Part 1: subject tests
What's the subject, grammatically speaking, of these sentences?
There is my biscuit!
My biscuit is there!
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.
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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.
Subjects can occur with co-ordinated Verb Phrases
- 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]