The subject in a simple English sentence such as John runs, John is a teacher, or John was run over by 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 in the clause, that is to say with which the verb agrees. 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 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 there, also create difficulties for the definition of subject.
In languages such as Latin or German the subject of a verb has a form which is known as the nominative case: for example, the form 'he' 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 or pronoun when the verb is intransitive is different from when the verb is transitive. In these languages, which are known as ergative languages, the concept of subject may not apply at all.
Technical definitionThe subject is, according to a tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle, one of the two main constituents of a clause, the other constituent being the predicate, 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. From a functional perspective, a subject is a phrase that conflates nominative case with the topic. Many languages 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 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 or a theme. The subject is often a multi-word constituent and should be distinguished from parts of speech, which, roughly, classify words within constituents.
Forms of the subjectThe 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 subjectsThere are several criteria for identifying subjects:
Of these three criteria, the first one is the most reliable. The subject in English and many other languages agrees with the finite verb in person and number. The second and third criterion are merely strong tendencies that can be flouted in certain constructions, e.g.
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, 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, 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. In imperative clauses, most languages elide the subject, even in English which typically requires a subject to be present, e.g.
Coordinated sentencesOne 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 came here.
- The woman was hit by the man and came here.
- Balan dyugumbil baŋgul yaraŋgu balgan, baninyu 'The man hit the woman and came here'
Difficult casesThere 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 constructions, and 3) locative inversion constructions.
Existential ''there''-constructionsExistential there-constructions allow for varying interpretations about what should count as the subject, e.g.
In sentence a, the first criterion and the second criterion suggest that there is the subject, whereas the third criterion suggests rather that problems is the subject. In sentence b, 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 constructionsAnother difficult case for identifying the subject is the so-called inverse copular construction, e.g.
The criteria combine to identify the boys as the subject in sentence a. But if that is the case, then one might argue that the boys is also the subject in the similar sentence b, even though two of the criteria 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 is the most reliable, one can usually identify a subject.
Locative inversion constructionsYet another type of construction that challenges the subject concept is locative inversion, e.g.
The criteria easily identify spiders as the subject in sentence a. In sentence b, 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 b appears after the string of verbs in the canonical position of an object. The fact that sentence c is bad but sentence d 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 b. 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 clausesThe 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, one can argue that this sentence lacks a subject, for the relevant verb argument appears in the dative case, not in the nominative.
Subjects in sentence structureThe 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, 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, 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:
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.