Simple Subject in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

fox - complete subject
In the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," the simple subject is fox. Yves Adams/Getty Images

In traditional grammar, a simple subject is the particular noun or pronoun that tells who or what a sentence or clause is about.

A simple subject may be a single word (e.g., "Christmas is coming"), a multi-word proper noun ("Santa Claus is coming"), or the key noun or pronoun in a complete subject ("The zombies in the basement are coming upstairs").

In addition to nouns and pronouns, gerunds and infinitives can sometimes function as simple subjects (e.g., "Walking is good for you" and "To give is better than to receive").

Examples and Observations

  • "The fish smells awful. It can't be eaten.
  • "The odor of fish hung thick in the air."
    (Jack Driscoll, Wanting Only to Be Heard. University of Massachusetts Press, 1995)
  • "You have brains in your head.
    You have feet in your shoes."
    (Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go! Random House, 1990)
  • "A baby has brains, but it doesn't know much."
    (L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, 1900)
  • "In those tender mornings, the Store was full of laughing, joking, boasting and bragging."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern's sneakers were sopping."
    (E.B. White, Charlotte's Web. Harper, 1952)
  • "The farmer stood unafraid, unleashing his anger on drifters, on those who live hand-to-mouth. Uncle stood quietly, pulling fiercely on his mustaches."
    (Moa Martinson, My Mother Gets Married, 1936; translated by Margaret S. Lacy. The Feminist Press, 1988)
  • "George Washington was the first president of the United States of America. He was a great American general."
    (Joan Heilbroner, Meet George Washington. Random House, 1989)
  • "The Brooklyn Bridge was New York's first electrified icon, lighting up the sky well before the Great White Way in the 1890s and 1900s. And the span helped spread the word about electrification, not only through direct experience but also in the press."
    (Richard Haw, Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History. Routledge, 2008)
  • Gerunds as Simple Subjects
    "Looked at a certain way, walking is the most ordinary, natural, ubiquitous activity."
    (Geoff Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking. Riverhead Books, 2008)
  • Infinitives as Simple Subjects
    "To love is the same as to be mad. This is the case because comparison, measurement, and calculation—the essential attributes of reason—lose both their importance and their meaning in love."
    (Rusmir Mahmutćehajić, On Love: In the Muslim Tradition. Fordham University Press, 2007)
  • Identifying Simple Subjects
    "The simple subject is the noun or pronoun in the complete subject that tells what the sentence is talking about. The other words in the complete subject modify the simple subject.

    "Examples of Simple Subjects

    - The steep steel ladder has become slippery. [Ladder is the simple subject; the steep steel ladder is the complete subject.]
    - The woman in blue overalls climbs slowly and carefully. [Woman is the simple subject; it is the woman, not the overalls, that is climbing.]
    - Passersby stare at this lonely figure. [In this sentence the simple subject and the complete subject are the same.]
    - The cab of the crane is still several feet above her. [Cab is the simple subject. The cab is being discussed here; the phrase of the crane is a modifier.]
    - Helen Hansen will soon be ready for the day's tasks. [In this sentence the two-word noun Helen Hansen is both the simple subject and the complete subject.]"
    (Peder Jones and Jay Farness, College Writing Skills, 5th ed. Collegiate Press, 2002)