Please, I don't understand the highlighted bold words here.

Nouns take s in the plural (miles), but they do not have endings to show whether they are subject or object.
(emphasis mine)

What is the meaning of this sentence? I found it in the Oxford Guide to English Grammar pdf on page 4, section 6 - English compared with other languages.

  • 3
    In what book did you find this? Please make sure that you copy every word correctly. (The quoted sentence, as it is right now, looks rather bad for a grammar book.) -- For what it's worth, the basic idea is rather clear, i.e., nouns change their forms to indicate plurality (e.g., a book vs. books), but their subject forms and object forms are the same (e.g., Books are good and I have lots of books.) Mar 9, 2017 at 12:22
  • 2
    In some languages, nouns will have an ending which indicates their semantic role in a given utterance: subject (nominative), direct object (accusative), indirect object (dative). English during the early medieval period, when it was simply a dialect of German, did have such declensions, but has lost them over time, modern English showing only a few vestiges of this case system.
    – TimR
    Mar 9, 2017 at 13:10
  • Dative, genitive, vocative, locative get no love? :D
    – Davo
    Mar 9, 2017 at 13:38
  • 1
    @Davo, English has the concept of subject and object, but they are indicated by position not by ending. A student of English should therefore understand the concept of subject and object. There is no concept of dative, vocative, locative (or indeed ablative) in English, and so it would be difficult to explain, and confusing for people whose language also does have that case. A text about English written in a language that has these cases could refer to them, but it would not be sensible in a book written in English. Note that genitive can be marked by the ending -'s.
    – JavaLatte
    Mar 9, 2017 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


In many languages nouns are marked not only for number—singular, plural, and in some languages dual—but also for case: the role which the noun plays in the sentence. Latin, for instance, has six cases; these are marked with specific suffixes, which are different for different classes ('declensions') of nouns. Here are examples from three different declensions:

1st declension puell(a) = 'girl'

 Nominative     puella       puellae    subjects 
 Genitive       puellae      puellarum  possessors
 Dative         puellae      puellis    indirect objects
 Accusative     puellam      puellas    direct objects
 Ablative       puella       puellis    locations
 Vocative       puella       puellae    persons spoken to

2nd declension av(us) = 'grandfather'

 Nominative     avus         avi        subjects 
 Genitive       avi          avorum     possessors
 Dative         avo          avis       indirect objects
 Accusative     avum         avos       direct objects
 Ablative       avo          avis       locations
 Vocative       ave          avi        persons spoken to

3rd declension can(is) = 'dog'

 Nominative     canis        canes      subjects 
 Genitive       canis        canum      possessors
 Dative         cani         canibus    indirect objects
 Accusative     canem        canes      direct objects
 Ablative       cane         canibus    locations
 Vocative       canis        canes      persons spoken to

Word order doesn't matter, as it does in English; it is the ending which tells you what syntactic role the word plays.

For instance, in the following sentences, donat is a verb meaning (he/she/it) gives, which takes a subject, an indirect object, and a direct object. Puella is marked for the nominative singular, so it's the subject; avis is marked for the dative plural, so it's the indirect object; and canos is marked for the accusative plural, so it's the direct object. These sentences all mean the same thing: The girl gives dogs to the grandfathers.

 Donat puella avis canos.  
 Puella canos avis donat.  
 Avis canos donat puella.
 Canos donat puella avis.   

In Modern English, personal pronouns are only a little bit less complicated, typically marked for four or five cases:

 CASE                  SINGULAR     PLURAL     TYPICAL USE
 Subject               I            we         subjects 
 Object                him          them       direct and indirect objects
 Reflexive             myself       ourselves  objects of one's own action
 Dependent Genitive    my           our        possessors as determiners
 Independent Genitive  mine         ours       possessors as nominals

But with nouns the case system is substantially diminished: there are only two cases:

 CASE                  SINGULAR     PLURAL     TYPICAL USE
 Genitive              boy's        boys'      possessors 
 Plain                 boy          boys       everything else 

What the Oxford Grammar tells you is that Modern English nouns do not have distinct object and subject forms. Only the genitive case is specifically marked in nouns, and reflexive case is expressed with the appropriate pronoun; all other syntactic roles are distinguished by word order or the use of prepositions.

  • I am not native speaker of english, so please edit your answer to simple english, so I can accept it. I can't understand your answer because of using uncommon words. Mar 10, 2017 at 1:20
  • @user47806 I've tried to simplify, and I've given lots of examples. Does this help? Mar 10, 2017 at 2:41
  • Thank you, but still you need to make some changes to meet my question, for example see the first line of your answer, you wrote: "In many languages nouns are marked not only for number—singular, plural, and in some languages dual....." in this sentence in some languages dual doesn't make any sense to me. english has singular and plural only two, then why you mentioned new third one in some languages dual it is totally out of context. Mar 10, 2017 at 2:51
  • @user47806 The 'context' is marking for number and case in languages generally, not just English. I should indeed have added 'trial' and 'paucal', and made clear that some languages don't mark for number at all. Mar 10, 2017 at 3:13
  • why you place prepostion in right after conjuction and? I think this is the reason I didn't grasp your answer. Mar 10, 2017 at 4:05

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