Declension: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you will learn about the purpose of declension, which is a significant aspect of grammar in a majority of the world's languages, and look at some examples.

Cross-Linguistic Similarities

When you look at two different languages side by side, German and Spanish for example, it can seem as though they have nothing in common. However, there are many aspects of grammar that can be seen cross-linguistically, or across languages. One example is that a majority of the world's languages have declension. Declension is when the form of a noun, pronoun, adjective, or article (such as ''the'' and ''a'', in English) changes to indicate number, grammatical case, or gender.

Of course, declension does not appear the same way in every language. For example, English only has three grammatical cases, but German has four, and Russian has six. As a result, declension can seem somewhat more complex in Russian. However, the overall function of declension is the same regardless of language, and regardless of the actual final form of the word.

Purpose

Declension indicates number, grammatical case, and gender in a sentence. So what does that mean? Let's break it down one piece at a time.

Number

In most languages, declension for number simply means indicating whether something is plural or singular. In English, for regular nouns, this means that an ''s'' or ''es'' is added to the end of a word to indicate plurality. The form for ''dog'' is different than the form for ''dogs'' to tell us when there is more than one. This type of declension, in English at least, is only applied to nouns.

Grammatical Case

Case reflects the function of the noun or pronoun in the sentence. For example, English has three cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. Subjective case means that a noun or pronoun can be the subject of a sentence (the noun or pronoun doing the thing). You see the objective case when the noun or pronoun is the object of a sentence (it is having something done to it). For the possessive case, the noun or pronoun is in possession of the subject of the sentence. The forms for each of these cases is different, which is the purpose of declension.

Here's a specific example: look at the sentence ''He is holding the ball.'' In this sentence, ''he'' is inflected (the form is changed) for the subjective case, because ''he'' is the subject of the sentence. You cannot take ''he'' inflected for subject and place it in the object position. That is why ''She is hugging he'' sounds wrong. In that example, ''he'' should be ''him'', which is the proper declension for objective case in English.

Gender

In many languages, nouns have assigned gender, and declension is responsible for changing the forms of adjectives and nouns to agree with the proper assigned gender. English mainly sees this in pronouns (he/she/they), but Spanish, for example, has gender in all its nouns.

For example, ''table'' in Spanish is feminine (la mesa), whereas ''dog'' is masculine (el perro). Articles and adjectives have to agree with the gender of the noun in Spanish, and declension is responsible for this.


The word for dog in Spanish is masculine.
Dog


A Closer Look

Let's take a more in depth look at declension in two different languages: English and Spanish.

English

Declension (other than for number) becomes most obvious in English when looking at pronouns. For example, in a sentence saying that a ball belongs to a male person, with the ball in subject position, there is declension for case (possessive) and gender. The form of the pronoun, then, would be ''his'':

The ball was his.

If, however, the male person is in the subject position, the declension is different:

He has the ball.

If it was a female person, the form is still more different:

She has the ball.

If the pronoun is in object position, then there is another form:

The ball was bounced to her.

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