Case Categories – A Better Approach?

Most grammars delineate the meaning of the cases by providing labels for usage. I propose that a better way of approaching case usage would be to describe cases based on verb types.

I’ll let you in on a secret.

Virtually all of the categories suggested for the different cases have little or nothing to do with the cases themselves and everything to do with lexical semantics.

Two examples:


Wallace provides a good forty plus categories for the Genitive case. Why is the genitive usage so diverse? Well its actually quite simple. The genitive case is the default case for marking dependent relationships between two nouns. If you have two nouns where one is modifying the other, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have one of them in the genitive. What that means is that the genitive case doesn’t really mean any of those categories. They actually tend to be dependent upon the semantics of the head noun. And the same can be said for those verbs which require genitives.


For Wallace, the Dative comes in second for categories behind the Genitive. So why is the dative used in so many different ways. Again, its deceptively simple. Basically, the Dative is the default case for non-subject/object Noun Phrases.* Because of this the Dative case tends to typically express reference/recipient/benefaction and when it does the meaning tends to be verb specific. And again, its meaning is virtually dependent upon the semantics of word it modifies in the clause. This means that when a dative has meaning other than reference its not the Dative noun, but the verb that is causing it. Thus: The dative of destination is only used with propulsion verbs and Possessive Datives only occur with copula-like verbs.


I argued that if we teach students a very simple sketch of case usage/meaning:

Nominative: Subject

Accusative: Object

Dative: Non-Subject/Object* (e.g. Recipient, Benefactor, Stimulus, Location)

Genitive: Nominal Modification

Vocative: Direct Address

and then taught verb vocabulary in a little more detail:

διδωμι “to give” <Agent, Theme, Recipient>

πιστεύω “to trust” <Experiencer, Stimulus>

διακονέω “to serve” <Agent, Beneficiary>

ἀκολουθέω “to follow after” <Agent, Location>

we would then be able see students grasping the cases more quickly. I’m pretty confident the vast majority of you reading could guess at the cases that would go with each of the semantic roles listed for those verbs.

Now this is a very rough sketch and I haven’t looked at any of these verbs super closely to make sure I’m right on those roles, but I think even something as basic as I’m suggesting would go a long way. And the tools already exist:

A Classification of Semantic Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistlesby Simon Wong

Linguistics and Exegesis in the Gospel of Mark: Applications of a Case Frame Analysis and Lexicon (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 218)by Paul Danove

The latter of these is both out of print and expensive – though if you start putting money aside now, you might be able to picked it up HERE.

But Wong’s book is relatively reasonable, especially if you were to get an Amazon gift certificate for your birthday…by the way many of you forgot mine on Saturday – you can make up for it HERE.

Anyway, what is needed now, is a comprehensive description of all Greek Verbs, a description that is also based on the most recent research on the connection between Voice and Verbal Lexical Semantics.

*Some would argue that the Dative is used as a direct object for verbs such as ἀκολουθέω, but I would argue that the dative is oblique and actually expresses, depending on how you want to characterize it, location, path, or goal – the latter two being subsumed under location. And I would argue similar arguments can be made for all so call “Dative direct object” verbs.

8 thoughts on “Case Categories – A Better Approach?

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  1. I don’t know about this, Mike. It’s interesting, but I’m rather dubious about some of it; I found myself feeling very ambiguous about the Danove book, perhaps even about the whole enterprise of “case-frame” analysis because it seemed to me to force some verbs into frame that they didn’t fit. I’ll certainly agree with you that Nominative and Accusative are easier to deal with, but I think there’s more to the Accusative than object; I’ve always found the notion of “limit” or “limiting” more helpful in dealing with Accusative usage than anything else. As for the Genitive, there’s more to it than adnominal dependency, although that accounts for a great deal; but there’s partitive usage and especially ablatival usage that constitute much of how the Genitive can function with prepositions and verbs. As for the Dative, I think that the Locative and Instrumental-Comitative functions range more broadly than your suggested subcategories will work. Ultimately I’m not sure that the parsing categorization is very useful information for the language-user; he/she must acquire appreciation of the range of usage from encountering the whole range of usage practically in reading and (if possible) conversation. Far too much of usage is idiom, I fear — and that’s usually going to throw categorizers for a loop sooner or later.

    1. I admit that my descriptions above leave much to be desired . . . and that Danove and Wong are somewhat idiosyncratic, but I think there’s a lot of potential. And even beyond language learning, I think much of this sort of thing would be good to have in a lexicon. I don’t know, maybe I’ll have to work on developing something that could convince you…

  2. Carl concerns are, IMHO, well founded. The only thing that I’d add is that none of the terminology used by Danove (which I’ve been reading and re-reading off and on this winter) and (I’d guess) by Wong (which I’ve not read) will work well in a first year classroom. There may be some merit to some of the concepts, but until someone simplifies the terminology and explanations and coaxes them into closer alignment with what students will find in their standard tools, it will remain something that linguists talk about among themselves. I agree that Wallace has far too many categories and some simplification there would be helpful. But Carl’s point regarding some specific uses (esp. prepositions in relation to the cases) might suggest that your proposal goes too far to the opposite extreme.

    1. Dr. Decker, unlike Danove I’m less interested in the prepositions. I do not consider either what has been done by Danove or Wong as perfect, but I see significant potential – as you said there might be merit to some of the concepts.

      And its just that potential that I want to emphasize. Semantic Roles have been come a significant part of virtually every syntactic theory for the past 20+ years.

      By the way, I think the better book on the prepositions & cases is this one:

      Unfortunately, its only accessible for libraries.

  3. The difficulty with case theory for Hellenistic Greek is, of course, the increased use of prepositions in addition to morphological case endings for nouns and adjectives.

    There is a great deal of potential for the approach you outline in explaining the distribution of the morphological case forms outside of prepositional phrases. Much more work remains to be done, though, to come to terms with how the prepositions fit into the semantic roles scheme. Many years ago, I began to do research on that topic, but gave up for lack of time to dedicate to the endeavor. I wish you more success.

    Keep thinking and writing, Michael. You’ll discover great things!

    1. Hi, Micheal. Too many years have passed since that pleasant afternoon we spent together.

      “Many years ago, I began to do research on that topic, but gave up for lack of time to dedicate to the endeavor.”

      This has a ring somewhat reminiscent of the celebrated dictum of Protagoras on the existence and nature of gods:
      περὶ μὲν θεῶν οὐκ ἔχω εἰδέναι, οὔθ’ ὡς εἰσὶν οὔθ’ ὡς οὐκ εἰσὶν οὔθ’ ὁποῖοί τινες ἰδέαν· πολλὰ γὰρ τὰ κωλύοντα εἰδέναι ἥ τ’ ἀδηλότης καὶ βραχὺς ὢν ὁ βίος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. It is certainly difficult to overcome those restraints!

  4. I’ve taken a similar approach to the one you outline in my elementary Latin classes, leaning on Woodcock’s NEW LATIN SYNTAX for the categories. I’d say it’s been a success.

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