an answer one way or the other. – Neil Coffey Feb 24 '11 at 20:26

We have been blessed with the verb-form "gifted" so I guess there must be a dative around here somewhere.

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