The Idea of Case and Declension in Latin


Grammar Helps Index



Case, in the grammatical sense, refers above all to the particular forms of nouns and pronouns, and of the adjectives that modify them.


For a fuller explanation, see the first part of the Ablative Phrasebook.



Case means form or "variation." Think of having a "case of the flu": you are still yourself, but you are in a different "form" of yourself, so to speak, and you can only act in certain ways as a result of that state.

Most Latin nouns, pronouns, and adjectives appear only in a limited number of different forms. For example, for the Latin word âla (wing), you will generally see only these forms:

âla / âlae / âlam / âlâ / âlârum / âlîs / âlâs .

Latin has several different "boxes" of endings. All words in the same "box" or declension will have similar endings. So, for the Latin word vîta (life), which is in the same declension as âla, you will expect to see only these forms, which parallel the forms just given:

vîta / vîtae / vîtam / vîtâ / vîtârum / vîtîs / vîtâs .

Why have different forms? To indicate different uses. In English, the words he and him, she and her are used differently. Latin has a more complex system of differences, but the idea is the same.


A DECLENSION is essentially a fixed pattern of endings or a set of endings. There are only six regular declensions in Latin, five for nouns and one special one for some pronouns and adjectives that has an -ius in the genitive case form. You can see detailed explanation and practice pages on the five regular declensions in Latin through this link.


These different forms of the word are called "case-forms" or simply "cases." The different endings indicate the different cases, which have special names (like nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative). You can therefore say things like "Âlam is the accusative singular case of âla." Or, seeing the word âlam, you can ask "What case is âlam?"


Note: Often it is clear exactly in what case a word must be, but a single form can sometimes be ambiguous; that is, it could be used in more than one way. For example, the word vîtîs could mean to or for the lives (dative case) OR by the lives (ablative case). The context will help you to determine the case for the word. The only thing you can know from the word by itself is that it might be in either case.




The case-endings tell you in what case the word might be, and how it might be used in the sentence, that is, they tell you what its function might be. For the proper name Brutus,

Brutus is the nominative case form.

Brute is the vocative case form.

Brutum is the accusative case form.

Nominative, vocative, accusative are terms used to indicate that these forms of the word can do certain things in a sentence. That is to say that these forms have certain functions. Thus, since the nominative case is used to indicate subjects, you would have to say:

Brutus venit. = Brutus is coming.

Since the vocative case form is used to indicate words of naming the addressee in direct address, you must say:

Et tu, Brute! = Even you, Brutus!

And since the direct object of the common verb for I see is put into the accusative case, you say

Brutum video. = I see Brutus.

"Brutus video" would have to mean "I, Brutus, am seeing."


Recommendation: learn to attend to the meanings of various case forms by doing exercises like those available at this site.  If you see âlârum, do not think "wings," but "of the wings." Likewise, when you are learning your vocabulary, pick different case-forms, like the genitive plural, and try to imagine and pronounce them.





Example of how Latin cases would correspond to English usage:


















































Latin Case:















Marcus and Julia are the people who are being directly addressed. These names would be put into the VOCATIVE case.

Carpenter is the subject, the agent that performs the action of the verb. It would be in the NOMINATIVE case.

Us is an indirect object here. Indirect objects tend to be put into the DATIVE case.

Door is the direct object, the DIRECT receiver of the action of the verb. Latin tends to use the ACCUSATIVE case for direct objects, although some verbs govern other cases.

House's is a noun indicating possession. We are speaking about the door that belongs to the house. Possession is frequently indicated by the GENITIVE case.

Room is a noun that is used as an object of the preposition in (Ask "In where?" "In the back room."). This preposition in would take an object in the ABLATIVE case to indicate place where.

The LOCATIVE case, not illustrated here, is used to indicate place, e.g., "at Rome."






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Latin Teaching Materials at Saint Louis University: © Claude Pavur 1997 - 2009.  This material is being made freely available for non-commercial educational use.