English Grammar

Subject of a Sentence

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. Subjects are difficult to define simply. One incomplete definition is this: The subject of the sentence is the noun, pronoun, phrase, or clause about which the sentence says or asks something. Here are some examples:

- Susan finished her report and handed it in. The sentence says something about Susan. It tells the reader what Susan did. Susan is the subject of the sentence.

- Is patience a virtue? The sentence asks the reader something about patience.

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2. So far so good; nevertheless, this definition has its weaknesses. Let’s examine a few more sentences:

- Carla’s blatant impatience caused everyone in the restaurant to laugh. The sentence tells the reader something about Carla and something about her impatience. Is Carla’s or impatience the subject? Carla’s is a possessive, which cannot be a subject.

- It is raining. It is the subject. But does the sentence really tell something about it?

- You know that mighty Casey struck out. Is the subject of the sentence you or Casey? You know is the main clause (which always contains the subject of the sentence), and the rest of the sentence is a dependent clause (which never contains the subject of the sentence).

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3. Here are two helpful hints:

The subject of the sentence is the word with which the verb agrees. This can be more helpful that you may at first realize. Take these sentences:

- Our friends’ dog is sick. What is the subject: friends' or dog? If friends' were the subject, the verb would have to be are. Since the verb is is, the subject is dog.

- On the lake they see a sailboat. What is the subject: lake, they, or sailboat? It can only be they because see does not agree with either of the other words.

- Across from the library there will be state-of-the-art tennis courts. If a verb is in the future tense (as this one is), you may want to change it mentally to present tense before looking for agreement. In this case, the change would be from will be to are (you wouldn’t say is, would you?). You can see that the verb agrees with tennis courts, not with library.

In standard prose, the subject of a sentence usually comes before the verb. There are two exceptions: 1) when the word there is used to announce the delayed appearance of the subject (as in the previous example) and 2) in some questions. If you have a hard time finding subjects in questions, mentally change the questions to statements (e.g., change Have you seen the toys in the attic? to You have seen the toys in the attic).

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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