Figuring out what the subject of a sentence is can be surprisingly difficult. Take a complex sentence like the following:
Starting in 2011, the civil war in Syria has led to sustained conflict between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and various militia groups (including Isis).
How do you even begin to find the subject of the sentence? What if the sentence contains more than one clause? Why should I care about the subject of the sentence?
Let’s see if we can answer these questions and provide enough practice to let you find the subject with confidence.
(As for our difficult example, the subject is “the civil war,” and soon you will know exactly why).
Subject and Predicate
Every sentence consists of least a subject and a predicate. A complex sentence with multiple clauses may have more than one subject and predicate.
The subject is what the sentence is about; the predicate describes the subject:
As an aside, it’s a curious fact that back in the Middle Ages some scholars argued that the subject and predicate are analogous to feminine and masculine gender roles.[i] The predicate was said to be masculine because it contains the verb (the action) and because it modifies and fixes the meaning of the feminine subject. So there you go – even grammar has its battle of the sexes!
Defining the subject
In the previous section we gave a simple definition of the subject: it’s what the sentence is about. In practice, that definition is too vague.
A more precise definition is as follows: the subject is the part of the sentence that is doing the action of the main verb. The subject is usually a noun or pronoun, but it can also be a longer phrase.
Let’s look at an example:
The students represented Kiribati at the Model United Nations Conference in New York.
Step 1: Find the main verb: represented.
Step 2: Ask the right question: who or what is doing the action of the verb?
Step 3: Apply this question to the sentence: who or what represented Kiribati?
Step 4: Answer the question: The students.
The subject of the sentence is therefore the students.
If you follow this procedure rigorously you will be much more successful. There are just a few tricky cases (described below) where you need to know some extra rules.
Simple and Complete Subject
We can make a useful distinction between the simple and the complete subject. The complete subject is the subject and all its modifiers. The simple subject is the core idea without all the description:
Hans Zimmer’s dramatic sound track to the movie Inception remains one of my favourite compositions.
Complete subject: Hans Zimmer’s dramatic sound track to the movie Inception.
Simple subject: sound track.
If you’re having trouble seeing the difference, it may help to break down the subject further:
Being able to spot the simple subject will help you take apart sentences more easily.
Exercise: Simple and Complete Subjects
So far we’ve looked only at sentences that contain a single subject. Yet if the sentence has multiple clauses it will also have multiple subjects. That’s because every clause has its own subject (and verb).
Here’s an example of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and):
Reginald blew the whistle and the game was over.
In this case each independent clause could be its own sentence. But even dependent clauses contain a subject and a verb:
Though the woolly mammoth is extinct, it remains a beloved subject of cartoonists.
Dependent clause: Though the woolly mammoth is extinct.
Subjects: the woolly mammoth, it.
And if we want to get really fancy we can have numerous clauses (and subjects) in a single sentence:
When I was younger, my family doctor, who struggled with back pain herself, suggested that I make an appointment with a chiropractor.
Subjects: I (was), my family doctor (suggested), who (struggled), I (make).
For now we will ignore these more complex sentences, but when you’ve mastered subjects you can go on to study clauses in more detail.
If you want to be an expert at finding the subject then you may want to familiarize yourself with some instances where the subject is harder to spot.
Linking verbs are not traditional action verbs, and so it’s easy to overlook them when you’re trying to find the main verb.
The most common linking verb is to be in all its many forms (is, are, were, etc.). A linking verb is followed by a noun or an adjective that describes the subject:
Martha is sick.
Jason was goalie.
Linking verbs also follow more complex subjects:
The day before Christmas is my birthday too!
The global shift to renewable energy is inevitable.
In both examples the linking verb is is and the subject is highlighted.
When you’re looking for the main verb of the sentence, watch out for verbals (especially present participles and infinitives). They may look like action words, but they will never be the main verb unless they’re part of a verb phrase.
In fact, verbals are often part of the subject of the sentence:
Signing your child up for every last sport may be detrimental to your own health.
To think kind thoughts shouldn’t be so hard.
For the sake of clarity we’ve highlighted the complete subjects. The main verbs are may be and shouldn’t be.
Be careful with sentences that start with there is or there are. These are called expletives and they don’t contain the subject of the sentence:
There are three burgers left.
There is a strange man at the door.
To find the subject you should ask “who or what is/are there?” The answers are three burgers and a strange man.
When a sentence is a command (and imperative), the subject is implied:
Show me the money!
Question: who or what will show me (the money)?
The subject is therefore a person who may not be named in the sentence.
The passive voice
Don’t be fooled by the passive voice. Take the following sentence:
The accident was caused by the bus driver’s son.
If you ask “who or what was caused?” you will get the correct subject (the accident), even though in reality it was the son who caused the accident. In other words, if the verb is passive then the action happens to the subject.
In English, most sentences follow a particular order, with the subject coming before the main verb. Occasionally the order is reversed:
Among the ingredients is stardust.
In this case the subject is “stardust.”
[i] For more detail, see Alan of Lille’s De Planctu Naturae (The Plaint of Nature). For a scholarly treatment, check out Jan Ziolkowski’s Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Grammar to a Twelfth-Century Intellectual (1985).