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As far as I know Accusative case is used for objects (I sure do hope I am using the proper term, as English is not my first language) and the Instrumental case is used for the tool with which the action is performed.

But what happens if the tool is the object?

I am writing with a pen.
Я пишу ручкой.

I am not sure if the sentence in Russian is correct, but either way - is pen/ручка in Accusative or Instrumental case?

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"A tool" is just a special kind of "an object".

"I am writing with a pen" certainly means that "I am using a pen as a writing tool". So it's in Instrumental case: "Я пишу ручкой".

Talking about cases usage in general unavoidably leads to oversimplification. There are too many exceptions and peculiarities. But if I still have to say something about Accusative case, you may think that it stands for "the rest of objects" which is not governed by "more particular" cases: Genitive, Dative, Instrumental or Prepositional.

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  • Thank you that is very useful knowing the Accusative case takes over if something is not governed by any other case. In other words other cases have precedence over the Accusative.
    – mathgenius
    May 12 '16 at 13:25
  • @mathgenius As I warned it's a kind of simplification. There are quite a few exceptions.
    – Matt
    May 12 '16 at 13:33
  • A tool is an object, but not in the grammatical sense. A tool is an object because it is "something material that may be perceived by the senses". But the grammatical object of a verb is "a noun or noun equivalent...denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb" (Webster' Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)
    – David42
    Jul 5 '17 at 15:12
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Я держу ручку в руке − I am holding a pen in my hand
The pen is the object in this sentence − it’s being held.

In your case, the pen is still assumed to be held, but it’s not the object in a sentence. There is no object in the sentence “Я пишу ручкой”.

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  • I would have to disagree with you, the pen is certainly the object in my opinion. Objects
    – mathgenius
    May 12 '16 at 13:24
  • @mathgenius The pen is not an object (direct or indirect) of the verb "пишу". To make this clearer, let's add direct and indirect objects: "Я пишу письмо Ивану ручкой." The action of writing is directed upon the letter, so the letter is the direct object. Ivan receives the result of the action, so he is the indirect object. The pen is not any kind of target of the verb's action, so it is not a grammatical object of any kind, not in this sentence with this verb.
    – David42
    Jul 5 '17 at 15:04
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In short, Accusative goes for a direct object (e.g. an object without a preposition, AKA the object itself), and Instrumental goes for an indirect object (that is, an [non-living] object with a preposition, AKA a compliment).

Basically, almost any English structure of the type 'to do smth with smth' can be rendered into Russian like (с)делать что-нибудь + Instrumental:

I cut the meat by a knife. => (Я) режу мясо ножом.

I measure the water by a cup. => (Я) (от)меряю воду чашкой.

I am busy with some business. => (Я) занят делом.

I count the money with a calculator. => (Я) считаю деньги калькулятором.

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    Nobody says "считаю деньги калькулятором", or uses instrumental with считать in general (unless it's считать in the sense of "consider"). It's "считаю деньги на калькуляторе". May 14 '17 at 16:40
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    @NikolayErshov just for curiosity, «считать» can also take instrumental plural in the sense "use as a unit": «считать деньги пачками»
    – J-mster
    May 14 '17 at 17:01
  • @Nikolay Ershov Any native speaker will say so about a visible amount (cash). Also, see the comment by J-mister. So I think it's more about categories of evidentiality - non-evidentiality than of standard usage or 'using as a unit'
    – Manjusri
    May 14 '17 at 17:14

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