The subject in an English sentence

(The subject in English grammar)

Table of contents – subject

On this page you will find the following:

  1. The English subject
  2. Finding the subject
  3. Parts of the subject
  4. Position in the sentence
  5. Further explanations and exercises

What is the subject?

Basically, the subject carries out the action that the verb in the sentence indicates or expresses. Thus, it shows who or what is doing something. In English grammar, it is one of the most critical parts of a sentence (which means it is a constituent) and cannot be left out without making it ungrammatical. All types of sentences must contain one – except for imperatives. Note in detail:

  • Subjects are typically persons, animals, or things (concrete or abstract). They act in conjunction with the verb:
    • Andrew is cooking dinner.”
      • In this positive statement, the person Andrew becomes the subject and performs the activity represented by the verb ‘to cook’.
    • Friendship doesn’t need daily conversation.”
      • This negated sentence contains the abstract noun ‘friendship’, which can also be subject.
    • Have they invited you to the wedding?”
      • Interrogative clauses also have a subject, represented by ‘they’ here.
  • At times, we cannot really say that the subject is acting, that is, performing an action. Then, it simply ‘is’ something. In such a case, it often appears with the verb ‘to be’ or similar ones accordingly:
    • The twins are here.”
      • The subject ‘the twins’ does not act here but simply expresses the verb ‘to be’ (in this occurrence: being here) and the relation to the location (place).

Note: The subject must always agree with the verb in number and person. This obligation is called grammatical agreement.

How can you find the subject in a sentence?

It is possible to determine the subject of a sentence with the questions “Who …?” (for persons) and “What …?” (for things and matters). These questions always need to contain the verb belonging to the sentence. Each sentence has only one subject – there can never be more than one. Compare:

  • An example that shows how to find the subject in a short sentence:
    • The train is leaving.”
      • Question: What is leaving?”
      • Answer: “The train.”
      • Here, the subject is the thing ‘train’, which performs the activity ‘leaving’. Therefore, the question word ‘what’ is appropriate.
  • In longer sentences, the determination may be a little bit more challenging, but the checking questions fit here as well. The following example contains a subject, a verb, an object, and two adverbials:
    • “Tomorrow morning, all the students are taking the exam in the lecture hall.”
      • Question: Who is taking the exam?”
      • Answer: “All the students.”
      • This time, the compound phrase ‘all the students’ is the subject, which performs the action ‘taking the exam’. Consequently, the question needs to be constructed with ‘who’.

What can the subject consist of?

The subject often consists of only one word but can also consist of several or even a whole sentence. The possible length is not limited.

In detail, the following types of words or parts of speech can form/represent the subject of a sentence:

  • Nouns, possibly together with additional determiners or adjectives as a noun phrase:
    • Karl arrived late.”
      • Here, the subject is a person, more precisely a noun depicting a name (Karl).
    • The house has been renovated recently.”
      • In this sentence, the noun ‘house’ is combined with its determinerthe’ to form a multi-word subject.
  • Pronouns, especially personal pronouns:
  • Nominalised words, such as verbs appearing in the ing-form as a gerund, or the to-infinitive can be the subject of the sentence:
    • “Nowadays, blogging is a widespread hobby.”
    • To visit Chile has been our plan for a while.”
  • Question words, such as ‘who, what’, and ‘how many’, can also assume the role of the subject:
    • Who baked the cake?”
      • This interrogative clause is a typical subject question.
    • How many came to the party?”
      • The question word ‘how’ is combined with ‘many’ for countable nouns here.
  • Similarly, whole sentences may take over the function of the subject. Then, they are subordinate clauses:
    • What we want to know is your motivation for the job.”
      • This dependent clause contains ‘we’ as its subject.

Where does the subject appear in an English sentence?

In English sentences, the subject usually comes before the verb (which is the full verb), just as a rule for the word order SVO in English syntax says. In very many cases, this is also the beginning of the sentence although adverbials (time, place, manner, etc.), however, may additionally appear in front of it. Compare the examples in the table:

Subject … Adverbial Subject Verbs Object Adverbial
… at the beginning of the sentence The apples have fallen from the tree.
… after an adverbial of time Yesterday my friend phoned me.
… after an adverbial of place At home my girlfriend is waiting.

Careful: Foreign language learners must not confuse the position of the subject or the entire word order with that in other languages. There, it may appear elsewhere in the sentence.

Further explanations related to the ‘Subject in an English sentence’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘The subject in English grammar’ and may be interesting as well:

  • Subject–auxiliary inversion in English
  • The agent in English grammar
  • Dummy subject
  • Exercise 1: subject