What are the differences between: subject, subjective, nominative, and the nominative case? If there aren't any substantial ones, why are there so many terms for basically saying the same thing?

  • Good question. And don't forget "progressive" and "continuous"!
    – Pitarou
    Feb 1, 2014 at 23:24
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    @Pitarou this is only the abridged version of my original question :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 1, 2014 at 23:28
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    @John, the vocative is not only used with names. It is, in most Western European languages that have it, only morphologically distinct in certain declensions, but it operates across those declensions, in both names and regular nouns; while it fails to operate in other declensions, whether names or regular nouns. Feb 2, 2014 at 1:30
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    @Pitarou Personification
    – Kris
    Feb 2, 2014 at 7:30
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    @Mari-LouA: I just explained that in a comment on the answer below, because Susan asked the same question. Grammarians and linguists (same group, actually; there are no grammarians who are not linguists) do use those terms, but nor for English. For Latin, sure; for German, Russian, Greek, Sanskrit, sure; they're inflected. English isn't. Feb 2, 2014 at 11:36

1 Answer 1


Nominative and (the) nominative case mean the same thing. It's just a normal shortening of a noun compound, like future and the future tense, optative and the optative mood, middle and the middle voice. These are all technical names for grammatical phenomena, none of which occur in English.

Subjective means the opposite of objective; i.e, a subjective judgement is not objective. If you see it used as a grammatical term in a discussion of grammar, it's a sign that the author is parroting opinions instead of facts. It's not a grammatical term used by grammarians, but it used to be part of old handwaving terminology like "subjective complement".

There are subject complements and object complements, but they're types of noun clauses functioning as subject or object; this is not the same thing at all as any of the phenomena that used to be called "subjective complements".

Subject is a grammatical relation. In English and most non-ergative languages, there are three possible grammatical relations: subject, direct object, and indirect object.

These three are the usual linguistic reflexes of the arguments of intransitive, transitive, and bitransitive predicates in predicate calculus:

  1. DEAD (Bill)
  2. READ (Bill, book)
  3. GIVE (Bill, book, Mary)

English requires every clause to have a subject (even if it isn't there, it must be attributable); every transitive clause has a direct object as well; every bitransitive clause has both, plus an indirect object.

These are often just called 1, 2, and 3 by Relational Grammarians; e.g, the dative alternation is stated in RG as Promote 3 to 2, while Passive is Promote 2 to 1.

  • I have heard others here say there isn't a nominative or accusative case in English. If that's true, why are there references to it? Feb 2, 2014 at 3:32
  • @Susan: Because it used to be fashionable to project properties of Latin grammar (like future and perfect tenses, or subjunctive mood) onto English grammar -- Latin grammar being the ideal, of course -- and Latin does have a nominative and an accusative case. As Old English had, and as German still has. But no one has ever found more than 5 words in Modern English that are accusative, and they're all pronouns. A real case system encompasses every noun in the language (or almost every -- Latin neuter nouns collapse the nominative and the accusative case forms). Feb 2, 2014 at 4:28
  • I disagree with you about "subjective" and "objective". For instance, I knew a man who first learnt English use the terms "subjective" and "objective" in the way that others might use "nominative" and "accusative".
    – Pitarou
    Feb 2, 2014 at 6:11
  • @JohnLawler - Thanks for the answer. I believe you of course; your explanation makes perfect sense (and reminds me of classicism). I taught Latin a number of years ago, and I can't seem to undo those useful (to me) frames of reference. It's always been useful to think of "predicate nominatives", or accusative for DO and OOPs. Feb 2, 2014 at 8:15
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    If you actually know Latin, it's harmless, and in fact that's where all this stuff came from. English grammar has never been taught in English classes -- they're only composition and literature, no language. When everybody going to college took Latin in HS, they could look at English and say "Oh, I see how that works". But nowadays people just mouth the words and identify the Partes Orationis and think they've learned grammar. Sad. Feb 2, 2014 at 11:33

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