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The subject in a simple English sentence such as ''John runs'', ''John is a teacher'', or ''John drives a car'', is the person or thing about whom the statement is made, in this case ''John''. Traditionally the subject is the word or phrase which controls the
verb A verb () is a word ( part of speech) that in syntax generally conveys an action (''bring'', ''read'', ''walk'', ''run'', ''learn''), an occurrence (''happen'', ''become''), or a state of being (''be'', ''exist'', ''stand''). In the usual descr ...
in the clause, that is to say with which the verb agrees (''John is'' but ''John and Mary are''). If there is no verb, as in ''John what an idiot!'', or if the verb has a different subject, as in ''John I can't stand him!'', then 'John' is not considered to be the grammatical subject, but can be described as the '' topic'' of the sentence. While these definitions apply to simple English sentences, defining the subject is more difficult in more complex sentences and in languages other than English. For example, in the sentence ''It is difficult to learn French'', the subject seems to be the word ''it'', and yet arguably the real subject (the thing that is difficult) is ''to learn French''. A sentence such as ''It was John who broke the window'' is more complex still. Sentences beginning with a locative phrase, such as ''There is a problem, isn't there?'', in which the tag question ''isn't there?'' seems to imply that the subject is the
adverb An adverb is a word or an expression that generally modifies a verb, adjective, another adverb, determiner, clause, preposition, or sentence. Adverbs typically express manner, place, time, frequency, degree, level of certainty, etc., answering ...
''there'', also create difficulties for the definition of subject. In languages such as
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
and
German German(s) may refer to: * Germany (of or related to) **Germania (historical use) * Germans, citizens of Germany, people of German ancestry, or native speakers of the German language ** For citizens of Germany, see also German nationality law **Ge ...
the subject of a verb has a form which is known as the
nominative case In grammar, the nominative case ( abbreviated ), subjective case, straight case or upright case is one of the grammatical cases of a noun or other part of speech, which generally marks the subject of a verb or (in Latin and formal variants of Eng ...
: for example, the form 'he' (not 'him' or 'his') is used in sentences such as ''he ran'', ''he broke the window'', ''he is a teacher'', ''he was hit by a car''. But there are some languages such as Basque or Greenlandic, in which the form of a
noun A noun () is a word that generally functions as the name of a specific object or set of objects, such as living creatures, places, actions, qualities, states of existence, or ideas.Example nouns for: * Living creatures (including people, alive, ...
or
pronoun In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun ( abbreviated ) is a word or a group of words that one may substitute for a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns have traditionally been regarded as one of the parts of speech, but some modern theorists would not ...
when the verb is intransitive (''he ran'') is different from when the verb is transitive (''he broke the window''). In these languages, which are known as ergative languages, the concept of subject may not apply at all.


Technical definition

The subject ( glossing abbreviations: or ) is, according to a tradition that can be traced back to
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatetic school of ...
(and that is associated with phrase structure grammars), one of the two main constituents of a clause, the other constituent being the
predicate Predicate or predication may refer to: * Predicate (grammar), in linguistics * Predication (philosophy) * several closely related uses in mathematics and formal logic: **Predicate (mathematical logic) **Propositional function **Finitary relation, o ...
, whereby the predicate says something about the subject. According to a tradition associated with predicate logic and dependency grammars, the subject is the most prominent overt argument of the predicate. By this position all languages with arguments have subjects, though there is no way to define this consistently for all languages. Even in languages such as English, there is not always a perfect match between the semantic predicand and the subject, as a predicate may be predicated on an argument in another clause (see raising). From a functional perspective, a subject is a phrase that conflates
nominative case In grammar, the nominative case ( abbreviated ), subjective case, straight case or upright case is one of the grammatical cases of a noun or other part of speech, which generally marks the subject of a verb or (in Latin and formal variants of Eng ...
with the topic. Many languages (such as those with ergative or Austronesian alignment) do not do this, and by this definition would not have subjects. All of these positions see the subject in English determining person and number
agreement Agreement may refer to: Agreements between people and organizations * Gentlemen's agreement, not enforceable by law * Trade agreement, between countries * Consensus, a decision-making process * Contract, enforceable in a court of law ** Meeting ...
on the finite verb, as exemplified by the difference in verb forms between ''he eats'' and ''they eat''. The stereotypical subject immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative sentences in English and represents an
agent Agent may refer to: Espionage, investigation, and law *, spies or intelligence officers * Law of agency, laws involving a person authorized to act on behalf of another ** Agent of record, a person with a contractual agreement with an insuranc ...
or a theme. The subject is often a multi-word
constituent Constituent or constituency may refer to: Politics * An individual voter within an electoral district, state, community, or organization * Advocacy group or constituency * Constituent assembly * Constituencies of Namibia Other meanings * Consti ...
and should be distinguished from
parts of speech In grammar, a part of speech or part-of-speech (abbreviated as POS or PoS, also known as word class or grammatical category) is a category of words (or, more generally, of lexical items) that have similar grammatical properties. Words that are as ...
, which, roughly, classify words within constituents. In the example sentences below, the subjects are indicated in boldface. # The dictionary helps me find words. # Strangely enough, 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. # Despite her objections, he sold us ten bags of clothes.


Forms of the subject

The subject is a constituent that can be realized in numerous forms in English and other languages, many of which are listed in the following table:


Criteria for identifying subjects

There are several criteria for identifying subjects: #Subject-verb agreement: The subject agrees with the finite verb in person and number, e.g. ''I am'' vs. ''*I is''. #Position occupied: The subject typically immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative clauses in English, e.g. ''Tom laughs''. #Semantic role: A typical subject in the active voice is an agent or theme, i.e. it performs the action expressed by the verb or when it is a theme, it receives a property assigned to it by the predicate. Of these three criteria, the first one (agreement) is the most reliable. The subject in English and many other languages agrees with the finite verb in person and number (and sometimes in gender as well). The second and third criterion are merely strong tendencies that can be flouted in certain constructions, e.g. #Tom is studying chemistry. - The three criteria agree identifying ''Tom'' as the subject. #Is Tom studying chemistry? - The 1st and the 3rd criteria identify ''Tom'' as the subject. #Chemistry is being studied (by Tom). - The 1st and the 2nd criteria identify ''Chemistry'' as the subject. In the first sentence, all three criteria combine to identify ''Tom'' as the subject. In the second sentence, which involves the subject-auxiliary inversion of a yes/no-question, the subject immediately follows the finite verb (instead of immediately preceding it), which means the second criterion is flouted. And in the third sentence expressed in the passive voice, the 1st and the 2nd criterion combine to identify ''chemistry'' as the subject, whereas the third criterion suggests that ''by Tom'' should be the subject because ''Tom'' is an agent. The fourth criterion is better applicable to languages other than English given that English largely lacks morphological case marking, the exception being the subject and object forms of pronouns, ''I/me'', ''he/him'', ''she/her, they/them''. The fifth criterion is helpful in languages that typically drop pronominal subjects, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek, Japanese, and Mandarin. 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. In other languages, like English and French, most clauses should have a subject, which should be either a noun (phrase), a pronoun, 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 have 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 A dummy pronoun is a deictic pronoun that fulfills a syntactical requirement without providing a contextually explicit meaning of its referent. As such, it is an example of exophora. Dummy pronouns are used in many Germanic languages, inclu ...
. In imperative clauses, most languages elide the subject, even in English which typically requires a subject to be present, e.g. *Give it to me. *Dā mihi istud. (Latin) *Me dá isso. (Brazilian Portuguese) *Dá-me isso. (European Portuguese) *Dámelo. (Spanish) *Dammelo. (Italian)


Coordinated sentences

One criterion for identifying a subject in various languages is the possibility of its omission in coordinated sentences such as the following: The man hit the woman and
he man He or HE may refer to: Language * He (pronoun), an English pronoun * He (kana), the romanization of the Japanese kana へ * He (letter), the fifth letter of many Semitic alphabets * He (Cyrillic), a letter of the Cyrillic script called ''He'' in ...
came here. In a passive construction, the patient becomes the subject by this criterion: The woman was hit by the man and he womancame here. In ergative languages such as the nearly extinct Australian language Dyirbal, in a transitive sentence it is the patient rather than the agent that can be omitted in such sentences: ''Balan dyugumbil baŋgul yaraŋgu balgan, baninyu'' 'The man (''bayi yara'') hit the woman (''balan dyugumbil'') and hecame here' This suggests that in ergative languages of this kind the patient is actually the subject in a transitive sentence.


Difficult cases

There are certain constructions that challenge the criteria just introduced for identifying subjects. The following subsections briefly illustrate three such cases in English: 1) existential ''there''-constructions, 2)
inverse copular construction In linguistics, inverse copular constructions, named after Moro (1997), are a type of inversion in English where canonical SCP word order (subject- copula- predicative expression, e.g. ''Fred is the plumber'') is reversed in a sense, so that one ap ...
s, and 3) locative inversion constructions.


Existential ''there''-constructions

Existential ''there''-constructions allow for varying interpretations about what should count as the subject, e.g. #There's problems. #There are problems. In sentence 1, the first criterion (agreement) and the second criterion (position occupied) suggest that ''there'' is the subject, whereas the third criterion (semantic role) suggests rather that ''problems'' is the subject. In sentence 2, in contrast, agreement and semantic role suggest that ''problems'' is the subject, whereas position occupied suggests that ''there'' is the subject. In such cases then, one can take the first criterion as the most telling; the subject should agree with the finite verb.


Inverse copular constructions

Another difficult case for identifying the subject is the so-called ''
inverse copular construction In linguistics, inverse copular constructions, named after Moro (1997), are a type of inversion in English where canonical SCP word order (subject- copula- predicative expression, e.g. ''Fred is the plumber'') is reversed in a sense, so that one ap ...
'', e.g. #The boys are a chaotic force around here. #A chaotic force around here is the boys. - Inverse copular construction The criteria combine to identify ''the boys'' as the subject in sentence 1. But if that is the case, then one might argue that ''the boys'' is also the subject in the similar sentence 2, even though two of the criteria (agreement and position occupied) suggest that ''a chaotic force around here'' is the subject. When confronted with such data, one has to make a decision that is less than fully arbitrary. If one assumes again that criterion one (agreement) is the most reliable, one can usually identify a subject.


Locative inversion constructions

Yet another type of construction that challenges the subject concept is locative
inversion Inversion or inversions may refer to: Arts * , a French gay magazine (1924/1925) * ''Inversion'' (artwork), a 2005 temporary sculpture in Houston, Texas * Inversion (music), a term with various meanings in music theory and musical set theory * ...
, e.g. #Spiders have been breeding under the bed. #Under the bed have been breeding spiders. - Locative inversion # *Where have been breeding spiders? - Failed attempt to question the location #Where have spiders been breeding? - Successful attempt to question the location The criteria easily identify ''spiders'' as the subject in sentence 1. In sentence 2, however, the position occupied suggests that ''under the bed'' should be construed as the subject, whereas agreement and semantic role continue to identify ''spiders'' as the subject. This is so despite the fact that ''spiders'' in sentence 2 appears after the string of verbs in the canonical position of an object. The fact that sentence 3 is bad but sentence 4 is good reveals that something unusual is indeed afoot, since the attempt to question the location fails if the subject does not immediately follow the finite verb. This further observation speaks against taking ''spiders'' as the subject in sentence 2. But if ''spiders'' is not the subject, then the sentence must lack a subject entirely, which is not supposed to be possible in English.


Subject-less clauses

The existence of subject-less clauses can be construed as particularly problematic for theories of sentence structure that build on the binary subject-predicate division. A simple sentence is defined as the combination of a subject and a predicate, but if no subject is present, how can one have a sentence? Subject-less clauses are absent from English for the most part, but they are not unusual in related languages. In German, for instance, impersonal passive clauses can lack a recognizable subject, e.g. The word ''gestern'' 'yesterday' is generally construed as an adverb, which means it cannot be taken as the subject in this sentence. Certain verbs in German also require a dative or accusative object instead of a nominative subject, e.g. Since subjects are typically marked by the nominative case in German (the fourth criterion above), one can argue that this sentence lacks a subject, for the relevant verb argument appears in the dative case, not in the nominative. Impersonal sentences in Scottish Gaelic can occasionally have a very similar form to the first German example where an actor is omitted. In the following sentence, the word ‘chaidh’ ("went") is an auxiliary carrying tense and is used in an impersonal or passive constructions. The word ‘falbh’ ("leaving") is a verbal noun.


Subjects in sentence structure

The subject receives a privileged status in theories of sentence structure. In those approaches that acknowledge the binary division of the clause into a subject and a predicate (as is the case in most phrase structure grammars), the subject is usually an immediate dependent of the root node, whereby its sister is the predicate. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the structure as a dependent of the/a verb, e.g. Subjects are indicated using blue, and objects using orange. The special status of the subject is visible insofar as the subject is higher in the tree each time than the object. In theories of syntax that reject the initial division (as is the case in most dependency grammars), the subject is nevertheless also granted a privileged status insofar as it is an immediate dependent of the finite verb. The following trees are those of a dependency grammar:Dependency trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in *Ágel et al. (2003/6). The subject is a dependent of the root node, the finite verb, in both trees. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the second tree, where it is a dependent of the non-finite verb. The subject remains a dependent finite verb when subject-auxiliary inversion occurs: The prominence of the subject is consistently reflected in its position in the tree as an immediate dependent of the root word, the finite verb.


See also

* Complement (linguistics) * Copula *
Grammatical case A grammatical case is a category of nouns and noun modifiers ( determiners, adjectives, participles, and numerals), which corresponds to one or more potential grammatical functions for a nominal group in a wording. In various languages, nomin ...
* Object (grammar) *
Preparatory subject In grammar, a preparatory subject or anticipatory subject is a subject which represents a verb clause later in the sentence. ''It'' as a preparatory subject is "commonly used in speech and writing, especially when the subject is longer than the co ...
*
Quirky subject In linguistics, quirky subjects (also called oblique subjects) are a phenomenon where certain verbs specify that their subjects are to be in a case other than the nominative. These non-nominative subjects are determiner phrases that pass subjecthoo ...
*
Sentence (linguistics) In linguistics and grammar, a sentence is a linguistic expression, such as the English example " The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." In traditional grammar, it is typically defined as a string of words that expresses a complete thought, ...
*
Subjective (grammar) In linguistics, a subject pronoun is a personal pronoun that is used as the subject of a verb. Subject pronouns are usually in the nominative case for languages with a nominative–accusative alignment pattern. On the other hand, a language with ...


Notes


References

*Ágel, V., L. Eichinger, H.-W. Eroms, P. Hellwig, H. Heringer, and H. Lobin (eds.) 2003/6. ''Dependency and valency: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research''. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. *Barry, A. 1998. ''English Grammar: Language as Human Behavior''. Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice Hall. *Biber, D. et al. 1999. ''Longman Grammar of spoken and written English''. Essex, England: Pearson Education limited. *Collins ''Cobuild English Grammar'' 1995. London: HarperCollins Publishers. *Comrie, Bernard (1981, 2nd ed. 1989
''Language Universals and Linguistic Typology''
University of Chicago Press. *Conner, J. 1968. ''A Grammar of Standard English''. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. *Fergusson, R. and M. Manser 1998. ''The Macmillan Guide to English Grammar''. London: Macmillan. * Hale, K.; Keyser, J. (2002). "Prolegomena to a theory of argument structure", ''Linguistic Inquiry Monograph, 39,'' MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. * Jurafsky, D. and J. Martin 2000. ''Speech and Language Processing: An introduction to natural language processing, computational linguistics, and speech recognition''. New Delhi, India: Pearson Education. *Mikkelsen, L. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication, and equation. ''Linguistics Today'' 85. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. *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. *Payne, T. 2011. ''Understanding English Grammar''. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. *Tesnière, L. 1969. ''Éleménts de syntaxe structurale''. 2nd edition. Paris: Klincksieck. {{Authority control Syntactic entities