What Does "Null Subject" Mean?

Midsection of woman threading needle at table
Mended my clothes today. Maskot / Getty Images

A null subject is the absence (or apparent absence) of a subject in a sentence. In most cases, such truncated sentences have an implied or suppressed subject that can be determined from the context.

The null subject phenomenon is sometimes called subject drop. In the article "Universal Grammar and the Learning and Teaching of Second Languages," Vivian Cook points out that some languages (such as Russian, Spanish, and Chinese) "permit sentences without subjects, and are called 'pro-drop' languages. Other languages, which include English, French, and German, do not permit sentences without subjects, and are called 'non-pro-drop'" (Perspectives on Pedagogical Grammar, 1994). However, as discussed and illustrated below, in certain circumstances, in particular dialects, and in early stages of language acquisition, English speakers sometimes do produce sentences without explicit subjects.

Explanation of Null Subjects

"A subject is normally essential in English sentence structure--so much so that a dummy subject must sometimes be introduced (e.g. It is raining). Subjects are, however, usually missing from imperative sentences (e.g. Listen!) and may be ellipted in an informal context (e.g. See you soon)."
(Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1994)

Examples of Null Subjects

  • "Don't know as these shoes'll be much good. It's a hard road, I been down there before."
    (Davies in The Caretaker by Harold Pinter. Theatre Promotions Ltd., 1960)
  • "Keep your trap shut and do your job. After the war's over, we'll straighten out whatever's gone wrong."  (Harry Turtledove, The Big Switch. Del Rey, 2011)
  • "Laura... was leaning up against the bathroom counter while I sat on the closed toilet seat, my fingers deep in the pile of suds on Timmy's head.
    "'Bubbles, Momma. Want more bubbles.'"
    (Julie Kenner, Carpe Demon. Jove, 2006)
  • "He went up to one shelf, and scanned it. 'Hmm, seems to be a section missing,' he said."
    (David Bilsborough, A Fire in the North. Tor Books, 2008)
  • "'You must think us very foolish, Mr. Crackenthorpe,' said Craddock pleasantly. 'We can check on these things, you know. I think, if you'll show me your passport--'
    "He paused expectantly.
    "'Can't find the damned thing,' said Cedric. 'Was looking for it this morning. Wanted to send it to Cook's.'"
    (Agatha Christie, 4:50 from Paddington. Collins, 1957)
  • "He knows I don't want to watch the house being dismantled, don't want to see it emptied. Can't bear to see the bed where I've read myself to sleep every night, where we've made love thousands of times, disassembled. Can't bear to see the desk where I've written my books wrapped up and carted away. Can't bear to see the kitchen stripped of all my cooking equipment--my 'toys.'"  (Louise DeSalvo, On Moving. Bloomsbury, 2009)
  • "She could barely see straight. And then, 'Leaving so soon?' a voice asked. It startled her, not just because it was unexpected, but because it was as if the voice had come from inside of her head." (D.V. Bernard, How to Kill Your Boyfriend [in 10 Easy Steps]. Strebor Books, 2006)
  • "'I suggest that you retire and cool off a little.'
    "'Cool off, hell.' The client rubbed the chair arms with his palms, eyeing Wolfe."
    (Rex Stout, Champagne for One. Viking, 1958)

Three Types of Null Subjects in English

"[T]he picture relating to the use of null subjects is complicated by the fact that, although English does not have finite null subjects... it has three other types of null subject.

"One is the kind of imperative null subject found in imperatives such as Shut up! and Don't say anything!...

"Another is the kind of nonfinite null subject found in a range of nonfinite clauses in English (i.e. clauses containing a verb which is not marked for tense and agreement), including main clauses like Why worry? and complement clauses like those bracketed in I want [to go home] and I like [playing tennis] ...

"A third type of null subject found in English can be called a truncated null subject, because English has a process of truncation which allows one or more words at the beginning of a sentence to be truncated (i.e. omitted) in certain types of style (e.g. diary styles of written English and informal styles of spoken English). Hence in colloquial English, a question like Are you doing anything tonight? can be reduced (by truncation) to You doing anything tonight? and further reduced (again by truncation) to Doing anything tonight? Truncation is also found in abbreviated written styles of English: for example, a diary entry might read Went to a party. Had a great time. Got totally smashed (with the subject I being truncated in each of the three sentences)."  (Andrew Radford, Analysing English Sentences: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

From the Diary of Myra Inman: September 1860

  • "Saturday 1. Pretty day. Mended my clothes today.
    "Sunday 2. Went to Sunday School, did not go to church, none in town. Camp Meeting at Eldridge's.
    "Monday 3. Pretty day. First day of school. Went up in town after my books today..."
    (Myra Inman: A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee, ed. by William R. Snell. Mercer University Press, 2000)

Null Subjects in Language Acquisition

"Several scholars have argued that the null subject phenomenon is a universal property of child language (Hyams 1983, 1986, 1992; Guilfoyle 1984; Jaeggli and Hyams 1988; O'Grady et al 1989; Weissenborn 1992 among others). According to these arguments, there is an initial period in child L1 acquisition during which thematic (referential) lexical subjects are optional and lexical expletive subjects are entirely absent regardless of whether the target language is a null subject language or not...

"According to Hyams (1986, 1992) there is a subject-object asymmetry with respect to the omission of arguments in the early grammars of English. Subjects are often dropped but objects, on the other hand, are rarely omitted."  (Usha Lakshmanan, Universal Grammar in Child Second Language Acquisition. John Benjamins, 1994)

Null Subjects in Singapore English

"Although null-subject structures like 'Went to the market' might be common in diary entries and also as truncated responses in conversations, they would be rare in British or American English for the kind of extended monologue exemplified by the data from Hui Man.

"In contrast, in Singapore English null-subject sentences are very common. Gupta (1994: 10) lists their occurrence as one of the diagnostic features for colloquial Singapore English, but the educated Singapore English data from Hui Man also exhibits very frequent instances of null-subject structures ... (Instances of an omitted subject are indicated by the symbol 'Ø.')

(74) so Ø only tried one or two dishes, Ø didn't really do much cooking
{iF13-b:47} ...
(76) because during . . . school time Ø hardly had time to watch any movies
{iF13-b:213} ...

... It is, in fact, likely that both Malay and Chinese have influenced the sentence structure of Singapore English (Poedjosoedarmo 2000a), and furthermore, it seems true that a feature is most likely to be adopted into a local variety of English when it occurs in more than one indigenous language."
(David Deterding, Singapore English. Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

The Null Subject Parameter (NSP)

"[T]he NSP derives from the idea that clauses in all languages have subjects... Languages that apparently lack subjects actually have null versions of them (both thematic and expletive), and this parametric setting correlates with a cluster of syntactic properties. The six properties initially related to the NSP included (a) having null subjects, (b) having null resumptive pronouns, (c) having free inversion in simple sentences, (d) availability of 'long wh-movement' of subjects, (e) availability of empty resumptive pronouns in embedded clauses, and (f) presence of overt complementizers in that-trace contexts... In addition, null and overt subjects are interpreted differently..."​
(José Camacho, Null Subjects. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Null Subject" Mean?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/null-subject-subject-drop-1691353. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Does "Null Subject" Mean? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/null-subject-subject-drop-1691353 Nordquist, Richard. "What Does "Null Subject" Mean?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/null-subject-subject-drop-1691353 (accessed June 7, 2023).