Look at this example: For the butler to attack the robber would be surprising.

Here, the butler and the robber are assigned accusative case. Is 'for' assigning case to the butler and 'to attack' assigning case to the robber? Doesn't there need to be a subject in the clause, so there's something with nominative case?

Am I right in saying 'to attack' does not assign the nominative case to anything?

For sentences such as: 'That the butler attacked the robber is surprising.' I understand the case assigning, attacked assigns nom. to the butler and acc. to the robber. As soon as an infinitival clause gets involved, I find myself getting very confused. Can anyone help?

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    In both your examples, everything up to and including 'robber' is the subject of the sentence, and of the verb 'would be' or 'is.' Jun 2, 2017 at 12:26
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    Also, English has no cases, certainly not an accusative case. As for the sentence, for marks the subject noun phrase of an infinitive clause, just as to marks its verb phrase. So the butler is the subject noun phrase of the verb phrase attack the robber. That takes care of the subordinate clause, and that clause is the subject of the verb phrase would be surprising, as @YosefBaskin points out. You may assign cases any way you please, depending on which cases you have been dealt. Jun 2, 2017 at 13:36
  • @JohnLawler: I know Wikipedia has errors, but are you saying that this page is totally wrong?  Even tchrist acknowledges that English has cases. Jun 3, 2017 at 2:42
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    Not at all. But it doesn't talk about English cases, because English doesn't have a case system. Sanskrit and Greek and Latin had case systems, and German still does; but English has lost its cases. Consider that there is no case marking on any English noun; how many Latin nouns have case markings? All of them. Jun 3, 2017 at 2:51
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    @Scott English pronouns retain some vestigial, fossilized elements of an older productive case system, but English nouns along with their attendant articles and determiners and adjectives and such no longer have any case. We no longer have a productive inflectional morphology for case in English. See my comments to this effect on the answer below.
    – tchrist
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:54

2 Answers 2


Common nouns in English have no nominative or accusative contrast and are said to be plain case. Pronouns on the other hand may be nominative, accusative or genitive.

The default case for pronouns in English is the accusative, not the nominative. Nominative case pronouns, as a general rule, only occur as the Subjects of finite clauses—in other words only when they are the Subject of a clause with a tensed verb or are part of a subjunctive construction:

She exists.

The doctor recommended she be sent to the hospital immediately.

In rather pedantic styles of English, nominative case may also be used for pronouns functioning as Complements of the verb BE:

A: Who's there?

B: It is I

Nominative case is not used for pronouns functioning as Subjects of non-finite clauses in English:

  • We arranged for her to be sent to the hospital.
  • We approve of his being appointed Managing Director.
  • I don't like him doing that.

The Original Poster's sentence uses an infinitival clause as the Subject of the larger sentence. Because this clause has no tense the Subject cannot be in the nominative.

  • In "This gives me trouble", which case is me in?
    – tchrist
    Jun 2, 2017 at 14:26
  • @tchrist The accusative. Why do you ask? Jun 2, 2017 at 14:37
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    @JanusBahsJacquet As I understand it, nouns and impersonal pronouns in English are unmarked for case as subjects or objects, although applying the ’s NP-clitic to them can be used to derive both a possessive determiner (i.e., a modifier) and a possessive noun (i.e., a substantive). In contrast, personal pronouns have a subject case like I, an object case like me, a “genitive” case like mine, and a possessive determiner my.
    – tchrist
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:40
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That was my cat Lorin walking on my Mac’s own keyboard while I was typing on the Happy Hacking keyboard! :) What I was trying to get to was that referring to English’s objective-case pronouns as “accusative” isn’t meaningful because that term is reserved for use for direct object inflections, whereas English pronouns in their object case serve equally well as indirect objects and prepositional objects, not just direct ones. Other grammars (like Old English, just to name one!) have a distinctive dative case that English has lost. (Think German wer, wen, wem, wessen).
    – tchrist
    Jun 3, 2017 at 15:46
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    @tchrist I basically agree with that too, though I don't think it's necessarily very important. English personal pronouns have two cases—whether you want to call them nominative and accusative, subjective and oblique, primary and secondary, or Peter and Judy is fairly irrelevant. Don't forget that the accusative in German, Latin, etc., can also be used for prepositional objects (an sich, ad Rōmam). They're just convenient names, and details differ between languages. But the possessive is neither a case nor a property of nouns, which I think is quite essential (and has now been addressed). Jun 3, 2017 at 15:52

For the butler to attack the robber would be surprising.

The subject is the DP [For the butler to attack the robber]. It is assigned Nominative case by the presence of Tense associated with the main verb. Inside the Subject, attack assigns accusative case to the robber - it can be replaced by her. The prepositional complementiser for can assign accusative/oblique case to the butler - you can replace the butler with her but not she (at least in my dialect.) English does have a case system it is just not realised morphologically but it relies on structural positions. Accusative Case assigners have to c command the DP they govern and nominative can be assigned through m command.

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