Characteristics of the Subject


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The grammatical Subject has a number of characteristics which we will examine here.

1. Subject-Verb Inversion

In a declarative sentence, the Subject comes before the verb:

Declarative: David is unwell

When we change this into a yes/no interrogative, the Subject and the verb change places with each other:

If an auxiliary verb is present, however, the Subject changes places with the auxiliary:

Declarative: Jim has left already
Interrogative: Has Jim left already?

In this interrogative, the Subject still comes before the main verb, but after the auxiliary. This is true also of interrogatives with a do-auxiliary:

Declarative: Jim left early
Interrogative: Did Jim leave early?

Subject-verb inversion is probably the most reliable method of identifying the Subject of a sentence.

2. Position of the Subject

In a declarative sentence, the Subject is usually the first constituent:

Jim was in bed
Paul arrived too late for the party
The Mayor of New York attended the banquet
We made a donation to charity

However, there are exceptions to this. For instance:

Yesterday the theatre was closed

Here, the first constituent is the adverb phrase yesterday, but this is not the Subject of the sentence. Notice that the theatre, and not yesterday, inverts with the verb in the interrogative:

Declarative: Yesterday the theatre was closed
Yesterday was the theatre closed?

So the Subject here is the theatre, even though it is not the first constituent in the sentence.

3. Subject-verb Agreement

Subject-verb AGREEMENT or CONCORD relates to number agreement (singular or plural) between the Subject and the verb which follows it:

Singular Subject: The dog howls all night
Plural Subject: The dogs howl all night

There are two important limitations to Subject-verb agreement. Firstly, agreement only applies when the verb is in the present tense. In the past tense, there is no overt agreement between the Subject and the verb:

The dog howled all night
The dogs howled all night

And secondly, agreement applies only to third person Subjects. There is no distinction, for example, between a first person singular Subject and a first person plural Subject:

I howl all night
We howl all night

The concept of NOTIONAL AGREEMENT sometimes comes into play:

The government is considering the proposal
The government are considering the proposal

Here, the form of the verb is not determined by the form of the Subject. Instead, it is determined by how we interpret the Subject. In the government is..., the Subject is interpreted as a unit, requiring a singular form of the verb. In the government are..., the Subject is interpreted as having a plural meaning, since it relates to a collection of individual people. Accordingly, the verb has the plural form are.

4. Subjective Pronouns

The pronouns I, he/she/it, we, they, always function as Subjects, in contrast with me, him/her, us, them:

I left early
*Me left early

He left early
*Him left early

We left early
*Us left early

They left early
*Them left early

The pronoun you can also be a Subject:

You left early

but it does not always perform this function. In the following example, the Subject is Tom, not you:

Tom likes you


More on Form and Function...


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