Grammatical Functions: Subjects

Subjects of Sentences

 
This is the first part of a series of articles that will discuss different grammatical functions (a.k.a. grammatical roles) that words assume within sentences. A grammatical function is what it sounds like — a word’s grammatical function is the role (or purpose) that a word serves to give its sentence an understandable meaning.
 
The first grammatical function that will be discussed is the subject (which most people are aware of but might not fully understand). Future articles will discuss predicates (another well-known one) as well as objects (both direct and indirect), predicative complements, prepositional phrase complements, complement clauses, and adjuncts.

Okay, let’s begin.
 

What is meant by “subject?”

 
The most basic linguistic definition of a subject is that a subject is the element in a sentence which carries out an action that is denoted by a verb. For example, the pronoun Bradley is the subject of the sentence, “Bradley hit the ball clear out of the park,” as the action denoted by the verb hit is carried out by Bradley.

Of course, the verb doesn’t necessarily need to denote an action. For example, he is still the subject in the sentence, “He knew the answer,” even though he his not performing an action. The sentence’s verb (knew) is clearly referring to the pronoun, he, and so he is the sentence’s subject.

Sometimes, the subject of a sentence does not perform an action, but rather has an action done to it. This is the case in passive clauses, such as the following:

The ball was hit clear out of the park by Bradley.”

This sentence explains the same thing as the first example in this article. Just as in the first example, Bradley has hit the ball. However, in this sentence, Bradley is no longer the subject because of the way it is worded. The verb was is the main verb of this sentence, and it refers to the ball. We can be sure that Bradley is not the subject of this phrase because the sentence makes perfect sense without it:

“The ball was hit clear out of the park.”

 

Clauses as subjects

 
Finally, we must discuss the fact that entire clauses (as opposed to individual words) can be subjects. The underlined words in the following sentence are an example as a clause serving as a subject:

To eat a dozen lemons in one sitting is ridiculous.”

In this sentence, the verb is refers to the idea that is described by the string of underlined words. In other words, the speaker is not saying that any one word in the underlined clause is ridiculous (e.g., the speaker is not saying that lemons are ridiculous).

As we can see, it is sometimes easy to spot the subject of a sentence, and other times it is not so easy. By discussing the characteristics of subjects, I hope to make identifying them at least a little easier for you.
 

Characteristics of a subject

 
Subjects have more characteristics than outlined here, but these major ones are the most helpful in determining whether a given word (or clause) is the subject of a sentence:
 

1) Subjects are mandatory.

 
All sentences have subjects.1 This characteristic of subjects is what allowed us to eliminate the possibility that Bradley was the subject of, “The ball was hit out of the park by Bradley.” If a sentence is still grammatically correct when a word is removed, that word cannot be the subject.

Note that the opposite is not true. Just because a word cannot be removed from a sentence does not mean that it is the sentence’s subject. For example, the verb knew cannot be removed from the example used above — “He knew the answer” — but it is not the sentence’s subject.
 

2) Subjects are almost always nouns.

 
This characteristic of subjects clears up the point that was just made about the verb knew. Verbs are never subjects.

Besides nouns, subjects can also be clauses (as seen above). And, every once in a while, you will see a prepositional phrase or an adverb in the subject position of a sentence, such as in the following:

Prepositional phrase as subject: “In the third drawer is where I keep all my makeup.”

Adverb as subject: “Easy does it.”

 

3) Subjects manipulate verbs.

 
If you are unsure which of two nouns is the subject of a given sentence, the form of the verb can sometimes tell you which it is. To illustrate this, we will slightly manipulate the passive phrase which we have been working with:

“The balls were hit out of the park by Bradley.”

In this sentence, we can tell that the balls — not Bradley — is the subject because the main verb, is, is in its past-tense plural form (were). Since the verb is in its plural form, it indicates that the subject of the sentence is also in its plural form (which balls is, and Bradley is not).
 

4) Subjects are moved to the opposite side of the verb when a sentence is reworded as a question.

 
While it has already been made clear that Bradley is not the subject of the sentence, “The ball was hit clear out of the park by Bradley,” let’s discuss another reason why we know this. Observe this sentence when it is turned into a question:

“Was the ball hit clear out of the park by Bradley?”

Notice how the only words that were rearranged were the verb was and the noun phrase the ball. Because the ball was moved to make the sentence a question, it indicates that the ball is the subject of the original sentence.

This characteristic of subjects helps us to identify them in tricky situations, such as the example above which had the relatively long clause as its subject:

“To eat a dozen lemons in one sitting is ridiculous.”

Below, we see that the full clause, to eat a dozen lemons in one sitting, gets moved to the other side of the verb is when this sentence is made into a question:

“Is to eat a dozen lemons in one sitting ridiculous?”


Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.


1Imperative phrases (e.g., “Get out”) are exceptions. They do not contain a subject, but it is implied that the subject of such sentences is the addressee (i.e., the pronoun you). “Get out,” really means “You get out.”

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