Technical definitionThe subject (list of glossing abbreviations, glossing abbreviations: or ) is, according to a tradition that can be traced back to Aristotle (and that is associated with phrase structure grammars), one of the two main constituent (linguistics), constituents of a clause, the other constituent being the predicate (grammar), predicate, whereby the predicate says something about the subject. According to a tradition associated with predicate logic and dependency grammars, the subject is the most prominent overt argument (linguistics), argument of the predicate. By this position all languages with arguments have subjects, though there is no way to define this consistently for all languages. From a functional perspective, a subject is a phrase that conflates nominative case with the topic (grammar), topic. Many languages (such as those with Ergative–absolutive language, ergative or Austronesian alignment) do not do this, and by this definition would not have subjects. All of these positions see the subject in English determining person and number agreement (grammar), agreement on the finite verb, as exemplified by the difference in verb forms between ''he eats'' and ''they eat''. The stereotypical subject immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative sentences in English and represents an Agent (grammar), agent or a theme. The subject is often a multi-word Constituent (linguistics), constituent and should be distinguished from parts of speech, which, roughly, classify words within constituents.
Forms of the subjectThe subject is a constituent that can be realized in numerous forms in English and other languages, many of which are listed in the following table: ::
Criteria for identifying subjectsThere are several criteria for identifying subjects: ::1. Subject-verb agreement: The subject agrees with the finite verb in person and number, e.g. ''I am'' vs. ''*I is''. ::2. Position occupied: The subject typically immediately precedes the finite verb in declarative clauses in English, e.g. ''Tom laughs''. ::3. Semantic role: A typical subject in the active voice is an agent or theme, i.e. it performs the action expressed by the verb or when it is a theme, it receives a property assigned to it by the predicate. Of these three criteria, the first one (agreement) is the most reliable. The subject in English and many other languages agrees with the finite verb in person and number (and sometimes in gender as well). The second and third criterion are merely strong tendencies that can be flouted in certain constructions, e.g. ::a. Tom is studying chemistry. - The three criteria agree identifying ''Tom'' as the subject. ::b. Is Tom studying chemistry? - The 1st and the 3rd criteria identify ''Tom'' as the subject. ::c. Chemistry is being studied (by Tom). - The 1st and the 2nd criteria identify ''Chemistry'' as the subject. In the first sentence, all three criteria combine to identify ''Tom'' as the subject. In the second sentence, which involves the subject-auxiliary inversion of a yes/no-question, the subject immediately follows the finite verb (instead of immediately preceding it), which means the second criterion is flouted. And in the third sentence expressed in the passive voice, the 1st and the 2nd criterion combine to identify ''chemistry'' as the subject, whereas the third criterion suggests that ''by Tom'' should be the subject because ''Tom'' is an agent. ::4. Morphological case: In languages that have case systems, the subject is marked by a specific case, often the nominative. ::5. Omission: Many languages systematically omit a subject that is known in discourse. The fourth criterion is better applicable to languages other than English given that English largely lacks morphological case marking, the exception being the subject and object forms of pronouns, ''I/me'', ''he/him'', ''she/her, they/them''. Even there, there is can be a form-meaning mismatch where a pronoun other than the Nominative case, nominative functions as subject ([''Their passing the course''] ''was a relief''; ''We were talking about'' [''them passing the course''])''.'' The fifth criterion is helpful in languages that typically drop pronominal subjects, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, Greek, Japanese, and Mandarin. Though most of these languages are rich in verb forms for determining the person and number of the subject, Japanese and Mandarin have no such forms at all. This dropping pattern does not automatically make a language a pro-drop language. In other languages, like English and French, most clauses should have a subject, which should be either a noun (phrase), a pronoun, or a clause. This is also true when the clause has no element to be represented by it. This is why verbs like ''rain'' must have a subject such as ''it'', even if nothing is actually being represented by ''it''. In this case, ''it'' is an Syntactic expletive, expletive and a dummy pronoun. In imperative clauses, most languages elide the subject, even in English which typically requires a subject to be present, e.g. ::Give it to me. ::Dā mihi istud. (Latin) ::Me dá isso. (Brazilian Portuguese) ::Dá-me isso. (European Portuguese) ::Dámelo. (Spanish) ::Dammelo. (Italian)
Coordinated sentencesOne criterion for identifying a subject in various languages is the possibility of its omission in coordinated sentences such as the following: *The man hit the woman and [the man] came here. In a passive construction, the patient becomes the subject by this criterion: *The woman was hit by the man and [the woman] came here. In ergative languages such as the nearly extinct Australian language Dyirbal language, Dyirbal, in a transitive sentence it is the patient rather than the agent that can be omitted in such sentences: *''Balan dyugumbil baŋgul yaraŋgu balgan, baninyu'' 'The man (''bayi yara'') hit the woman (''balan dyugumbil'') and [she] came here' This suggests that in ergative languages of this kind the patient is actually the subject in a transitive sentence.
Difficult casesThere are certain constructions that challenge the criteria just introduced for identifying subjects. The following subsections briefly illustrate three such cases in English: 1) existential ''there''-constructions, 2) inverse copular constructions, and 3) subject-verb inversion, locative inversion constructions.
Existential ''there''-constructionsExistential ''there''-constructions allow for varying interpretations about what should count as the subject, e.g. ::a. There's problems. ::b. There are problems. In sentence a, the first criterion (agreement) and the second criterion (position occupied) suggest that ''there'' is the subject, whereas the third criterion (semantic role) suggests rather that ''problems'' is the subject. In sentence b, in contrast, agreement and semantic role suggest that ''problems'' is the subject, whereas position occupied suggests that ''there'' is the subject. In such cases then, one can take the first criterion as the most telling; the subject should agree with the finite verb.
Inverse copular constructionsAnother difficult case for identifying the subject is the so-called ''inverse copular construction'', e.g. ::a. The boys are a chaotic force around here. ::b. A chaotic force around here is the boys. - Inverse copular construction The criteria combine to identify ''the boys'' as the subject in sentence a. But if that is the case, then one might argue that ''the boys'' is also the subject in the similar sentence b, even though two of the criteria (agreement and position occupied) suggest that ''a chaotic force around here'' is the subject. When confronted with such data, one has to make a decision that is less than fully arbitrary. If one assumes again that criterion one (agreement) is the most reliable, one can usually identify a subject.
Locative inversion constructionsYet another type of construction that challenges the subject concept is locative Subject-verb inversion, inversion, e.g. ::a. Spiders have been breeding under the bed. ::b. Under the bed have been breeding spiders. - Locative inversion ::c. *Where have been breeding spiders? - Failed attempt to question the location ::d. Where have spiders been breeding? - Successful attempt to question the location The criteria easily identify ''spiders'' as the subject in sentence a. In sentence b, however, the position occupied suggests that ''under the bed'' should be construed as the subject, whereas agreement and semantic role continue to identify ''spiders'' as the subject. This is so despite the fact that ''spiders'' in sentence b appears after the string of verbs in the canonical position of an object. The fact that sentence c is bad but sentence d is good reveals that something unusual is indeed afoot, since the attempt to question the location fails if the subject does not immediately follow the finite verb. This further observation speaks against taking ''spiders'' as the subject in sentence b. But if ''spiders'' is not the subject, then the sentence must lack a subject entirely, which is not supposed to be possible in English.
Subject-less clausesThe existence of subject-less clauses can be construed as particularly problematic for theories of sentence structure that build on the binary subject-predicate division. A simple sentence is defined as the combination of a subject and a predicate, but if no subject is present, how can one have a sentence? Subject-less clauses are absent from English for the most part, but they are not unusual in related languages. In German, for instance, impersonal passive clauses can lack a recognizable subject, e.g. :: The word ''gestern'' 'yesterday' is generally construed as an adverb, which means it cannot be taken as the subject in this sentence. Certain verbs in German also require a dative or accusative object instead of a nominative subject, e.g. :: Since subjects are typically marked by the nominative case in German (the fourth criterion above), one can argue that this sentence lacks a subject, for the relevant verb argument appears in the dative case, not in the nominative. Impersonal sentences in Scottish Gaelic can occasionally have a very similar form to the first German example where an actor is omitted. In the following sentence the word ‘chaidh’ ("went") is an auxiliary carrying tense and is used in an impersonal or passive constructions. The word ‘falbh’ ("leaving") is a verbal noun. ::
Subjects in sentence structureThe subject receives a privileged status in theories of sentence structure. In those approaches that acknowledge the binary division of the clause into a subject and a predicate (as is the case in most phrase structure grammars), the subject is usually an immediate dependent of the root node, whereby its sister is the predicate. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the structure as a dependent of the/a verb, e.g. :: Subjects are indicated using blue, and objects using orange. The special status of the subject is visible insofar as the subject is higher in the tree each time than the object. In theories of syntax that reject the initial division (as is the case in most dependency grammars), the subject is nevertheless also granted a privileged status insofar as it is an immediate dependent of the finite verb. The following trees are those of a dependency grammar:Dependency trees similar to the ones produced here can be found in *Ágel et al. (2003/6). :: The subject is a dependent of the root node, the finite verb, in both trees. The object, in contrast, appears lower in the second tree, where it is a dependent of the non-finite verb. The subject remains a dependent finite verb when subject-auxiliary inversion occurs: :: The prominence of the subject is consistently reflected in its position in the tree as an immediate dependent of the root word, the finite verb.
See also* Complement (linguistics) * copula (linguistics), Copula * Grammatical case * Object (grammar) * Preparatory subject * Quirky subject * Sentence (linguistics) * Subjective (grammar)
References*Ágel, V., L. Eichinger, H.-W. Eroms, P. Hellwig, H. Heringer, and H. Lobin (eds.) 2003/6. ''Dependency and valency: An International Handbook of Contemporary Research''. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. *Barry, A. 1998. ''English Grammar: Language as Human Behavior''. Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice Hall. *Biber, D. et al. 1999. ''Longman Grammar of spoken and written English''. Essex, England: Pearson Education limited. *Collins ''Cobuild English Grammar'' 1995. London: HarperCollins Publishers. *Comrie, Bernard (1981, 2nd ed. 1989