In linguistics, declension is the changing of the form of a word, generally to express its syntactic function in the sentence, by way of some inflection. The inflectional change of verbs is called conjugation.

Declensions may apply to nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and articles to indicate number (e.g. singular, dual, plural), case (e.g. nominative case, accusative case, genitive case, dative case), gender (e.g. masculine, neuter, feminine), and a number of other grammatical categories.

Declension occurs in many of the world's languages. Declension is an important aspect of language families like American (such as Quechuan), Indo-European (German, Slavic, Sanskrit, Latin), Bantu (Zulu, Kikuyu), Semitic (Modern Standard Arabic), Finno-Ugric (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian), Turkic (Turkish).

Old English was an inflectional language, but largely abandoned inflectional changes as it evolved into Modern English. Though traditionally classified as synthetic, Modern English has moved towards an analytic language.


It is agreed that Ancient Greeks had a "vague" idea of the forms of a noun in their language. A fragment of Anacreon seems to confirm this idea. Nevertheless, it cannot be concluded that the Ancient Greeks actually knew what the cases were. The Stoics developed many basic notions that today are the rudiments of linguistics. The idea of grammatical cases is also traced back to the Stoics, but it's still not completely clear what the Stoics exactly meant with their notion of cases.[1][2]

Modern English

In Modern English, the system of declensions is very simple compared to some other languages, so much so that the term declension is rarely applied to English in practice. Most nouns in English have distinct singular and plural forms and have distinct plain and possessive forms. Plurality is most commonly shown by the affix -s (or -es), whereas possession is always shown by the clitic -'s (or by just the apostrophe for most plural forms ending in s) attached to the noun. Consider, for example, the forms of the noun girl:

Singular Plural
Plain girl girls
Possessive girl's girls'

Most speakers pronounce all of the forms other than the singular plain form (girl) exactly the same (though the elided possessive-indicating s of the plural possessive may be realised as [z] in some speakers' pronunciations, being separated from the plural-indicating s normally by a central vowel such as [ɨ̞]). By contrast, a few nouns are slightly more complex in their forms. For example:

Singular Plural
Plain man men
Possessive man's men's

In that example, all four forms are pronounced in a distinct manner.

There can be other derivations from nouns that are not usually considered declensions. For example, the proper noun Britain has the associated descriptive adjective British and the demonym Briton. Though these words are clearly related and are generally considered cognates, they are not specifically treated as forms of the same word and thus not declensions.

Pronouns in English have even more complex declensions. For example:

Singular Plural
Subjective I we
Objective me us
Dependent possessive my our
Independent possessive mine ours

Whereas nouns do not distinguish between the subjective (nominative) and objective (oblique) cases, some pronouns do; that is, they decline to reflect their relationship to a verb or preposition, or case. Consider the difference between he (subjective) and him (objective), as in "He saw it" and "It saw him"; similarly, consider who, which is subjective, and the objective whom (although it is increasingly common to use who for both).

The one situation where gender is still clearly part of the English language is in the pronouns for the third person singular. Consider the following:

Masculine Feminine Neuter
Subjective he she it they
Objective him her it them
Dependent possessive his her its their
Independent possessive his hers its theirs

The distinguishing of neuter for persons and non-persons is somewhat peculiar to English. This has existed since the 14th century.[3][4] However, the use of the so-called singular they is often restricted to specific contexts, depending on the dialect or the speaker. It is most typically used to refer to a single person of unknown gender (e.g., "someone left their jacket behind"). Its use has expanded in recent years due to increasing social recognition of persons who do not identify themselves as male or female.[5] Note that the singular they still uses plural verb forms, reflecting its origins.

For nouns, in general, gender is not declined in Modern English, or at best one could argue there are isolated situations certain nouns may be modified to reflect gender, though not in a systematic fashion. Loan words from other languages, particularly Latin and the Romance languages, often preserve their gender-specific forms in English, e.g. alumnus (masculine singular) and alumna (feminine singular). Similarly, names borrowed from other languages show comparable distinctions: Andrew and Andrea, Paul and Paula, etc. Additionally, suffixes such as -ess, -ette, and -er are sometimes applied to create overtly gendered versions of nouns, with marking for feminine being much more common than marking for masculine. Many nouns can actually function as members of two genders or even all three, and the gender classes of English nouns are usually determined by their agreement with pronouns, rather than marking on the nouns themselves.

Most adjectives are not declined. However, when used as nouns rather than adjectives, they do decline (e.g., "I'll take the reds", meaning "I'll take the red ones" or as shorthand for "I'll take the red wines"). Also, the demonstrative determiners this and that are declined for number, as these and those. Some adjectives borrowed from other languages are, or can be, declined for gender, at least in writing: blond (male) and blonde (female). Adjectives are not declined for case in Modern English, though they were in Old English. The article is never regarded as declined in Modern English, although formally, the words that and possibly she correspond to forms of the predecessor of the ( m., þæt n., sēo f.) as it was declined in Old English.


Just as verbs in Latin are conjugated to indicate grammatical information, Latin nouns and adjectives that modify them are declined to signal their roles in sentences. There are five important cases for Latin nouns: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative. Since the vocative case usually takes the same form as the nominative, it is seldom spelt out in grammar books. Yet another case, the locative, is limited to a small number of words.

The usual basic functions of these cases are as follows:

  • Nominative case indicates the subject.
  • Genitive case indicates possession and can be translated with ‘of’.
  • Dative case marks the indirect object and can be translated with ‘to’ or ‘for’.
  • Accusative case marks the direct object.
  • Ablative case is used to modify verbs and can be translated as ‘by’, ‘with’, ‘from’, etc.
  • Vocative case is used to address a person or thing.

The genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative also have important functions to indicate the object of a preposition.

Given below is the declension paradigm of Latin puer ‘boy’ and puella ‘girl’:


From the provided examples we can see how cases work:

  • liber puerī → the book of the boy (puerī boy=genitive)
  • puer puellae rosam dat → the boy gives the girl a rose (puer boy=nominative; puellae girl=dative; rosam rose=accusative; dat give=third person singular present)


Sanskrit, another Indo-European language, has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative and instrumental.[6] Some do not count vocative as a separate case, despite it having a distinctive ending in the singular, but consider it as a different use of the nominative.[7]

Sanskrit grammatical cases have been analyzed extensively. The grammarian Pāṇini identified six semantic roles or karaka, which correspond closely to the eight cases:[8]

  • agent (kartṛ, related to the nominative)
  • patient (karman, related to the accusative)
  • means (karaṇa, related to the instrumental)
  • recipient (sampradāna, related to the dative)
  • source (apādāna, related to the ablative)
  • locus (adhikaraṇa, related to the locative)
  • address (sambodhana, related to the vocative)

For example, consider the following sentence:

vṛkṣ-āt parṇ-aṁ bhūm-au patati
from the treea leafto the groundfalls
"a leaf falls from the tree to the ground"

Here leaf is the agent, tree is the source, and ground is the locus. The endings -aṁ, -at, -āu mark the cases associated with these meanings.

See also

Declension in specific languages

Latin and Greek


  1. Frede, Michael (1994). "The Stoic Notion of a Grammatical Case". Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. 39: 13–24. doi:10.1111/j.2041-5370.1994.tb00449.x. JSTOR 43646836.
  3. Fowler, H.W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 814. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.
  4. Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 494. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  5. Andrews, Travis M. (March 28, 2017). "The singular, gender-neutral 'they' added to the Associated Press Stylebook". Washington Post.
  6. James Clackson (2007) Indo-European linguistics: an introduction, p.90
  7. Amba Kulkarni and Peter Scharf (eds), Sanskrit Computational Linguistics: First and Second International Symposia Rocquencourt, France, October 29-31, 2007 and Providence, RI, USA, May 15-17, 2008, Revised Selected Papers, Volume 5402 of Lecture notes in artificial intelligence, Springer, 2009, ISBN 3-642-00154-8, pp. 64–68.
  8. Pieter Cornelis Verhagen, Handbook of oriental studies: India. A history of Sanskrit grammatical literature in Tibet, Volume 2, BRILL, 2001, ISBN 90-04-11882-9, p. 281.
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