What's the subject, grammatically speaking, of these sentences?

  1. There is my biscuit!
  2. My biscuit is there!
  3. There is one biscuit left.

I don't really know how to analyze these. The following observations seem to be relevant, though:

  • The verb to be doesn't take an object.
  • In the first two sentences, there is a demonstrative pronoun. It is therefore potentially a subject, I think. I don't know what part of speech is taken by there in the third sentence.
  • In favour of reading my biscuit and one biscuit as the subjects is that if there were more than one biscuit then, in each case, the verb would become plural (There are my biscuits! etc.)
  • In favour of reading one biscuit as the subject of the third sentence is that if we recast it as (the slightly unidiomatic) There remains one biscuit, it seems that one biscuit would have to be the subject.

All of this leads me tentatively towards thinking that my biscuit and one biscuit are the subjects here, but I'm not totally confident about this.

One other possibility: since to be doesn't take an object, does that mean it can have two subjects? In I am he, presumably both I and he are subjects, if neither is an object?

  • in I am he, "I" is the subject, he is part of the predicate: "is he" – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 9 '14 at 14:43
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    Boy I wish you hadn't asked this question. It's corker. As it goes I'm half way through writing an answer for it kind of by accident. Hmm, uni work or interesting question? OK, here goes then... – Araucaria Oct 9 '14 at 15:12
  • @Araucaria I'm a computer programmer and mathematician! This isn't uni work at all, just an interesting question. – chiastic-security Oct 9 '14 at 15:19
  • @chiastic-security Do you mind if I do an answer for sentence 3 and then go back and edit in sentences 1 and 2, just in case this gets closed? – Araucaria Oct 9 '14 at 15:48
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    Although I admit, after reading the dupe more carefully perhaps I was too rash in my decision. It is asking a different question. I will retract my close vote. – Mari-Lou A Oct 10 '14 at 7:40

Sentence 3: Existential Subjects: Words, Phrases and Functions

[A Comparison of Sentences and analysis of Sentences 1 & 2 forthcoming]

There's one biscuit left.

So now the burning question is: What is the subject of this existential sentence? This isn't as easy as it looks. If we want to answer this question we need to really understand what a subject is. And if we want to understand what a subject is, we need to understand the difference between a function in a sentence, and a part of speech, for example a Noun, or type of phrase, for example a Noun Phrase. Being a Noun or Noun Phrase and being a Subject are completely different. A Noun can be a Subject but it can do many other jobs as well. For example, a Noun can also be an Object, a Modifier in another Noun Phrase, or the Complement of a Preposition:

  • I like monkeys. (Direct Object)
  • I'm a monkey fanatic. (Modifier in Noun Phrase)
  • I am scared of monkeys. (Complement of Preposition)

So Nouns seem to be a type of word. The different jobs that a word can do are called functions. The words Subject, Object, Modifier, Complement are all different jobs or functions. There are many other types of function.

Very often we see a group of words, not just one word, doing some particular function in a sentence:

The mice like cheese

Here, the Subject is two words: The mice. The most important word in that group is the Noun mice. We call the chunk of words the mice a Noun Phrase. We can have very long Noun Phrases:

I am a very keen monkey fanatic.

Here a very keen monkey fanatic has the job of Complement of the Verb BE.

This big Noun Phrase has some words in it that seem to work together. For example the word very seems to go together with the word keen. The answer to How keen is he? is Very keen!. In the chunk very keen, the Adjective keen seems to be the main word. This chunk is an Adjective Phrase. So, we have a big Noun Phrase functioning as Complement of BE, and inside the Complement we have an Adjective Phrase functioning as Modifier. So large phrases have smaller phrases inside them. Every phrase always has its own function.

Sometimes we might want to do a test, to see which chunks of words go together in one phrase. One well-known test is to use a substitute word to replace part of a sentence. Usually, if the substitute word replaces a group of words, then that whole group is one phrase and will have its own function. We can do this test with The mice like cheese. Let's use the word They:

They like cheese.

So the word they replaced the words The mice. This shows that the mice is one phrase - a Noun Phrase. It also indicates that The mice has one function - it's the Subject.

There is one very special function we haven't talked about. Us teachers and linguists are a bit naughty; we say things like Subject Verb Object, things like that. Of course Verb is a type of word, not a function! Verbs can have many functions, they can be Subjects, for instance:

To love is the most important thing.

But there is one function that can only be carried out by Verb Phrases (in English). No other words or types of phrase can do this job:

I smoke.

Here the job being done by the Verb (Phrase) smoke is the job of Predicate. In the same way that every sentence in English has a Verb, every English sentence has a Predicate. This is the job that the Verb Phrase does. What I want to show you now, is that the functions of Subject and Object are not equal. The Subject is a far more important and fundamental part of any sentence than the Object. Let's do a substitution test with the sentence:

The mice like cheese.

We know that we can substitute they for The mice. Let's use an auxiliary verb as another substitute word. We know that auxiliaries can 'stand in' for other words in sentences. The sentence is present simple so we need the auxiliary DO. Look what happens to the sentence:

They do.

We can see that both of the words like and cheese have been replaced. This shows that like cheese is one phrase. The head word is the Verb like, so like cheese is a Verb Phrase. The function or job of the Verb Phrase in the sentence is Predicate.

Inside the Verb Phrase (the Predicate) , there is a small Noun Phrase, cheese. The function of cheese inside this Verb Phrase is Complement of the verb. It is a special kind of complement: an Object. This test shows something very important about Subjects that makes them completely different from Objects and other complements. Subjects are outside the Predicate. We can say that they are external to the Verb Phrase. Other complements of the verb are internal complements. They live inside the Verb Phrase and inside the Predicate. If we replace the Verb Phrase, all the Complements of the verb are replaced too. In fact, everything outside of the Subject is part of the Predicate and will be replaced in a substitution test like this.

Hold on a minute! This sounds like the job of Subject is about how sentences are made, how we build them. What about meaning? Subjects must have a special meaning, mustn't they? Some people say that verbs tell us about actions. It is said that the person or people that do the actions are the Subjects. So in Bob punched Nelson, the Subject is Bob. In this sentence this is true, but in many sentences it isn't. In the sentence Bob is a monkey fanatic, Bob isn't doing anything. The sentence is just telling us about a quality or chracteristic of Bob. There's no action here. Let's do a substitution test for this sentence with the pronoun he and the auxiliary verb BE:

He is.

Here we can see that we have a subject and a predicate, even though there's no action and no person doing the action. Ok, so maybe that's not a good test because BE here is used with a stative meaning. How about a sentence like Bob was punched by Nelson. We can ask the question Who was punched by Nelson? The answer will be:

Bob was.

Here we see was being used for was punched by Nelson. Again the sentence has two parts, a Subject Bob and the Predicate was punched by Nelson. Now here Bob wasn't doing the punching, he received the punches. In a passive sentence like this the person doing the action appears in the Verb Phrase. So the semantic role of the Subject in the sentence, what that person does or doesn't do, is not significant in terms of it being the Subject. Notice again that the Subject is external - it's outside the Predicate. We do have names for the person who does something and the person it is done to and so forth. They are called thematic roles. In both sentences Bob was punched by Nelson and Nelson punched Bob, Nelson has the thematic role of agent. Bob has the thematic role of patient.

Subjects, it seems, are indeed about the structure of the sentence. They are about how we build sentences. They are not about meaning, in the sense that they are not about what the Subject is or isn't doing. We have other words to talk about such meaning. Subjects are about grammar, syntax, not meaning.

Let's review what we've looked at. We have talked about how parts of speech and functions are different. We showed that the basic parts of any English sentence are the Subject and the Predicate. Objects and any other complements of the verb are found inside the Predicate. Because the Predicate always has a Verb as it Head, we say that Subjects are external to the Verb Phrase. Objects and any other parts are internal.

Now let's look again at the first example sentence in this post:

There is one biscuit left.

We could ask the question Is there one biscuit left? The answer would be:

There is.

Here the auxiliary verb is is standing in for the whole Verb Phrase. The Predicate therefore is is one biscuit left. These are the words that have been 'replaced' by is. This shows that one biscuit left is internal to the Verb Phrase. It cannot be the Subject here. It must be a Complement of the verb BE. However, we do still see the word There. This shows that There is not part of the Predicate. It must, therefore, be the Subject! In fact in all sentences like this with expletive there as the first word, there is the subject.

For an introduction to constituency tests and all that jazz, I recommend English Syntax and Argumentation Bas Aarts 2008 3rd Edition.

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    Phew! Thanks! I can see why you needed to write it in stages! – chiastic-security Oct 9 '14 at 16:06
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    It's not plagiarism if you wrote it. – Kit Z. Fox Oct 9 '14 at 16:17
  • @KitFox I suppose it's not really, no! Just didn't want to hide the fact that I didn't write it for this post originally :) – Araucaria Oct 9 '14 at 16:19
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    (+1) - Both exhaustive & exhausting! – Gary's Student Oct 9 '14 at 19:09
  1. There is my biscuit.
  2. My biscuit is there.
  3. There is one biscuit left.

(1) and (2) are locatives, and there is a locative adverb indicating the location of the biscuit.
The structure is identical, but (1) is transformed from (2). Locative sentences can do that:

  • My sister is over there, by the weeping willow.
  • Over there, by the weeping willow, is my sister.

My sister is the subject in both cases (it's my biscuit in the OQ), and of course there is no object.
Locative sentences are intransitive. The locative phrase (there in the OQ) is the predicate.

(3), however, is a different kettle of fish. The there occurring in (3) is not a locative, but a dummy.
The dummy there is inserted by There-Insertion, a syntactic rule that transforms sentences like

  • One biscuit is left ~ A unicorn is in the garden ~ Someone is here to see you.

to synonymous sentences with dummy there

  • There's one biscuit left ~ There's a unicorn in the garden ~ There's someone here to see you.
    (One can say There is, but it's far commoner to start a There-Insertion sentence with There's
    -- even when the postposed subject is plural -- There's some people here to see you).

The question of what the subject is in a There-Insertion sentence is a vexing one.
If the sentences are synonymous they should have the same subject, and traditionally it's not there.
One can agree the verb with the postposed subject NP, producing plurals

  • There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays
    -- and every single one of them is right.
    (Kipling, "In the Neolithic Age")

However, there is considerable evidence that the there is considered to be the subject in some cases.
For instance, dummy there behaves as the subject with Subject-Raising, and can even be passivized:

  • They believe Mark to be the winner. ==> Mark is believed to be the winner.
  • They believe there to be no winner yet. ==> There is believed to be no winner yet.
  • For Mark to have won seems likely. ==> Mark seems likely to have won.
  • For there to be no winner yet seems likely. ==> There seems likely to be no winner yet.

The problem seems to be that the English concept Subject has a number of definitions and tests,
and they don't always give the same result, since the Subject-Raising and Subject-Verb Agreement
rules don't use the same definitions.

That means you can say that the Subject is my biscuit in one sense, and there in another sense.
This may not be what your teacher is looking for; but it's English.

  • 3
    Thank you! (But I can't comment on what my English teacher is looking for, since I haven't seen her for over 20 years. If I bump into her, I'll be sure to ask.) – chiastic-security Oct 9 '14 at 19:01

Part 1: subject tests

What's the subject, grammatically speaking, of these sentences?

  1. There is my biscuit!

  2. My biscuit is there!

  3. There is one biscuit left.

At first glance, sentences 1 and 2, seem to be about the LOCATION of the biscuit. Both sentences could be replies for example to the question: Where's my biscuit?

  • Where's my biscuit?
  • There's my biscuit! / My biscuit's there!

Let's call sentences 1 & 2 ‘locative’ sentences. Notice, though, that sentence 1 is ambiguous. There's another much less likely reading. Consider:

  • What can I give her to eat? I've got no cake, no sandwiches. There's my biscuit, I suppose. I could give her that.

Here There's my biscuit doesn't seem to include a 'pointy' kind of there. It seems more like sentence 3. It's saying something like A biscuit exists which I could give her. We'll assume, though, that sentence 1, like sentence 2 is meant to be a locative sentence. This is the natural reading, given the exclamation mark and some of the Original Poster's comments.

Sentence 3 doesn't seem to be about the location of a biscuit. It seem to be about the existence of a biscuit. We could give sentence 3 as a reply to in the following:

  • Have we eaten all the biscuits?
  • There's one biscuit left.

We'll call sentence 3 an ‘existential’ sentence. Now, that sentence 3 has a very different meaning to sentence 1 is highly intriguing, because they look as if they're put together in exactly the same way. Both sentences have the form: There + BE + Noun Phrase. Weird.

There could be two reasons for this. Firstly, it's possible that one of the items that occurs in both sentences is actually not really one item. It could for example be a homonym, in other words a completely different word with the same spelling and, potentially, the same sound. A second reason, could be that the real structure of the sentences is actually very different. In other words X might be a Subject in one sentence and an Object in the other. This is of course the issue at the heart of this investigation.

Locative sentences 1 & 2

We'll take sentence 2 first. It seems the most straightforward. We've said that perhaps there are homonyms hiding in these sentences. If there are, that's going to affect our understanding of what the Subject is. Typically, but not always, Subjects are nouns or Noun Phrases. Complements of the verb BE are usually either Noun Phrases, Adjective Phrases or Preposition Phrases. Adjuncts (sections of the sentence that aren't grammatically necessary that we tag on to give extra information) are usually Preposition Phrases or Adverb Phrases. So if one of the words is a noun in one sentence and an adverb in another, this will bear upon our investigation. We need to know what the parts of speech are in each sentence.

  • My biscuit is there!

Well, my biscuit seems to be a straightforward Noun Phrase consisting of a determiner, my, and a noun, biscuit. There must be a verb in the sentence and it looks like the only candidate is is. So far, so good. How about there? This is an important question. John Lawler in his post here has said it's an adverb. The Original Poster thinks it's a noun, in fact, a pronoun. Various dictionaries will give different answers - both noun and adverb. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says there's a preposition and so does the Oxford Modern English Grammar. And, indeed, there is actually a preposition.

Hold on! You can't take my word over a dictionary's, over John Lawler's or over the Original Poster's! This is a very important question for our investigation! It's also highly contentious. Let's look at some evidence.

Superficially, there doesn't look like a typical adverb. It has no -ly on the end of it. On the other hand, it does look quite like a pronoun. It has one syllable. It only has one part ( - looked in contrast is one syllable but has two parts look and ed). It cannot take 's' as a plural marker - there is no word theres in English. At the same time, prepositions share many of these characteristics too. They are typically monosyllabic and so forth too. So far, there looks more like a pronoun or preposition. How about the syntax?:

Typical adverbs can freely modify adjectives. Pronouns and prepositions usually can't:

  • beautifully melodious / extremely happy /very interesting
  • there melodious / there happy / there interesting (wrong)

Again, not good on the adverb front. Next, Preposition Phrases can post-modify nouns. Pronouns and Adverb Phrases can't.

  • 4 those men outside the building/that box in the cupboard.
  • 5 those men there / that box there
  • 6 those men them/that box it. (wrong)
  • 7 those men angrily/ that box wonderfully (wrong)

Here 4 and 5 are ok, suggesting that there patterns like a preposition. The adverb and pronoun examples don't fare well though. Note that you could see the phrases in 7 in a sentence, but only if the adverb is describing the verb, not the noun. That box wonderfully can't mean something like that wonderful box.

Next, the specialized adverbs right and straight, meaning something like directly, freely modify prepositions - but not pronouns or adverbs.

  • right inside / right round /straight past/ straight to.
  • right there / straight there
  • right beautifully / straight unusually (wrong)
  • right them / straight they (wrong)

Lastly, pronouns and Preposition Phrases freely function as complements of the verb BE. Adverbs don't:

  • It's me / The culprit is you.
  • It's outside / The culprit is in the dog basket.
  • It's locally / The culprit is wonderfully (wrong)

There are many other tests we can do, but they all show the same thing. There always passes tests for prepositions, sometimes passes tests for pronouns and almost never passes tests for adverbs. Given the result of our tests, let's assume that the grammars are right and the dictionaries wrong. There is a bona fide locative preposition. In this sentence it's a one-word Preposition Phrase.

So, if we have a Noun Phrase, a verb and a Preposition Phrase, a reasonable hypothesis would be that the Noun Phrase is the Subject, the verb is BE and the Preposition Phrase is functioning as the Complement of the verb. (Preposition Phrases don't easily occur as Subject). So now that we have a hypothesis, we're in a position to test if My biscuit is the Subject. There are a number of properties that Subjects have that we can test against. No single one of these tests should be taken as being entirely conclusive on its own. These particular tests have been adapted from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston & Pullum (2002).


  • My biscuit's there!

    (1) Subjects are usually Noun Phrases.

No problems here then. My biscuit is indeed a Noun Phrase.

  • (2) Subjects usually occur in the position before the verb.

Likewise, so far so good: My biscuit occurs before is.

  • (3) Where subjects take case, they are nominative, not accusative.

So basically we can have sentences like I know them where I is the subject. But Me know them won't work. In ‘Her, I love ’, her must be the Object and I the Subject because her is accusative and I is nominative.

This is a little tricky with our example. Biscuit is a common noun and therefore doesn't take case. The usual thing to do, would be to swap My biscuit with a pronoun and see which case the pronoun was. The problem here is that, being genderless, my biscuit is an 'it', not a 'he' or a 'she'. It is the same in the nominative and accusative. I like it and it likes me. Let's pretend that my biscuit is shaped like Rita Hayworth, and that I have in fact named it after her. I could then refer to it as either 'she' or 'her'. Now we can do a substitution:

  • She's there!

So this seems like good news. Our biscuit substitution seems to be nominative.

  • (4) Subjects usually determine the person and number of the verb. In other words verbs agree with their Subjects.

Here my biscuit is singular. It is also third person. As we would expect, the verb BE here is accordingly in the third person singular form: is. We could test if this is necessarily so, or incidentally so, by substituting is with a first person or a plural form. If the result is still good then this wouldn't validate test 4. If it's bad then it shows that my biscuit is actually fully determining the form of the verb:

  • My biscuit am there. (wrong!)
  • My biscuit are there. (wrong!)

Neither of those is good. This is what we want. We can also check, by making biscuit plural and seeing if the verb changes to agree with it:

  • My biscuits are there.

This result is good. So everything's on track.

  • (5) In yes/no questions, Subjects invert with auxiliary verbs - including the verb BE.

If we turn My biscuit is there into a question we get:

  • Is my biscuit there?

Here we can see that my biscuit has dutifully changed places with is.

  • (6) In an open question - one with a wh- question word - there will be subject auxiliary inversion if the question word is not the Subject. There will be no inversion if the question word is the subject.

Ok let's replace my biscuit with what

  • What is there?

Ok so the word order doesn't seem to have changed. Both is and there are in the same position. This seems to show that my biscuit is the Subject. Let's check this though. Maybe we would get the same result if we replaced there with where. This would undermine our result:

  • Where is my biscuit.

This time the word order changed dramatically. We can also see that we got Subject auxiliary inversion - my biscuit and is changed places. There can be ruled out for subjecthood here, it seems.

  • (7) In question tags, the grammatical number, person, gender and case of the Subject, is reflected in the pronoun that inverts with the auxiliary.

In addition to the above if we substitute the subject with a pronoun, the pronoun in the question tag and the pronoun in the main clause will be the same. Consider:

  • Bob likes elephants, doesn't he?

Here, he, like the Subject is singular, third person, masculine and, importantly, nominative - just like Bob. If we replace Bob with pronoun, we get the same pronoun in the sentence and the tag:

  • He likes elephants, doesn't he?

Similarly we find:

  • My biscuit's there, isn't it?
  • My biscuits are there, aren't they?
  • It's there isn't it?
  • They're there, aren't they.

Again, each pronoun in the question tag agrees in number, person, gender and case with my biscuit in the first example and my biscuits in the second. They're both third person, neuter, and nominative case. They, like biscuits, is of course plural. The substituted pronouns are, of course, the very same ones we find in the tags.

  • (8) Co-ordination. Subjects can occur with co-ordinated Verb Phrases

For example:

  • I [like elephants] and [have always liked elephants]
  • My biscuit [is there] and [looks like it's been nibbled].

No problems here then.

  • (9) Obligatoriness - Reductions of sentences.

Subjects, like verbs, are obligatory in sentences. (We'll disregard imperatives for the moment. These are said to have 'unexpressed' subjects.) If the Subject is removed, the sentence will be badly formed. Secondly, if we reduce the sentence down to its minimal form, the subject should still be represented. So for our sentence:

  • Is there! * (wrong)
  • My biscuit's there! It is!

The first sentence shows that if you take my biscuit away, the sentence is badly formed as we'd expect. The second sentence in the next example shows a minimal version of the sentence, it is. Here we see the verb, is, and the Subject it. It here obviously represents my biscuit, so again it would seem to confirm that my biscuit is probably the subject of sentence 2.

  • (10) Uniqueness. There is only ever one Subject in a sentence

This isn't really a test so much as an observation, but we can use it to rule out certain items as Subjects. Just to be clear, we can have a co-ordinated Subject, one with the word and or perhaps or. But this will be one big co-ordinated Subject. So in Bob and the elephant ate my donuts, the section Bob and the elephant functions as one Subject. What we can show with this with regard to sentence 2, is that because all the evidence shows my biscuit to be the Subject, there definitely cannot be!

In contrast to Subjects, sentences can have more than one Object, or more than one Complement of a verb:

  • I gave the elephant a book voucher.
  • The book voucher made her happy.

In the first example there are two Objects of the verb, the elephant and a book voucher. Make in the second sentence has one Complement which is an Object, her, and one Predicative Complement, happy.

To conclude this section of the post, My biscuit is definitely the subject of sentence 2.

[Part the second to follow shortly]

  • 3
    Did you mean to make this a separate answer altogether? Or did you perhaps hit the max limit when trying to fit it all into one answer? evil grin – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 10 '14 at 16:23
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    Haven’t read through them yet—will let you know if I see anything untowards when I do. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 10 '14 at 16:30
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    One huge one: you've misspelt "gaffe" :) – chiastic-security Oct 10 '14 at 19:43
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    There's more!? I thought @tchrist was thorough but you take the biscuit! :P – Mari-Lou A Oct 11 '14 at 8:28
  • 2
    No probs :) Just checking you hadn't forgotten. – chiastic-security Oct 15 '14 at 17:23

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