Subject in English Grammar

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In English grammar, the subject is the part of a sentence or clause that commonly indicates (a) what it is about, or (b) who or what performs the action (that is, the agent).

The subject is typically a noun ("The dog . . ."), a noun phrase ("My sister's Yorkshire terrier . . ."), or a pronoun ("It . . ."). The subject pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, they, who, and whoever.

In a declarative sentence, the subject usually appears before the verb ("The dog barks"). In an interrogative sentence, the subject usually follows the first part of a verb ("Does the dog ever bark?"). In an imperative sentence, the subject is commonly said to be "you understood" ("Bark!"). Its etymology is from the Latin, "to throw".

How to Identify the Subject

"The clearest way of spotting the subject of a sentence is to turn the sentence into a yes-no question (by this we mean a question which can be answered with either 'yes' or 'no'). In English, questions are formed by reversing the order between the subject and the first verb which follows it. Look at the following example:

He can keep a Tamagotchi alive for more than a week.

The appropriate question here if we want a 'yes' or 'no' as an answer is:

Can he keep a Tamagotchi alive for more than a week?

Here 'he' and 'can' have changed places and that means that 'he' must be the subject in the first sentence. . . .
"If there is no suitable verb in the original sentence, then use dummy do, and the subject is the constituent which occurs between do and the original verb."
(Kersti Börjars and Kate Burridge, "Introducing English Grammar", 2010)

Subject Examples and Observations

  • "The Grinch hated Christmas."
    (Dr. Seuss, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" 1957)
  • "We should take Bikini Bottom and push it somewhere else!"
    (Patrick in "Squid on Strike." "SpongeBob SquarePants", 2001)
  • "Momma was preparing our evening meal, and Uncle Willie leaned on the door sill."
    (Maya Angelou, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings". 1969)
  • "My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master, and he made me this collar so that I may speak."
    (Dug in "Up", 2009)
  • "The saber-toothed tiger was prowling around the bottom of the tree, growling, as it looked for an easier way up. Then something caught its attention."
    (Damian Harvey, "The Mudcrusts: Saber-Toothed Terrors". 2010)
  • "Sophie was especially excited because she and her friends were performing the opening dance at the Misty Wood fair."
    (Lily Small, "Sophie the Squirrel". 2017)
  • "Fettucini alfredo is macaroni and cheese for adults."
    (Mitch Hedberg)
  • "You can't try to do things; you simply must do them."
    (Ray Bradbury)
  • "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."
    (Albert Einstein)
  • "Look at the circles under my eyes. I haven't slept in weeks!"
    (The Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz", 1939)
  • "The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away."
    (George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant." "New Writing", 1936)
  • "Up to the farmhouse to dinner through the teeming, dusty field, the road under our sneakers was only a two-track road."
    (E.B. White, "Once More to the Lake." Harper's, 1941)
  • "To do the thing properly, with any hope of ending up with a genuine duplicate of a single person, you really have no choice. You must clone them all."
    (Lewis Thomas, "The Tucson Zoo")
  • "Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it, and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there."
    (Don DeLillo, "Mao II". 1991)

Challenging Traditional Definitions of a Subject
"The traditional definition of subject as referring to the 'doer of an action' (or agent), though it is adequate for central or typical cases, will not work for all cases. For example, in passive sentences, such as John was attacked, the subject is John, but John is certainly not the 'doer' of the attacking. Again, not all sentences, even those with transitive verbs, express any action. Examples are This book cost fifty francs and I loathe relativism. But such sentences have always traditionally been held to have subjects (in these cases, this book and I)."
(James R. Hurford, "Grammar: A Student's Guide". 1994)

Subjects and Predicates in Poetry
"[Robert] Frost's 'Dust of Snow' justifies its form by devoting one stanza to the grammatical subject and the other to the predicate:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued."

(Paul Fussell, "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form", 1979)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Subject in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Subject in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Subject in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).