What Are Delayed Subjects in English Grammar?

Definition and Examples

delayed sign
"The delayed subject is usually indefinite in meaning," says Geoffrey Leech, "and sometimes shows its subject status by determining whether the verb phrase is singular or plural" (A Glossary of English Grammar, 2006). (Frank Cezus/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a delayed subject is a subject that appears at (or near) the end of a sentence, after the main verb. In such cases, the vacant subject position at the beginning is usually filled with a dummy word, such as it, there, or here.

For example, in this compound sentence, there are two delayed subjects (indicated by italics): "There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle" (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).

Note that in the first clause the verb are agrees with the plural noun men; in the second clause, the verb agrees with the singular noun party.

Examples and Observations

  • It isn't easy to smile all day long.
  • It seemed a good idea for me to study nuclear physics.
  • "Q. What's the relationship between it and the infinitive phrase in the sentence 'It took so long to get there'?"
    "A. . . . One role that an infinitive can fill is that of the delayed subject. Sentences with delayed subjects always begin with the dummy it, a dummy element that takes the place of some word(s) in a sentence. Dummy elements were once called expletives. The word expletive comes from the Latin explere, meaning 'to fill up,' and this is what it does. The dummy element or expletive fills the place of the subject.
    "In the caller's sentence, the dummy it fills the place of the subject to get there. The true subject, the infinitive phrase, is delayed till the end of the sentence. To verify that this is truly a delayed subject, replace the dummy it with the infinitive phrase:
    To get there took so long.
    The infinitive phrase moves easily from its place at the end as a delayed subject to the front of the sentence where it becomes a normal subject."
    (Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Books, 2004)
  • It is important that scientists police themselves.
  • There are two methods of treatment for dental crowding.
  • Here are some wild strawberries.
  • Here are the supplies you ordered.

Delayed Subjects With Existential There

  • "Existential there, unlike there as an adverb of place, is unstressed. The noun phrase following be can be seen as a delayed subject and there as a dummy subject inserted to fill the vacant subject position. Compare (d) [There has been a lot of money wasted], for example, with the more standard word order of: A lot of money has been wasted. The delayed subject is usually indefinite in meaning, and sometimes shows its subject status by determining whether the verb phrase is singular or plural (see concord): compare (c) [There were too many people in the room] with There was too much noise in the room. Nevertheless, in other ways, the status of subject belongs to there. For example, there comes after the operator in questions (Is there anything happening?) and occurs as matching subject in tag questions (There's plenty of food left, isn't there?) Hence the question of what is the subject of an existential sentence is problematic."
    (Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

    Delayed Subjects and Dangling Participles

    • "A common source of the dangling participle is the sentence with a 'delayed subject.' Two common delayers are their transformation and the generalized it:

    * Having moved the patio furniture into the garage, there was no longer room for the car.

    * Knowing how much work I had to do yesterday, it was good of you to come and help.

    • In the last sentence the subject of the participle, you, is there, but it appears in the predicate rather than in the usual subject position. As readers and listeners, we process sentences with certain built-in expectations. We expect the subject of an introductory verb to be the first logical nominal. . . .
    • "Often the most efficient way to revise such sentences is to expand the participial phrase into a complete clause:

    After we moved the patio furniture into the garage, there was no longer room for the car.

    It was good of you to come and help yesterday when you learned how much work I had to do."

    (Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, Understanding English Grammar, 5th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998)