Subject

The Subject of a sentence is often defined as the phrase identifying the agent that carries out the action denoted by the verb. All the examples below involve actions (fleeingsniffingwriting) carried out by the individuals referred to by the highlighted phrases, and for this reason we identify these phrases as Subjects.

  • This man suddenly fled past me. [S2A-050 #160]
  • The dog sniffed Cosmo’s trousers. [W2F-018 #173]
  • I wrote a screen play for the BBC just lately. [S1A-058 #185]

Does that work for the following example?

  • The body of a woman was found by police in a car nearby. [S2B-016 #133]

The answer is that no, it doesn’t work – here the Subject identifies the entity that is undergoing the action of ‘finding’. This is not an agent, but a patient (in the sense of 'undergoer').

The sentence above is called a passive clause. Passive clauses involve the auxiliary verb be and a verb ending in -ed, which we call the past participle (e.g. was found, is tested, has been taken). Ordinary clauses which are not passive are called active clauses.

It will be clear that defining Subject in terms of the notion of agent does not work for passive clauses. What about the following active clauses?

  • One of the spans of the bridge collapsed in the earthquake. [S2A-025#57]
  • A woman from the village was at the house. [W2F-009#131]

Again defining the Subject as expressing an agent role does not work: these examples do not involve actions carried out by agents. In the first example, the bridge span is not an agent: it doesn’t control the event of ‘collapsing’. The second example involves a state of affairs, rather than an action.

So defining Subject in terms of agent only works for active clauses that involve actions carried out by agents. We need a broader definition of Subject.

The Subject is sometimes said to identify the topic – what the sentence is mainly ‘about’. This works quite well for some examples. However, it’s quite vague, and there are some examples where it doesn’t work at all. For example, the sentence Nobody likes the new boss is not about nobody (it’s about the new boss).

So we need instead to look at the grammatical properties of Subjects: their form, their position in the clause, and how they relate to other elements.

The Subject typically takes the form of a noun phrase, like those in the examples above: this man, the dog, I, the body of a woman, and so on.

What happens when the Subject is a pronoun which has different case forms? Which item do we choose to fill in the gap in the sentences below?

  • — helped him. I or Me?
  • — helped me. Him or He?

We need the nominative case forms for the Subject: I, he. (We don’t say *Me helped him; *Him helped me.)

Although the Subject usually takes the form of a noun phrase, it sometimes takes another form. The following examples have clauses as Subjects:

  • Whether they will do anything about it is another matter. [W2D-012#27]
  • And obviously buying books is very special. [S1A-013#119]

Look at the position of the Subject in the examples we looked at earlier:

  • This man suddenly fled past me. [S2A-050 #160]
  • The dog sniffed Cosmo’s trousers. [W2F-018 #173]
  • wrote a screen play for the BBC just lately. [S1A-058 #185]

In these basic declarative clauses, the Subject occurs before the Predicator (the verb). It usually comes first in the clause, but can be preceded by an Adverbial (e.g. In the park the dog sniffed Cosmo's trousers). An Adverbial can also come between Subject and Predicator (e.g. suddenly in the first example).

The word order is different in an interrogative clause: a special type of clause that is typically used to ask questions. Look at these examples:

  • Are you planning parties? [S1A-019 #350]
  • Does she play tennis? [S1A-020 #221]

In these examples the Subject comes after the first verb.

We can’t usually leave out the Subject in basic main clauses. The following are incomplete: 

  • *suddenly fled past me.
  • *sniffed Cosmo’s trousers.
  • *wrote a screen play for the BBC just lately. [S1A-058 #185]

One exception is in an imperative clause like Stop! This is a special type of clause which is typically used to direct somebody’s actions.There's no Subject here, but it is understood as 'you'.

There are other exceptions where the Subject is left out, for instance in text messages or on postcards – can you think of some likely examples? How do we fill in the meaning when we read or hear these examples?

Consider next the examples below. What happens to the verb when we change the Subject?

  • They play squash every Thursday.
  • She — squash every Thursday.
  • They love chocolate.
  • She — chocolate.

We have to change the verb form to ‘agree’ with the Subject. We say She plays (not *She play), and we say She loves (not *She love). The ending -s is added to a present tense verb when the Subject is third person singular (e.g. she, Toby, the boss).

What happens with singular and plural Subjects in the first person (I, we) and second person (you)? You can test this by trying them in the examples.

This will show that no ending is added for these Subjects. It is added only for third person singular Subjects. This is described as agreement in number and person between Subject and verb.

The verb be is irregular and has more variation of forms with number and person (e.g. I amyou arehe is).

The Subject typically:

  • has the form of a noun phrase
  • comes before the Predicator in declarative clauses
  • cannot be omitted in basic main clauses
  • shows agreement with the verb in person and number (not always visible)
  • takes nominative case (if it is a pronoun with different case forms)

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