Definition and Examples of Case Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

case grammar
"The advantage of case grammar," says Mary Jane Hurst, "is that it describes the meaning relationships between parts of an utterance, whereas a syntactic description is limited to function rather than meaning" ( The Voice of the Child in American Literature, 1990). (Absodels/Getty Images)

Case grammar is a linguistic theory that stresses the importance of semantic roles in an effort to make explicit the basic meaning relationships in a sentence.

Case grammar was developed in the 1960s by American linguist Charles J. Fillmore, who viewed it as a "substantive modification to the theory of transformational grammar" ("The Case for Case," 1968).

In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (2008), David Crystal notes that case grammar "came to attract somewhat less interest in the mid-1970s; but it has proved to be influential on the terminology and classification of several later theories, especially the theory of thematic roles."

Examples and Observations

  • "In the late sixties I began to believe that certain kinds of groupings of verbs and classifications of clause types could be stated more meaningfully if the structures with which the verbs were initially associated were described in terms of the semantic roles of their associated arguments. I had become aware of certain American and European work on dependency grammar and valence theory, and it seemed clear to me that what was really important about a verb was its 'semantic valence' (as one might call it), a description of the semantic role of its arguments. . . . I proposed that verbs could be seen as basically having two kinds of features relevant to their distribution in sentences: the first, a deep-structure valence description expressed in terms of what I called 'case frames,' the second a description in terms of rule features."
    (Charles J. Fillmore, "A Private History of the Concept 'Frame.'" Concepts of Case, ed. by René Dirven and Günter Radden. Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987)
  • Semantic Roles and Relationships
    "Case grammar . . . is primarily a reaction against the standard-theory analysis of sentences, where notions such as subject, object, etc. are neglected in favour of analyses in terms of NP, VP, etc. By focusing on syntactic functions, however, it was felt that several important kinds of semantic relationship could be represented, which it would otherwise be difficult or impossible to capture. A set of sentences such as The key opened the door, The door was opened by/with the key, The door opened, The man opened the door with a key, etc., illustrate several 'stable' semantic roles, despite the varying surface grammatical structures. In each case the key is 'instrumental,' the door is the entity affected by the action, and so on. Case grammar formalizes this insight using a model which shows the influence of the predicate calculus of formal logic: the deep structure of a sentence has two constituents, modality (features of tense, mood, aspect and negation) and proposition (within which the verb is considered central, and the various semantic roles that elements of structure can have are listed with reference to it, and categorized as cases)."
    (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed. Blackwell, 2008)
  • The Underlying Syntactic-Semantic Relationship
    "[I]n a grammar which takes syntax as central, a case relationship will be defined with respect to the framework of the organization of the whole sentence from the start. Thus, the notion of case is intended to account for functional, semantic, deep-structure relations between the verb and the noun phrases associated with it, and not to account for surface-form changes in nouns. Indeed, as is often the case in English, there may not be any surface markers to indicate case, which is therefore a covert category often only observable 'on the basis of selectional constraints and transformational possibilities' (Fillmore, 1968, p. 3); they form 'a specific finite set'; and 'observations made about them will turn out to have considerable cross-linguistic validity' (p. 5).
    "The term case is used to identify 'the underlying syntactic-semantic relationship' which is universal: the case notions comprise a set of universal, presumably innate concepts which identify certain types of judgments human beings are capable of making about the events that are going on around them, judgments about such matters as who did it, who it happened to, and what got changed.(Fillmore, 1968, p. 24) The term case form identifies 'the expression of a case relationship in a particular language' (p. 21). The notions of subject and predicate and of the division between them should be seen as surface phenomena only; 'in its basic structure [the sentence] consists of a verb and one or more noun phrases, each associated with the verb in a particular case relationship' (p. 21). The various ways in which cases occur in simple sentences define sentence types and verb types of a language (p. 21)."
    (Kirsten Malmkjaer, "Case Grammar." The Linguistics Encyclopedia, ed. by Kirsten Malmkjaer. Routledge, 1995)
  • Contemporary Perspectives on Case Grammar
    - "[C]ase-grammar is no longer seen by the majority of linguists working within the general framework of transformational-generative grammar as a viable alternative to the standard theory. The reason is that when it comes to classifying the totality of the verbs in a language in terms of the deep-structure cases that they govern, the semantic criteria which define these cases are all too often unclear or in conflict."
    (John Lyons, Chomsky, 3rd ed. Fontana, 1997)
    - "Case grammar was developed in the 1960s and is still favoured in some quarters today, though most practical grammars of English pay little attention to it."
    (R.L. Trask, The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Case Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Case Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Case Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).