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What Is a Genitive Case?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 17, 2024
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The genitive case is a grammatical case used in a variety of languages primarily to indicate possession and composition. A grammatical case changes a noun’s form to indicate its function in a sentence. In English, the preposition “of” replaces the genitive case in most situations; however, personal pronouns have a specific genitive form. Latin, German, and Slavic languages are all examples of languages with the genitive case.

Demonstrating possession is the primary purpose of the genitive case in most languages. In English, this is typically shown by the preposition “of” or by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” to a noun. For example, in “the chair of grandfather” or “grandfather’s chair,” grandfather is in the genitive case, because the chair belongs to him.

Although there is no specific genitive form in English, there are specific forms for personal pronouns. Genitive pronouns in English are my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, and their/theirs. The first form is used before nouns, such as “my car,” while the second is used after the verb in sentences such as “The car is mine.”

Genitive nouns can also be used to indicate composition, origin, or source. The phrase “a teaspoon of salt” has salt as a genitive because the teaspoon is composed of salt. In addition, pizza is in the genitive case in the phrase “the last slice of pizza.”

English does not have a true genitive case, since the relationship is most often indicated by the preposition “of” or the possessive ending “-’s” In contrast, Slavic and Finnic languages use a different form of the noun to indicate genitive case, as do German, Arabic, and Latin. Some of these languages also change any adjectives associated with a genitive noun, so that they all have the same genitive form.

Grammatical cases indicate the relationship a noun has with other words in a sentence. Although there are eight main cases historically, linguists have determined that a far greater variety exist in various languages. Examples include the nominative case, used for the subject of a sentence, and dative, used for a verb’s indirect object. Languages without strict grammatical cases must follow a certain word order to indicate how the words in a sentence relate to each other.

The term Saxon genitive refers to the use of “-‘s” to indicate possession in English. Many linguists believe that practice originated as a contraction of the genitive form of words. In other words, in Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, a morpheme ending in “s” was attached to most nouns in the genitive case. Over time, that morpheme may have been contracted into a simple “-‘s,” which was then used for every possessive noun.

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