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.