The Grammatical Subject

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

What is the 'subject' in grammar? How is it used in a sentence or question?

The subject is a key component of every English sentence structure. It is always (except in imperative structures) essential in English, but this is not the case in every language.

Finding the subject

In these examples, we will find the subject by asking the question 'Who does the action?'

John makes a cake.

Eliza studies history.

The subjects are 'John' and 'Eliza', who do the actions represented by the verbs 'makes' and 'studies'. In these cases, the subjects are easy to recognise as people doing an action.

However, subjects may also be things, places or ideas. They behave like a person or thing and can connect with any verb, even without concrete action.

Boxes have lids.

Australia is large.

Love doesn’t need money.

In these examples, the verbs are 'have', 'is', and 'doesn’t need'.

One word or more

Subjects can appear in many different forms, but it is important that they always appear before the verb in a sentence. The subjects we have seen above are only single words. However, it is possible to have subjects with more than one word. Finding the verbs can help us identify the subject, especially if it is made up of several words.

My dog likes his toy.

Several bad nightmares make it hard to sleep again.

Seventeen native species in this island were affected.

My cousin’s girlfriend’s youngest brother’s twin lives there.

The subject is always near the start of a sentence. However, it is not always the first word.

Now we can see it.

In Autumn, the leaves change colour.

Remember to ask the question, 'Who or what is doing the verb?'

Subjects in questions

We see that the subject comes before the verb in sentences.

We will now see that questions have a different structure.

Are you busy?

Does the bus stop here?

Why is grass green?

When do the seasons change?

In questions, there is always a subject, but it can be harder to find. Questions have a special structure that places the subject changes the word-order.

1. The subject may move after the verb.

Are you busy?

Why is grass green?

2. The subject may be sandwiched between two verb components called an auxiliary and the main verb.

Does the bus stop here?

When do the seasons change?

Several subjects in one sentence

Sentences or questions can be complex and have many parts joined together. It is possible for one sentence or question to have several verb structures and their connected subjects.

This company is very successful, and we want to keep working here.

Does Janice like sweet food, or do you think she prefers savoury meals?

Subjects in English and in other languages

Remember that subjects are always needed in English (except with imperative verbs). To understand this, we should know that English verbs generally don’t change much, so if the subject is not clearly expressed, then we could be very lost. Notice how the verb almost doesn’t change at all.

I go to school.

You go to school.

She goes to school.

We go to school.

They go to school.

For 'go' and many other verbs, the only form with any difference is he, she, and it, where we add '-s'/'-es'. If we didn’t say clearly who or what was doing the verb, it could be very hard to guess.

Not all languages are like this. In Spanish, for example, verbs change a lot.

I go = yo voy

You go = tú vas

The bike goes = La bici va

We go = nosotros vamos

My parents go = mi padres van

The verbs change every time, so we don’t need to read the word 'he', or 'you' to know who or what does the verb.

In Spanish, the subject can be left out if we can guess it from the verb. If the subject is a specific name of a person, place, thing, or idea like 'the bike', or 'my parents' then it needs to be made clear.

However, it is also possible to move the subject around in the sentence in Spanish. It doesn’t need to stay next to the verb as it does in English.

There is only one type of sentence that does not need a subject in English, and this is the imperative structure used for instructions: E.g. Eat your vegetables! Sit down!

To see how the subject works with other key parts of a sentence, I recommend you visit my blog post on the Parts of a Sentence.

Do you have a question about linguistics or the language industry? Ask Shana to learn more.

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