It is commonly asserted that the subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that does something or exists in a particular state of being. Therefore, in the sentence

"All but Jones are here"

the subject would seem to be "all," but in fact it is not true that "all" exist in the particular state of being "here," because Jones is absent.

Is it actually inaccurate to define the subject as something that performs a verb or exists in a particular state of being? Is it sufficient/better/more accurate to say simply that the subject is the noun or pronoun that dictates the inflection of the verb? Or is it the case that the actual subject is "all but Jones"?

  • 1
    Yes. 'All but Jones' is a subject clause.
    – WS2
    Jul 17, 2014 at 20:36

3 Answers 3


It is commonly asserted that the subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that does something or exists in a particular state of being.

First, this is not true. Oh, it's commonly asserted, certainly; but that's not what Subject means.

Therefore, in the sentence All but Jones are here ...

Sorry, there's simply no therefore about it.
You're working from a false premise, so you can prove any proposition you please.
Subject is a grammatical term, with a grammatical definition.
That means its definition cannot refer to what it means -- that's not grammar.
It has to refer to how it's used grammatically, which -- in English -- means syntactically.

There are a number of syntactic tests for Subject.
One of them is governing verb agreement, as you suggest.
Another is inverting with an auxiliary verb in questions:

  • The prisoner is still being held.
    Is the prisoner still being held?
  • What he told you yesterday is still being denied.
    Is what he told you yesterday still being denied?

Still another is B-Raising with Passive; this identifies the subject of an infinitive clause

  • They believe [the prisoner to be guilty]. ==>
    The prisoner is believed to be guilty.
  • They believe [there to be gasoline stored here].
    There is believed to be gasoline stored here

As can be seen, subjects can be much more than one word; as for meaning,
quite often the subject has no meaning, like Dummy There in the examples above, or
Dummy It in It's raining or It's a long way to Tipperary.

  • Thanks. Now explain to me how it is that my asking whether what is commonly asserted is actually true or not is "working from a false premise"?
    – user66965
    Jul 18, 2014 at 23:36
  • It's the "therefore" that makes it working from a false premise. See the last two lines of the truth table for material implication. First check the premise; then draw conclusions. Jul 19, 2014 at 0:18

Indeed the entire clause 'All but Jones' is the subject.

I think this contains a good explanation as to why.

(What he had already forgotten about computer repair could fill whole volumes.

—the simple subject is not "computer repair," nor is it "what he had forgotten," nor is it "he." Ask what it is that "could fill whole volumes."

Your answer should be that the entire underlined clause is the simple subject.)

Who is here? All but Jones.

  • Okay. So in this case, the pronoun and the prepositional phrase together define the subject. How about the sentence None of the students are here? In this case the prepositional phrase "of the students" can easily be eliminated without affecting the truth of the statement. In this sentence, is the subject "none" or "none of the students"? AND, if "none" by itself is the subject, is there a way to differentiate types of prepositions that cannot be divorced from a pronoun from those that can (i.e., are there labels to indicate this difference)?
    – user66965
    Jul 17, 2014 at 21:15
  • @surlawda I'm not sure how "of the students" could easily be removed without changing the meaning. "None are here" certainly tells me there are no students, but it also tells me that there's no anybody, "none of the students are here" refers specifically to how many of the students are here. Jul 17, 2014 at 21:33
  • It could easily be removed in answer to the question, "Are all of the students here?" "None are here." In answering the original question "Who is here?" I cannot remove the prepositional phrase—I must say "All but Jones are here"
    – user66965
    Jul 17, 2014 at 21:56
  • @surlawda If you can just make questions to fit your desired context, you could just as well remove “but Jones”—just ask, “How many who are not Jones are here?”. Such exercises have little relevance to narrowing down what actually defines the subject. Jul 17, 2014 at 22:03

Sometimes the subject can be even expressed by a verb:

To not approve means to disapprove

That is why it can be quite confusing to argue that a verb is a regular element of syntax structure, not predicate like in this Cambridge Dictionary article.

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