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What's the best way to find the subject in a sentence? How do you define a subject? I am especially curious about such cases, in which the subject seems to be represented by more than one word:

The majority of people didn't mind the new policy.

A great number of students went on strike yesterday.

Addition:

and such cases where the passive voice is used:

The man was bit by a dog.

Children were frightened by the wolf.

Also, please, consider such cases with ergative verbs:

I broke my chair.

The chair broke.

The chair was broken by me.

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Are you looking for how to find the simple subject or the complete subject? (the difference being whether you want the modifiers or not) –  Dusty Dec 8 '10 at 22:54
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@brilliant - you've actually just self-illustrated the difference between the simple subject and the complete one. What you're calling the subject is the 'simple subject'. That is the specific noun/pronoun. The 'complete subject' is just the simple subject with its modifiers. In your first example 'majority' is the simple subject, while 'the majority of people' is the complete subject. Based on your question though, you've answered mine, which is that you're looking for the simple subject. –  Dusty Dec 9 '10 at 15:00
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In general, it's the 'thing' (person, object, whatever) that is doing or being in the sentence. So, if you can find the verb, find who or what is 'verbing'. For instance 'ran' is the verb, so, 'who/what ran?' 'the young'. It can work for some passive voice sentences like 'He was trampled by a car'. So, 'trampled' is the verb, so 'Who/what tramped?' 'the car'. Note that some sentences use implied or missing subjects. These include imperative sentences which use the implied 'you' such as "Go home" and some passive voice sentences like 'Mistakes were made' 'Who/what made?' it's not said.. –  Dusty Dec 9 '10 at 15:43
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Eep. my apologies. I started thinking about agent, and not the subject. In the passive voice, the subject is the receiver of the action, so 'he' was the subject in 'he was trampled' –  Dusty Dec 9 '10 at 16:19
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@brilliant: I would hesitate to say that the order in the sentence will ALWAYS determine which is the subject, but it is the usual form. In the examples you listed 'majority' and 'number' are the simple subjects. –  Dusty Dec 11 '10 at 14:18
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4 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

This is actually a difficult question, and to some degree the answer depends on the theoretical framework you are using. As Dusty says, whether you consider the bare N or the whole NP (i.e. with or without complements and modifiers) as the subject is a matter of choice, and once you have passives then the syntactic subject may not be the semantic subject. In the 80's some grammarians decided that 'subject' wasn't a useful concept, and generalised it to the concept of a syntactic pivot.

The point of which is not (just ;-)) to air my knowledge, but to point out that finding a definition which will cope with every edge case is hard.

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+1 for that parenthetical "just". :-p –  Marthaª Dec 9 '10 at 16:46
    
Thank you Colin for this link and for your answer. Syntactic pivot is definitely something new to me, I've never heard about it, but it seems that the concept of syntactic pivot is exactly what I am trying to arrive at here. It looks to be like this concept embraces and reconciles all those contradictory cases like passive-voice constructions and others. –  brilliant Dec 10 '10 at 1:01
    
Collin, do you think we could define a subject as "either the performer of an action or its receiver, whichever comes first in a sentence or in a clause"? As far as I can see, both in active and passive voice constructions subject precedes the action: 'Ann broke the chair' ("Ann" is the subject), 'The chair was broken by Ann' ("The chair" is the subject). (I just asked Dusty the same question here) –  brilliant Dec 10 '10 at 4:59
    
Any definition depending on order certainly doesn't work in general. In "The person that I saw", whether you consider the whole sentence, or just the relative clause "that I saw", the subject "I" follows its object. –  Colin Fine Dec 10 '10 at 11:24
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I was wrong in saying "the whole sentence": it isn't a sentence, and if it is made into one, the whole thing I quoted will be the subject (back to your original question). But in the relative clause itself, "saw" is the verb, "I" is the subject and "that" is the only thing which can plausibly be called the object, and it precedes the subject. –  Colin Fine Dec 10 '10 at 15:47
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A simplistic explanation: the subject is the noun acting in a sentence, the predicate is the action/verb and the object being acted upon.

For example:

[Subject] [ Predicate ]

[Subject] [[Verb] [Object]]

[The majority of people] [[didn't mind] [the new policy]]

If you want to dig deeper, the rules of sentence construction are more complicated with many variations and caveats.

I like marenostrum's practical suggestion of asking a who or what question, but it can be misinterpreted:

What was was it that people didn't mind?

The new policy.

What did a great number of students do yesterday?

They went on strike.

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Please see Edit 1 in marenostrum's answer. –  marenostrum Dec 9 '10 at 14:11
    
@CJM: "the subject is the noun acting in a sentence, the predicate is the action/verb and the object being acted upon" - So, what about passive-voice cases: "The tree has been cut down by the woodcutter"? According to your definition "woodcutter" must be the subject because "woodcutter" is the acting noun in the sentence, and the "tree" then must be the object as it is the tree that is being acted upon. But shouldn't it actually be the other way around? –  brilliant Dec 9 '10 at 15:02
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@brilliant: You failed to quote the 'A simplistic explanation:' preface and the 'If you want to dig deeper, the rules of sentence construction are more complicated with many variations and caveats.' line that I followed with. I look forward for your complete and all-encompassing answer to the OP. –  CJM Dec 9 '10 at 15:37
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@CJM: Passive-voice usage, I think, is so ubiquitous that it should also somehow fit into the simplistic explanation. However, I admit that you had the full right to attach your own meaning to "simplistic explanation". By the way, I AM the OP :) –  brilliant Dec 9 '10 at 15:46
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@Brilliant: "I AM the OP" - in that case, I'll probably let you off. –  CJM Dec 9 '10 at 17:20
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A practical way might be asking the sentence the question who. or what. (See RegDwight's comment, and "Edit 1" below) The answer is the subject.

With your examples:

The majority of people didn't mind the new policy.

Who didn't mind the new policy?

the majority of people

A great number of students went on strike yesterday.

Who did go on strike yesterday?

a great number of students

Edit 1: I am omitting the question what. In fact I was not fine with it while writing it. I wrote it in case of the subject be neuter but that was a mistake. So we should ask who not taking into account the answer may be a "it". Such as: The clever white mouse ate the cheese. Who did eat the cheese? The clever white mouse. Obviosly, the question what leads us to the object if asked against the subject: What did the white clever mouse eat? The cheese.

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I'll play the devil's advocate and ask: 1) The majority of people didn't mind what? 2) A great number of students went on what yesterday? Or even, 3) What did a great number of students do yesterday? So the subject is: 1) the new policy, 2) strike, 3) went on strike. (^_^) –  RegDwigнt Dec 9 '10 at 11:03
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Playing "devils advocate" is the best and @ReDdwigth's objection is totally just. However, I believe that the technique is still valid. I should have expressed it in a more refined way. I'm going to edit my answer. –  marenostrum Dec 9 '10 at 12:34
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My previous objection wasn't really to the word "what" itself. Much rather, we need a way to distinguish the nominative what from a non-nominative what. Note that the same is true for who, what's with whom falling out of use. Observe: "I gonna call Ghostbusters." What is the subject in this sentence here? Let's see: "Who you gonna call?" — "Ghostbusters!" –  RegDwigнt Dec 9 '10 at 14:38
    
Thank you Marenostrum, but isn't it that relying exclusively on who-questions can also be somewhat misleading in some cases? For example, "John thinks he is The Man" - Who does he think he is? It seems to me that the answer to this question will be "The Man", but the subject is "John", not "The Man". –  brilliant Dec 9 '10 at 14:42
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@RegDwight and @brilliant : How about adding the rule "ask who against the predicate? Does it work and exclude the wrong answers? –  marenostrum Dec 9 '10 at 14:58
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In general, the subject is known as the doer or agent or be-er in an active sentence whereas it can be a recipient or the receiver of action in a passive sentence. Normally subjects come at the beginning of simple sentences or clauses. e.g.

  • The dog bit me. (active)
  • I was bit by the dog. (passive)

In the case above, the dog is the subject of first sentence (in active voice) and I is the subject of second sentence (in passive).

A simple sentence or a clause usually takes the form of subject + predicate. To be clear, the subject is the noun/pronoun/noun phrase that stands before the predicate. (Predicate is the phrase containing verb and object/complement which describes something about the subject.)

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"To be clear, the subject is the noun/pronoun/noun phrase that stands before the predicate" - I think you should read my polemic with Colin Fine in the comments right below his answer here. There I also asserted that a subject always stands before the predicate, and he "beat" me there with a simple example of a direct speech: '"I don't want to go there" - said Lily'. 'Lily' here is a subject that follows the predicate 'said'. –  brilliant Jun 24 '12 at 14:23
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