Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 23, 2015

What’s in Your Instrumental Case?

We have a lot to worry about. Besides global warming, violence and the economy, there are the weird neighbors, that irritatingly slow person in front of us in the check-out line (are they buying groceries or applying for a home mortgage loan?), and every driver in every car on every street. Every day we read about a new disease, new chemicals in our food or a remake of a favorite old movie, only this time with Will Ferrell in the John Garfield role.

At Under Western Skies we leave politics, religion and most contentious subjects aside because there’s enough noise in the world already. Let us celebrate something we don’t have to worry about, at least when we write and speak English.

Ready for the good the news? Here it is: You don’t have to worry about instrumental case. Whew! What a relief, eh?

Ah, in the second row: a question?

Good question. Before I explain what instrumental case is (and why we needn’t worry about it), let’s remind ourselves that a “case” is the form of a noun according to how it’s used. We English speakers are lucky: We’ve gotten rid of most of our cases. Our pronouns do still change their case. We say, “He got a discount” but “They gave him a discount.” The form of “he” changes according to how it’s used. As the subject of the sentence (nominative case), we use “he.” As the indirect object, the pronoun changes to “him,” (which is dative case, although only language nerds need know that). Native speakers do this without thinking; we simply learn it as part of the language. Other languages, spoken by people not so lucky as we, have many cases, and the form of most nouns as well as pronouns changes according to whether it’s a subject, direct object, indirect object, possessive, object of address, etc. (Hungarian, I understand, has 18 cases; egad.)

Another surviving example of case in English is the possessive. “John’s discount,” is, officially, genitive case, and we know it means “the discount of John.” Apostrophe-s is a condensed form of what used to be the genitive case ending; it was “Johnes” in Middle English. –Es was a common genitive ending for English nouns going way back. Not that long ago, Chaucer was still using the genitive in Canterbury Tales when he wrote, “from ev’ry shires ende,” (from the far corner of every shire). We’ve shortened it to apostrophe-s, but still use it. Old English used the genitive more routinely before it started fading away. The Old English word for sword was sweord and the word for edge was ecg (same word: pronounced “edge”). If you wanted to say, “edge of the sword” you said sweordes ecg without a preposition: The genitive -es ending indicated the edge “belonged” to the sword. Now we either use “sword’s” or “of the sword” to indicate possession.

Let’s get to the instrumental case.

Some languages require a specific form of a noun when one does something with that noun: hence, “instrumental.” In those languages, if you said, “I drew a picture with a pencil,” the word “pencil” would require the instrumental case form. Typically, in those languages you won’t see a preposition such as “with;” the form of the noun tells you’re doing something with that noun, or something is done by it. How? Let’s see an example from our own Old English. We’ll use that sweordes ecg — “sword’s edge” — example from above, and do something with it.

Late in Beowulf, the poet described a battle in which Ongentheow, the Swedish king, was surrounded by superior forces (and eventually slain). Being a poet, he didn’t simply say “Old Ongentheow was surrounded.” Not poetical enough. He said, “Þaer wearδ Ongenδiow edgum sweorda, blonden-fexa on bid wrecen:” “There gray-haired Ongentheow was beset, hedged in by the edges of swords.” (Literally: “There was Ongentheow by the edges of swords — that gray-haired one — hedged in,” but our sense of word order is different now.)

Instead of sweordes edg we see edgum sweorda. Edgum is the instrumental case plural form of edg: “with (or by) edges.” Since there are multiple swords, we get the plural genitive form of sword, sweorda, instead of the singular, sweordes. What? You ask: One must learn case endings for both singular and plural? Yes, class, one must. Without any preposition, speakers of Old English could recognize that the king was surrounded by edges of swords, and in big trouble.

We clever modern English speakers, however, have gotten rid of nearly all those confusing case endings and we’ve entirely trashed the instrumental. It is — in the most literal sense — history. We use “with,” or “by.”

There, class, is today’s good news: one thing you simply don’t need to worry about. We may still fret about ending that previous sentence with a preposition, about split infinitives (as in “may still fret”) or about starting sentences with “but.” But we’ll worry about those later. Tomorrow is another day.

Class is dismissed until after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on November 26. Those of you in other countries are welcome to join us in giving thanks for our many blessings, including the freedom to communicate with one another. Not all people possess this freedom. We’ll be back after that.

© 2015 Brad Nixon


  1. Totally coincidentally, I just ran across this:

    Have you been there? Beware – a Middle English fan/maven/aficionado could enter and not return for some time.

    Happy Thanksgiving!


    • John,
      Good to hear from you. Thanks. I’ll investigate. A happy holiday to all of you.


  2. This blog is a veritable fount of knowledge! Or, in other words, I am utterly clueless about many things. 🙂 Last night I learned from one of your commenters about BLU96 Thermobaric weapons, that I had never previously heard of (but which I have since learned was — or some variant thereof — used by terrorists in the first attempt to take down a World Trade Center Tower in NYC in 1993). And now, the instrumental case. Amazing. My head is spinning.

    Best wishes for a pleasant Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for in the USA, and, more particularly, here in California.


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