Subject (grammar)

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The subject in a simple English sentence such as 'John runs' is the person or thing doing the action (i.e. John). If the sentence has a copula verb ('is'), such as 'John is a teacher', the subject is the person or thing described in the statement. If the verb is passive, as in 'John was hit by a car', the subject is the person or thing acted on by the verb. Traditionally the subject is a noun or pronoun which controls a verb; if there is no verb, as in 'John - what an idiot!', there is no grammatical subject, although since the sentence is about John, 'John' could be described as the topic of the sentence.

These definitions seem clear enough for simple sentences such as the above, but as will be shown in the article below, problems arise when an attempt is made to extend the definitions to more complex sentences and to languages other than English. For example, in the sentence 'It is difficult to learn French', the grammatical subject seems to be the word 'it', and yet arguably the 'real' subject (the thing that is difficult) is 'to learn French'. (A sentence such as 'It was John who broke the window' is more complex still.) Locative sentences such as 'There is a problem, isn't there?', where the tag-question 'isn't there?' seems to imply that the subject is the adverb 'there', also create difficulties for the definition of subject.

Traditionally in languages such as Latin the subject of a verb has a form which is known as the nominative case: for example, the form 'he' (not 'him' or 'his') is used in the sentences 'he ran', 'he broke the window', 'he is a teacher', 'he was hit by a car'. But there are some languages such as Basque, in which the form of the noun or pronoun when the verb is intransitive ('he ran') is different from when the verb is transitive ('he broke the window'). In these languages, which are known as ergative languages, the concept of 'subject' may not apply at all.

Technical definition

In the sentences below, the subjects are indicated in boldface.
  1. The dictionary helps me find words.
  2. Ice cream appeared on the table.
  3. The man who is sitting over there told me that he just bought a ticket to Tahiti.
  4. Nothing else is good enough.
  5. That nothing else is good enough shouldn't come as a surprise.
  6. To eat six different kinds of vegetables a day is healthy.
  7. He sold ten units of sand to us.

The subject (glossing abbreviations: SUB or SU) is, according to a tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle (and that is associated with phrase structure grammars), one of the two main constituents of a clause, the other constituent being the predicate, whereby the predicate says something about the subject.[1][2] According to a tradition associated with predicate logic and dependency grammars, the subject is the most prominent overt argument of the predicate. By this position all languages with arguments have subjects, though there is no way to define this consistently for all languages.[3] From a functional perspective, a subject is a phrase that conflates nominative case with the topic. Many languages (such as those with ergative or Austronesian alignment) do not do this, and by this definition would not have subjects.

All of these positions see the subject in English determining person and number agreement on the finite verb, as exemplified by the difference in verb forms between he eats and they eat. The stereotypical subject immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative sentences in English and represents an agent or a theme. The subject is often a multi-word constituent and should be distinguished from parts of speech, which, roughly, classify words within constituents.

Forms of the subject

The subject is a constituent that can be realized in numerous forms in English and other languages, many of which are listed in the following table:

Noun (phrase) or pronoun The large car stopped outside our house.
A gerund (phrase) His constant hammering was annoying.
A to-infinitive (phrase) To read is easier than to write.
A full that-clause That he had traveled the world was known to everyone.
A free relative clause Whatever he did was always of interest.
A direct quotation I love you is often heard these days.
Zero (but implied) subject Take out the trash!
An expletive It is raining.
A cataphoric it It was known by everyone that he had traveled the world.

Three criteria for identifying subjects in English

Three criteria for identifying subjects in English and other languages are listed next:[4]

1. Subject-verb agreement: The subject agrees with the finite verb in person and number, e.g. I am vs. *I is.[5]
2. Position occupied: The subject typically immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative clauses in English, e.g. Tom laughs.
3. Semantic role: A typical subject in the active voice is an agent or theme, i.e. it performs the action expressed by the verb or when it is a theme, it receives a property assigned to it by the predicate.

Of these three criteria, the first one (agreement) is the most reliable. The subject in English and many other languages agrees with the finite verb in person and number (and sometimes in gender as well). The second and third criterion are merely strong tendencies that can be flouted in certain constructions, e.g.

a. Tom is studying chemistry. - The three criteria agree identifying Tom as the subject.
b. Is Tom studying chemistry? - The 1st and the 3rd criteria identify Tom as the subject.
c. Chemistry is being studied (by Tom). - The 1st and the 2nd criteria identify Chemistry as the subject.

In the first sentence, all three criteria combine to identify Tom as the subject. In the second sentence, which involves the subject-auxiliary inversion of a yes/no-question, the subject immediately follows the finite verb (instead of immediately preceding it), which means the second criterion is flouted. And in the third sentence expressed in the passive voice, the 1st and the 2nd criterion combine to identify chemistry as the subject, whereas the third criterion suggests that by Tom should be the subject because Tom is an agent.

Two further criteria for identifying subjects

Two further criteria for identifying subjects are helpful in many other languages (other than English):

4. Morphological case: In languages that have case systems, the subject is marked by a specific case, often the nominative.
5. Omission: Many languages systematically omit a subject that is known in discourse.

The fourth criterion is not very applicable to English because English largely lacks morphological case, the exception being the subject and object forms of pronouns, I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them. The fifth criterion is helpful in languages that typically drop pronominal subjects, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek, Japanese, and Mandarin. Though most of these languages are rich in verb forms for determining the person and number of the subject, Japanese and Mandarin have no such forms at all. This dropping pattern does not automatically make a language a pro-drop language. In other languages, like English and French, most clauses should have a subject, which should be either a noun (phrase), a pronoun, or a clause. This is also true when the clause has no element to be represented by it. This is why verbs like rain must have a subject such as it, even if nothing is actually being represented by it. In this case, it is an expletive and a dummy pronoun. In imperative clauses, most languages elide the subject, even in English which typically requires a subject to be present, e.g.

Give it to me.
Dā mihi istud. (Latin)
Me dá isso. (Brazilian Portuguese)
Dá-me isso. (European Portuguese)
Dámelo. (Spanish)
Dammelo. (Italian)

Difficult cases

There are certain constructions that challenge the criteria just introduced for identifying subjects. The following subsections briefly illustrate three such cases in English: 1) existential there-constructions, 2) inverse copular constructions, and 3) locative inversion constructions.

Existential there-constructions

Existential there-constructions allow for varying interpretations about what should count as the subject, e.g.

a. There's problems.
b. There are problems.

In sentence a, the first criterion (agreement) and the second criterion (position occupied) suggest that there is the subject, whereas the third criterion (semantic role) suggests rather that problems is the subject. In sentence b, in contrast, agreement and semantic role suggest that problems is the subject, whereas position occupied suggests that there is the subject. In such cases then, one can take the first criterion as the most telling; the subject should agree with the finite verb.[6]

Inverse copular constructions

Another difficult case for identifying the subject is the so-called inverse copular construction, e.g.[7]

a. The boys are a chaotic force around here.
b. A chaotic force around here is the boys. - Inverse copular construction

The criteria combine to identify the boys as the subject in sentence a. But if that is the case, then one might argue that the boys is also the subject in the similar sentence b, even though two of the criteria (agreement and position occupied) suggest that a chaotic force around here is the subject. When confronted with such data, one has to make a decision that is less than fully arbitrary. If one assumes again that criterion one (agreement) is the most reliable, one can usually identify a subject.

Locative inversion constructions

Yet another type of construction that challenges the subject concept is locative inversion, e.g.

a. Spiders have been breeding under the bed.
b. Under the bed have been breeding spiders. - Locative inversion
c. *Where have been breeding spiders? - Failed attempt to question the location
d. Where have spiders been breeding? - Successful attempt to question the location

The criteria easily identify spiders as the subject in sentence a. In sentence b, however, the position occupied suggests that under the bed should be construed as the subject, whereas agreement and semantic role continue to identify spiders as the subject. This is so despite the fact that spiders in sentence b appears after the string of verbs in the canonical position of an object. The fact that sentence c is bad but sentence d good reveals that something unusual is indeed afoot, since the attempt to question the location fails if the subject does not immediately follow the finite verb. This further observation speaks against taking spiders as the subject in sentence b. But if spiders is not the subject, then the sentence must lack a subject entirely, which is not supposed to be possible in English.

Subject-less clauses

The existence of subject-less clauses can be construed as particularly problematic for theories of sentence structure that build on the binary subject-predicate division. A simple sentence is defined as the combination of a subject and a predicate, but if no subject is present, how can one have a sentence? Subject-less clauses are absent from English for the most part, but they are not unusual in related languages. In German, for instance, impersonal passive clauses can lack a recognizable subject, e.g.

Gestern wurde nur geschlafen.
yesterday was only slept 'Everybody slept yesterday.'

The word gestern 'yesterday' is generally construed as an adverb, which means it cannot be taken as the subject in this sentence. Certain verbs in German also require a dative or accusative object instead of a nominative subject, e.g.

Mir graut davor.
Me-DAT is uneasy about it 'I am uneasy about it.'

Since subjects are typically marked by the nominative case in German (the fourth criterion above), one can argue that this sentence lacks a subject, for the relevant verb argument appears in the dative case, not in the nominative.

Subjects in sentence structure

The subject receives a privileged status in theories of sentence structure. In those approaches that acknowledge the binary division of the clause into a subject and a predicate (as is the case in most phrase structure grammars), the subject is usually an immediate dependent of the root node, whereby its sister is the predicate. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the structure as a dependent of the/a verb, e.g.[8]

Subjects 1.1

Subjects are indicated using blue, and objects using orange. The special status of the subject is visible insofar as the subject is higher in the tree each time than the object. In theories of syntax that reject the initial division (as is the case in most dependency grammars), the subject is nevertheless also granted a privileged status insofar as it is an immediate dependent of the finite verb. The following trees are those of a dependency grammar:[9]

Subjects 2

The subject is a dependent of the root node, the finite verb, in both trees. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the second tree, where it is a dependent of the non-finite verb. The subject remains a dependent finite verb when subject-auxiliary inversion occurs:

Subjects 3

The prominence of the subject is consistently reflected in its position in the tree as an immediate dependent of the root word, the finite verb.

See also


  1. See Conner (1968:43ff.) for a discussion of the traditional subject concept.
  2. The division of the clause into a subject and a predicate is a view of sentence structure that is adopted by most English grammars, e.g. Conner (1968:43), Freeborn (1995:121), and Biber et al. (1999:122).
  3. See Tesnière (1969:103-105) for the alternative concept of sentence structure that puts the subject and the object on more equal footing since they can both be dependents of a (finite) verb.
  4. See Biber et al. (1999:123) for a similar list of criteria for identifying subjects.
  5. For basic discussions of subject-verb agreement, see for instance Barry (1998:68f.), Fergusson and Manser (1998:36f.), and Jurafsky and Martin (2000:366f.).
  6. For a discussion of the subject status of existential there, see Biber et al. (1999:944).
  7. For in depth studies of inverse copular constructions, see Moro (1997) and Mikkelsen (2005).
  8. Phrase structure trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in numerous introductory texts to grammar and syntax, e.g. Payne (2011).
  9. Dependency trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in *Ágel et al. (2003/6).


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  • Barry, A. 1998. English grammar: Language as human behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice Hall.
  • Biber, D. et al. 1999. Longman Grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Education limited.
  • Collins Cobuild English Grammar 1995. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Conner, J. 1968. A grammar of standard English. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Fergusson, R. and M. Manser 1998. The Macmillan guide to English grammar. London: Macmillan.
  • Hale, K.; Keyser, J. (2002). "Prolegomena to a theory of argument structure", Linguistic Inquiry Monograph, 39, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Jurafsky, D. and J. Martin 2000. Speech and language processing: An introduction to natural language processing, computational linguistics, and speech recognition. New Delhi, India: Pearson Education.
  • Mikkelsen, L. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication, and equation. Linguistics Today 85. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Moro, A. 1997. The raising of predicates. Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.
  • Payne, T. 2011. Understanding English grammar. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tesnière, L. 1969. Éleménts de syntaxe structurale. 2nd edition. Paris: Klincksieck.