Declension

Definition

Declension collectively refers to the inflection (change in form) of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and adverbs to reflect certain aspects of how they are used in a sentence. Declension stands in contrast to conjugation, which refers specifically to the inflection of verbs.

Nouns

The declension of nouns reflects two things: plurality and gender.

Plurals

Nouns are declined primarily to reflect number. A noun in its basic form is inherently singular, so we must inflect it when there is more than one.
The most common way to do this is to add the suffix “-s” to the end of the noun, as in books, dogs, tables, etc.
However, certain nouns take “-es” at the end instead, and many irregular plurals defy any sort of spelling guidelines at all. Continue on to the section on plurals to learn more about the various spelling rules and irregularities when writing about multiple nouns.

Gender

In English, nouns are generally gender neutral. While it is very common to inflect nouns for gender in the romance languages (such as French, Italian, and Spanish), inflection for gender has all but disappeared in modern English (except for personal pronouns, as we’ll see).
However, there are still a few English nouns that still do inflect for gender. The most common of these take an “-ess” ending to reflect feminine (female) gender. For example, count (male) vs. countess (female), or prince (male) vs. princess (female).
Continue to the section describing the inflection of nouns for gender to learn more about when and how we spell the few remaining gender-specific noun forms.

Personal Pronouns

Pronouns are used for a wide range of purposes, but we only inflect a relatively small portion of them—personal pronouns. However, other than the conjugation of verbs, personal pronouns are the most heavily inflected part of speech in English, changing form to reflect case, gender, number, and person. Reflexive pronouns, though not technically an example of declension, are so similar to personal pronouns that we will also consider them within this group.

Case

Personal pronouns change form to reflect the subjective case, the objective case, and the possessive case.

Subjective Case

When a personal pronoun is acting as the subject of a verb (that is, it is the person or thing doing the action), it is said to be in the subjective case. For instance:
  • I know that she said that.” (Both pronouns are subjective, as both are agents of their respective actions.)
  • He told her to be quiet.” (Here, only he is in the subjective case; her, the recipient or “object” of his action, is in the objective case.)

Objective Case

A personal pronoun is in the objective case when it is a direct or indirect object of a verb, or else if it is the object of a preposition. For example:
  • “I can’t believe he fired you.” (You is the direct object of the verb fire.)
  • “Please send them a thank you card.” (Them is the indirect object of the verb send.)
  • “You can’t say that to me!” (Me is the object of the preposition to; together they form the prepositional phrase to me.)

Possessive (Genitive) Case

As the name implies, the possessive case changes the inflection of a personal pronoun to mark possession. Possessive determiners function grammatically like adjectives, modifying a noun or nouns. For example:
  • My dad’s glasses went missing.” (My is a possessive determiner that shows the relation of dad to the speaker.)
  • “He said it was his computer.” (His is a possessive determiner that modifies computer.)
Possessive pronouns are personal pronouns in the possessive case that have the grammatical function of nouns. For example:
  • “I can see mine through the window!”
  • “Jenny seems pretty sure that the book is hers.”

Gender

Personal pronouns are only inflected for gender when they are in the third person and singular—first-person and second-person pronouns (singular or plural) and third-person plural pronouns remain gender neutral. Here are the gendered pronouns in English:
Third-person feminine singular: she, her, hers, herself
Third-person masculine singular: he, him, his, himself
The third-person singular can also be neuter. This is used when a personal pronoun represents a thing or an animal. Animals can sometimes take gendered personal pronouns if they are pets or domesticated animals; otherwise, they take the third-person neuter form:
Third-person neuter singular: it, its, its own, itself
Remember, when there are multiple people or things, we use the ungendered forms of they:
Third person plural: they, them, their, theirs, themselves

Person

Grammatical person refers to the perspectives of the personal pronouns used to identify a person in speech and text—that is, it distinguishes between a speaker (first person), an addressee (second person), and others beyond that (third person).

First person

First-person pronouns tell what is directly happening to the speaker or narrator:
Singular: I, me, my, mine, myself
Plural: we, us, our, ours, ourselves

Second person

We use the second-person pronouns to indicate those who are being addressed directly by the speaker:
Singular/Plural: you, you, your, yours, yourself (singular), yourselves (plural)

Third person

Third person is used to talk about someone or something that is not the speaker and is not being directly addressed:
Feminine singular: she, her, hers, herself
Masculine singular: he, him, his, himself
Neuter singular: it, its, its own, itself
However, when there are multiple people or things, we use the un-gendered forms of they:
Third person plural: they, them, their, theirs, themselves

Number

Personal pronouns, unlike nouns, have various specific inflections depending on whether they are singular or plural. For the most part, only the first-person and third-person personal pronouns have plural forms; the only plural second-person pronoun is the reflexive pronoun yourselves.
There are no rules or guidelines for how we change the personal pronouns for number because doing so affects all the other forms; we simply have to memorize their various forms.
Person
Number
Gender
Subjective Case
Objective Case
Possessive Determiner
Possessive Pronoun
Reflexive Pronoun
First Person
Singular
Masculine/feminine
I
me
my
mine
myself
First Person
Plural
Masculine/feminine
we
us
our
ours
ourselves
Second Person
Singular/Plural
Masculine/feminine
you
you
your
yours
yourself (yourselves if plural)
Third Person
Singular
Feminine
she
her
her
hers
herself
Third Person
Singular
Masculine
he
him
his
his
himself
Third person
Singular
Neuter
it
it
its
its (own)
itself
Third person
Plural
Neuter / gender neutral)
they
them
their
theirs
themselves

Reflexive Pronouns and intensive pronouns

Reflexive and intensive pronouns are identical in appearance, formed by adding “-self” or “-selves” to the pronouns my, our, your, her, him, it, them, or one (an indefinite pronoun).
Reflexive pronouns are used when someone or something is both the subject and the object of the same verb. When this happens, the reflexive verb is used as the object of the verb to represent the person or thing; a reflexive pronoun can never be used as the subject of a verb.
For example:
  • “I wish you could hear yourselves right now!”
  • “She admitted to herself that she was wrong.”
  • “The vole hides itself beneath the ground for safety.”
  • “The players have really outdone themselves today!”
  • “One should strive to better oneself every day.”
Intensive pronouns look identical to reflexive pronouns, but they are used to add emphasis to a person’s (or thing’s) role in an action. For example:
  • “I told them myself that the report would be finished on time.”
  • “You need to do the work yourselves, or you will never learn the material.”
  • “The president herself will be speaking at the ceremony.”
Reflexive and intensive pronouns are not typically considered inflections of personal pronouns. However, because they are formed from other pronouns, we have grouped them together here with the other types of personal pronoun declension.

Adjectives

Adjectives are inflected when we want to form comparisons between two people or things (comparative adjectives), or to identify the person or thing with the highest degree of a characteristic among a group (superlative adjectives).
For instance:
  • “Mike is strong.” (adjective)
  • “I am stronger than him.” (comparative adjective)
  • “Jeff is the strongest of all of us.” (superlative adjective)
The progression of inflection for adjectives is known as the degrees of comparison. The spelling rules that dictate how each degree is formed depend on how the base form (known as the positive degree) of the adjective is spelled.
Adjective spelling
How to modify
Positive degree
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
One syllable, ending in a consonant preceded by one vowel.
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree. Double final consonant.
big
bigger
biggest
One syllable, ending in a consonant preceded by two vowels or another consonant.
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree. Do not double final consonant if preceded by one vowel.
strong
stronger
strongest
One syllable, ending in an “e”
Add “-r” for comparative degree or “-st” for superlative degree.
large
larger
largest
Two syllables, ending in a “y”
Replace “y” with “i” and add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree.
happy
happier
happiest
Three or more syllables, or two syllables not ending in "y"
Add the words more or less before the adjective to make them comparative, or most/least to make them superlative.
clever
more/less careful
most/least careful
There are several exceptions to these rules, however, especially when using irregular adjectives. Go to the section on Degrees of Comparison in the Adjectives chapter to learn more.

Adverbs

We can also inflect adverbs when we want to compare the degree to which two actions are performed (comparative adverbs), or to identify the highest degree of how an action is performed. (superlative adverbs).
For example:
  • “Susan runs fast.” (adverb)
  • “Janet runs faster than Susan.” (comparative adverb)
  • “Betty runs the fastest.” (superlative adverb)
The progression of inflection for adverbs is known (like adjectives) as the degrees of comparison. Again, the spelling rules that dictate how each degree is formed depend on how the base form (known as the positive degree) of the adverb is spelled.
Adverb spelling
How to modify
Positive degree
Comparative degree
Superlative degree
One syllable, ending in a consonant
Add “-er” for comparative degree or “-est” for superlative degree.
fast
faster
fastest
One syllable, ending in an “e”
Add “-r” for comparative degree or “-st” for superlative degree.
late
later
latest
Adverbs ending in a “y”
Add the words more or less before the adverb to make it comparative, or most/least to make it superlative.
carefully
more/less carefully
most/least carefully
There are many irregular adverbs that go against the rules we just looked at. Go to the section on degrees of comparison in the Adverbs chapter to learn more how their comparative and superlative degrees are formed.
Quiz

1. Which of the following do not undergo grammatical declension?






2. What is the most common reason nouns are inflected?







3. What is the most common reason personal pronouns are inflected?







4. How are adjectives most commonly inflected to create the comparative degree?





5. Which adverbs do not adhere to the spelling rules when inflecting for the comparative and superlative degree?





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