According to a tradition that can be tracked back to
every sentence can be divided in two main constituents,
one being the subject of the sentence and the other
being its predicate.
In English, subjects govern agreement
on the verb or auxiliary verb that carries the main tense
of the sentence, as exemplified by the difference in verb
forms between he eats and they eat.
the sentences below, the subjects are indicated in
- The dictionary helps me find words.
- Ice cream appeared on the table.
- The man who is sitting over there told
me that he just bought a ticket to Tahiti.
- Nothing else is good enough.
- That nothing else is good enough shouldn't
come as a surprise.
- To eat six different kinds of vegetables
a day is healthy.
The subject has the grammatical
function in a sentence of relating its constituent
phrase) by means of the verb
to any other elements present in the sentence, i.e. objects,
The subject is a phrasal constituent, and should be distinguished
of speech, which, roughly, classify words
Forms of subject
The subject is a noun phrase in the sentence and can
be realised by the following forms
- A determinerless
noun phrase, also called a bare noun phrase. In English,
this is mostly limited to plural
noun phrases and noun phrases headed by a mass
- Builders are at work.
- A noun phrase introduced by a determiner. This complex
(determiner + noun phrase) is usually called a determiner
- The large car stopped outside our house.
- A gerund.
These can be shown to behave as noun phrases in many
respects, for example, in being able to form determiner
- Eating is a pleasure.
- His constant hammering was very annoying.
- An infinitive.
These can be shown to behave in many respects as embedded
clauses, for example in allowing question words
- To read is easier than to write.
- Whom to hire is a difficult question.
- A full clause,
introduced by the complementizer
that, itself containing a subject and a predicate.
- That he had travelled the world was
known by everyone.
- A direct quotation:
- I love you is often heard these days.
- The subject can also be implied. In the following
command, the subject is the implied "you" that is the
recipient of the imperative
- Take out the trash!
- An expletive.
These are words like it or there when
they don't refer
to any thing or place. For example in the following
sentence "it" doesn't refer to anything.
- It rains.
- A cataphoric
it. This is the use of it when it is co-referent
with a subordinate clause that comes after it.
- It was known by everyone (that) he
had travelled the world.
Definitions of subject
The concept of subject is sometimes mixed with
that of actor
and other times with that of carrier
of attributes. When this happens, it is defined
as the argument
that generally refers to the origin of the action or the
undergoer of the state shown by the predicate. This definition
takes the representation
of the sentence into account, but it is problematic for
several reasons. While interpreting the subject
as the actor or agent of the action, two
rather different concepts are overlayed. For instance,
in the passive
voice the subject is the goal,
of the action; for example:
- John was arrested by the police.
- The police arrested John.
In the first sentence (which is in the passive voice),
the subject is John, while in the second
sentence (active voice) it is the police. But when
it comes to the representation the action, the actor
in both sentences is the police and the goal
of the action is John.
Similarly, some verbs can be used both transitively
An example of these is the English verb break:
- John broke the chain.
- The chain broke.
In the first sentence, the subject is John,
while in the second one it is the the chain. But
in the representation of the action or event, the chain
plays the same role in both cases, that being the one
to which the process is done or happens. This can be seen
by considering the fact that the two sentences can be
used to describe the same happening. Whenever the first
sentence is true, the second one will be true as well,
though in the second one it is pictured to have happened
without an agent.
Subject in contrastive linguistics
The subject was first defined to be the main
argument of a proposition. Since then, linguistic
theories have been developed to describe languages all
over the world. Some theories, such as Systemic Functional
Theory, claim all clauses must have a subject no matter
what language is being described. Other theories claim
there is no such category that is consistent for all languages.
In English, though, every clause has a subject.
A subject in English typically matches two types of pattern:
agreement and word order. It both agrees with the verb
group of its clause and is positioned in certain particular
ways. The agreement consists of choosing one of two different
forms of the verb (three in the case of the verb be)
depending on the number and person of its subject. For
instance, if a subject is singular and is a third person,
i. e. it is neither the speaker nor the listeners, one
chooses the form has of the verb have; otherwise
one chooses have. See examples below:
- She has left.
- They have left.
- I have left.
- We have left.
- You have left.
This pattern of agreement is not an absolute rule, because
not all verbs have two different forms. Some have only
one and never vary in form. E.g.: must, can, will,
- She must leave.
- They must leave.
- I must leave.
- We must leave.
- You must leave.
The second pattern of a subject in English is its position
in relation to the verb group. When affirming or denying
something, one usually places the subject right before
the verb group. But when asking a question, one changes
order by placing the subject after part of the verb
group. This means one makes an interrogative
clause by changing the declarative
word order. Thus an assertion is turned into a question
by making a word order change. See the following examples:
- You won't call me.
- Won't you call me?
Subjects also follow a third pattern. For instance, in
English, the pronoun I is usually a subject
while me is usually a complement. This system
of language that allows us to determine the arguments
of a proposition by inflection is called declension and
each form is a case
of the declining system. In other languages like German,
Russian, Latin and Greek, every noun group assumes a case
to represent a specific argument of its proposition. The
case assumed by subjects is usually (but not always) the
one named nominative.
Sometimes the subject carries other cases, like the accusative
or the dative,
depending on the clause structure and the language. Yet
other languages, such as Japanese, use a postposition
system to determine the arguments of a clause. The classic
theorists were very concerned about this language system
for both Latin and Greek had declensions, but this is
not a concern in modern English grammars anymore, though
English has three noun cases (nominative, genitive and
an unnamed one):
- My eyes are blue.
- The lacrimal gland is also part of the eye's
- It's a one-eyed beast called a Cysquatch.
However, none of theses patterns can be used as a universal
pattern of the subject. Not all languages have a subject-verb
agreement in verb forms (person and number), noun forms
(case, postpositions) or distinctive word orders. And
none of these patterns safely determines the subject.
The case system, for instance, is not a universal system
that works the same way in all languages. In some languages,
when the ergative model is foregrounded, the transitive/intransitive
distinction does not affect the cases of the complements.
The middle to which some process is done or happens
carries the same case no matter if it is the subject or
a complement of the verb. In other languages, of which
German, Latin and Greek are examples, the subject keeps
its case for transitive and intransitive uses of a verb
and its quite safe to consider it case-determined.
In languages that lack verb and noun forms for determining
the subject, one must determine the subject in terms of
word order. For example, in Mainland Scandinavian (Norwegian,
Swedish and Danish) the subject occurs either right in
front of the tensed verb of a sentence, or follows the
verb but precedes the complements.
Finally, in the Topic theory, which is similar but not
equivalent to the Theme theory of the School of Prague,
the subject is also the topic
of a proposition in the default word order. According
to this theory, some languages have no means to determine
a topic but by making a complement into a subject. So
ascribing a passive
voice to the verb group is a way to topicalize the
said complement: (See also topic-prominent
- I did it.
- It was done.
- The duke gave my aunt this teapot.
- My aunt was given this teapot by the duke.
Another pattern of the subject is the frequency in which
it is ellided (removed/dropped) from the clause. Some
languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek,
Japanese and Mandarin, use this pattern both in assertions
and questions. 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. For these concerns visit the pro-drop
language article. In other languages, like English
and French, declarative and interrogative clauses must
always have a subject, which should be either a noun group
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 carry 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, though, most languages
elide the subject:
- Give it to me.
- Dā mihi istud. (Latin)
- Me dá isso. (Portuguese in Brazil)
- Dá-me isso. (Portuguese in Portugal)
- Dámelo. (Spanish)
- Dammelo. (Italian)
The subject of a sentence is often privileged in various
ways pertaining to its relation to other expressions in
the sentence. One says that these other expressions are
"subject-oriented". Examples of subject-oriented expressions
include subject-oriented adverbs. Compare the following
- Clumsily, Al sat down.
- Al sat down clumsily.
The first sentence means that it was clumsy of Al to
sit down (though the manner in which he did so may have
been elegant). The second can also mean that the manner
in which Al sat down was clumsy (while it may have been
highly appropriate to sit down in the first place).
pronouns are sometimes subject-oriented. In the following
sentence herself is a reflexive pronoun.
- Sue assigned the best student to herself.
This sentence can only mean that Sue assigned the best
student to Sue, not that she assigned the best
student to the best student.
Subject, predicates and the copula
It is generally assumed that the Noun Phrase occurring
with the Verb Phrase, constituting a sentence, is a subject.
Copular sentences challenge this view. In a particular
class of copular sentences, called "inverse copular sentences",
the noun phrase which occurs with the verb phrase plays
the role of predicate, occupying the position which is
canonically reserved for subjects, and the subject is
embedded in the verb phrase (cf. copula).
This can be exemplified by pairs of sentences like these
pictures of the wall are the cause of the riot (where
the preverbal Noun Phrase plays the role of subject and
the post-verbal one plays the role of predicate) vs the
cause of the riot is these pictures of the wall (where
the order is inverse). This has far reaching consequences,
affecting for example the theory of expletive
subjects and unaccusative
verbs (cf. Moro 1997 and Hale - Keyser 2003 and references
- Everaert, M.; van Riemsdijk, H.; Goedemans, R. (eds)
2006. The Blackwell companion to syntax, Volumes
I–V, Blackwell, London.
- Hale, K.; Keyser, J. (2002). "Prolegomena to a theory
of argument structure", Linguistic Inquiry Monograph,
39, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Halliday, M.A.K & Matthiessen, Christian M. I.
M (2004). Subject, actor, theme in An introduction
to functional grammar. Hodder Arnold, London, England.
- Huddleston, R.; Pullum, K. (2005). A student's
introduction to English grammar. Cambridge University
- 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.
- Wlodarczyk André & Hélène (2006)
“Subject in the Meta-informative Centering Theory” in
Études cognitives / Studia kognitywne 7, SOW, PAN,
- Wlodarczyk André & Hélène (2008)
“Roles, Anchors and Other Things we Talk About :
Associative Semantics and Meta-Informative Centering
Theory”, ed. Istvan Kecskes, Series: "Mouton Series
in Pragmatics", Intercultural Pragmatics, Vol. 5. No.
3., Berlin/New York.