2

The cat killed the rat that ate the corn.

My thought process:

  1. Main verb = kill
  2. Doer of action = cat = subject = Nominative case
  3. Object = rat = Accusative case
  4. "that" here is a relative pronoun for the rat. As rat is in accusative case, so is "that".

Answer as per a book which doesn't explain. "that" is in nominative form.

I'm poor at grammar. Somebody please explain. Thanks!

  • 2
    I asked the old woman whom lived in a shoe? – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 19 '15 at 11:25
  • Does the book discuss this to introduce you to a language where noun cases play a major role, like Russian or Hungarian, or is the book only about English grammar? – Ben Kovitz May 19 '15 at 23:33
8

Your thinking is right up until step 4. The usual principle is that the case of a relative pronoun reflects its role in the subordinate clause, not the main clause.

Of course, since that has the same form whether it's nominative or accusative, it's something of a moot point. However, you can see the principle at work in the fading but not yet completely obsolete word whom, which is the accusative form of who.

This would be correct:

The cat killed the rat who ate the corn.

This would be incorrect:

The cat killed the rat whom ate the corn.

This would be a real accusative relative pronoun:

The cat killed the rat whom fate had chosen.

In the subordinate clause in the last sentence, fate is the subject, had chosen is the verb, and whom, standing for the rat, is the direct object.

  • 1
    "whom" is so commonly misused and misunderstood that it might not be a good example. How about "whose"? "The cat killed the rat whose mouth was filled with corn." – hvd May 19 '15 at 17:19
  • @hvd I'm thinking that "who/whom" is the only example, and why not master it if you're asking about nominative vs. accusative relative pronouns—*especially* since many people have trouble with it? Or does "whose" also change form to indicate case? – Ben Kovitz May 19 '15 at 18:36
  • "Whose" is already the changed form. It's the possessive case (genitive if you prefer, although I don't think it's usually called that in English) of "who". – hvd May 19 '15 at 18:38
  • @hvd I mean, does "whose" change form to indicate nominative vs. accusative? – Ben Kovitz May 19 '15 at 18:39
  • 1
    No, I didn't mean it would make a better example to indicate nominative vs. accusative, I meant it would make a better example to indicate case of main clause vs. case of subordinate clause. The alternative would be "The cat killed the rat whom mouth was filled with corn.", and for that, I don't think anyone will even seriously consider the possibility that that might be correct. – hvd May 19 '15 at 18:44
9

The answer your book doesn't want

In English, as in many languages, nouns change form:

rat   (singular)
rats (plural)

This is called inflection. In the example above, rat has two forms. These forms reflect grammatical number (singular and plural), so we can say nouns inflect for number.

But some words inflect for other purposes. In English, for example, we find pronoun forms like these:

I    (nominative)
me  (accusative)

How are these forms used? Well, an exact description is pretty complicated! But the main distinction we find is between Subject and Object function:

I punched Sally.   (pronoun in Subject function)
Sally punched me. (pronoun in Object function)

And when we find a class of words with this sort of distinction, we call it case. Labels like "nominative" and "accusative" describe inflectional forms whose main function is Subject or Object.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's their only function:

Q: Who wants ice cream?
A: Me!          (accusative form, but not in Object function)

But the labels are still useful as long as it's their main function.

Of course, the exact label isn't that important. Some people say "subjective" instead of "nominative", because they think that more clearly communicates the idea of Subject function, and they do likewise for "objective" instead of "accusative". But let's go with nominative and accusative for now, because those are the labels you used in your question, and because they're commonly used by linguists.

So we've decided that pronouns have accusative and nominative cases. What about common nouns? Let's take a look:

The rat bit me.   (noun in Subject function)
I bit the rat.      (noun in Object function)

We find the same form, rat, in both functions! There doesn't seem to be a contrast in form, so we can't really say it has inflections whose primary functions are Subject and Object. And in fact, no matter what common noun we choose, we'll find the same thing. The nominative-accusative contrast simply isn't relevant to this word class!

I mean, sure. If we really wanted to, we could pretend it inflects like this:

rat   (nominative neuter singular)
rat   (nominative masculine singular)
rat   (nominative feminine singular)
rat   (accusative neuter singular)
rat   (accusative masculine singular)
rat   (accusative feminine singular)
rats  (nominative neuter plural)
rats  (nominative masculine plural)
rats  (nominative feminine plural)
rats  (accusative neuter plural)
rats  (accusative masculine plural)
rats  (accusative feminine plural)

But we're just making our life harder! Why make things more complicated when there's no benefit to doing so?

I bet you think it's silly to invent a gender system for rat, right? The word never changes form to reflect a neuter/masculine/feminine contrast, so why would we make something like that up? We can say the exact same thing about the accusative-nominative contrast. No common noun changes form to reflect gender, and no common noun changes form to reflect Subject or Object function.

So let's make our lives easy. We'll say rat can't bear accusative or nominative case. Pretending it can doesn't tell us anything useful about the language.

What about that? Well, traditionally it's considered a relative pronoun, like who. Let's pretend that's correct for a moment and look at that:

It was Sally [ that ___ punched me ].  (gap in Subject function)
It was Sally [ that I punched ___ ].    (gap in Object function)

Does that change form depending on whether the gap is in Subject or Object position? It does not! In fact, that has no inflections in Standard English. Does calling it accusative or nominative tell us anything useful? It does not.

But wait, is that really a relative pronoun? In A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, the great Otto Jespersen suggested that it makes more sense to consider relative that the same marker of subordination we find in non-relative subordinate clauses. And although it's not entirely uncontroversial, most modern linguists follow Jespersen here, including Huddleston, Pullum, and Peterson in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p.1056) and McCawley in The Syntactic Phenomena of English, 2nd ed. (p.429).

The arguments in favor of this analysis are complex, though, so I'll omit them here; if you'd like to know more, please ask a separate question about whether relative that is a relative pronoun!

But assuming for a moment that relative that isn't a pronoun of any kind, it makes even less sense to say that it bears accusative or nominative case! Why? At least with pronouns, we can suggest that other words in the same class bear the contrast, and it makes sense to set up a system of case for an entire class, even if it doesn't show up for every word in that class. But no English subordinator inflects under any circumstance, so we have no justification for claiming that belongs to a system of case, even indirectly.

So neither rat nor that bears case here. Neither word is accusative or nominative. Your book's definition is not particularly useful in terms of description, so I think we can safely ignore it.


The answer your book wants

If you really have to use the book's definitions because of school requirements, just look at the function of each part of the sentence:

The cat killed the rat [ that ___ ate the corn ].

The rat is an Object, and therefore the authors believe the noun rat is in "accusative form".

The cat killed the rat [ that ___ ate the corn ].

In the relative clause, the gap is in Subject position, but the authors of the book are still living in the land of pre-Jespersen grammar, and they believe that is in Subject position:

The cat killed the rat [ that ate the corn ].

So they think that is a Subject, and therefore they believe it's in "nominative form".

  • 3
    Hold on a minute! Your list of cases for RAT is woefully misleading and inadequate! :( Even just taking the feminine gender: what about dative (rat)?; vocative (rat)?; ablative (rat); aversive (rat); egressive (rat) - need I go on? You missed about one hundred and eighty eight different case/gender inflections - and that's only if you take there to be three genders - and we all know there's six!!!! – Araucaria May 19 '15 at 23:18
  • So I'm going to help you out :) Here's a full list of all the different possible inflections in full detail. I'm not going to say which one is which because we all know that already, but I am just going to outline the singular just to save time: rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, (cont) – Araucaria May 19 '15 at 23:22
  • (cont) rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat, rat. I think that's it, but might have missed one. Can't remember what it is now ... – Araucaria May 19 '15 at 23:24
  • 1
    @Araucaria Yes, but I still think that begs the question--well, one of those 3 or 4 different meanings of that idiom, not sure which one is meant here, but anyhow--and that question is: In the example "I bit the rat", how does a snail bite when a snail has no teeth? Or does a snail have one tooth to match its one foot? – F.E. May 20 '15 at 0:06
  • 1
    @F.E. OK, so that's a real good question ... Let me think. Erm, ... Some frogs chew their food with their eyeballs, so maybe if you whirled your eye stalk round and smacked a rat with the actual eye bit of it, that would count as a bite - a bit like thwacking someone with a billiard ball slung round in a pair of tights? – Araucaria May 20 '15 at 1:44
4

Your sentence has two complete clauses. Each clause has its subject, object and predicate.

First clause:

The cat killed the rat.

Here everything is as you described in your post.

Second clause:

that ate the corn.

As we know the relative pronouns are similar to conjunctions in that they provide a link between a clause and the balance of the sentence. The difference from a conjunctions is that a relative pronoun doesn't just bring attention to the clause. The relative pronoun actually plays the role of a noun in the clause.

So in this sentence it plays the role of the rat. In other words the clause would be:

The rat ate the corn.

Consequently in this clause the rat shifts to subject, that is to the nominative case.

2

"that" is immediately followed by the verb "ate". So "that" is a nominative. "It/the rat ate the corn."

In "the rat that the cat ate" there is a noun after "that", so "that" is an accusative. "The cat ate the rat". Not quite sure whether this helps.

Edit: For analysis you can change the relative clause into a main clause: The cat ate the rat. Which rat? The rat ate the corn (That one).

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