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My English teacher and an overwhelming majority of my English class insists that in the following sentences the bolded words are subjects and the italicized words are objects.

I ate the cake.

The cake was eaten by me.

The first sentence is obviously correct, but I'm fairly certain that in the second sentence "cake" is the subject and "eaten by me" is the object.

The cake was eaten by me.

May I have some concrete evidence proving or disproving my point?

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closed as general reference by Roaring Fish, Andrew Leach, Daniel, Mitch, MετάEd Oct 10 '12 at 18:57

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Have you tried looking in a grammar book? – Roaring Fish Oct 8 '12 at 6:08
Both you and your English teacher are wrong. In the second sentence, the subject is "The cake" and there is no object. The verb is "was eaten" and "by me" is a prepositional phrase modifying the verb. – nohat Oct 8 '12 at 6:10
up vote 6 down vote accepted

In the first sentence, traditional grammar regards I as the subject and the cake as the object. In the second sentence, the cake is the subject and there is no object.

Functional grammar, however, takes a rather different view. It calls the subject and object Participants and the verb a Process. In the first sentence, I and the cake are Participants and ate is a Process. More specifically, I is the Actor, the cake is the Goal and ate is a Material Process. In the second sentence, me remains the Actor and the cake remains the Goal, even though their structural roles have changed.

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Isn't the idea that this semantic analysis runs alongside the syntactic analysis of subject/object? A functional analysis doesn't change the syntactic identification of subject/object as such, it just adds an extra layer of analysis. Or is there a specific model of functional grammar where this isn't the case? – Neil Coffey Oct 8 '12 at 8:06
That is correct. – Barrie England Oct 8 '12 at 8:45

Usually, the Subject is essentially regarded as being the element with which the verb agrees. In your passive example, "the cake" is the subject: change this to "the cakes" and you see that the verb changes from "was" to "were", whereas changing "me" to "us" or "them" makes no difference to the verb form.

There are a few exceptions and corner cases, notably a phenomenon whereby what you might regard as a 'structural' subject position actually gets filled with a "dummy" or "filler" subject (think about a sentences such as "There appeared before him a ghostly figure" or "Let there be light"). But by and large for your purposes here, you can regard the subject as the element that agrees with the verb.

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