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I wish to find the subject in the sentence below, but am unable.

It was his goal to become a great writer.

Also, do provide me with reasons.

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  • Maybe this question is better suited on ELL (ell.stackexchange.com) May 18, 2017 at 7:37
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    @BhoomikaArora I don't believe so. This is a straightforward syntax question, and as such belongs right here where it is :) May 18, 2017 at 7:40

1 Answer 1

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It was his goal to become a great writer.

The Extraposed Subject of this sentence is to become a great writer. We can think of this as a more natural version of the following sentence:

  • [To become a great writer] was his goal.

We don't like sentences like that one because we tend to avoid using infinitival clauses as Subjects. We prefer to stick the meaningless dummy pronoun it in the Subject position and move the infinitival clause to the end of the sentence.

However, notice that an Extraposed Subject is not a Subject. The Subject of the Original Poster's sentence is the word it. Being a Subject is about having a special architectural role in the sentence. It's not about meaning, for example—even though the meaning of a sentence can give us clues about its architecture. There are many ways to show that the word it is the Subject here.

1. Position

The first clue that it is the Subject is that this word is occupying the position before the verb, and there are no other words or phrases there. English nouns (as opposed to pronouns) do not have nominative or accusative case and so the order of the nouns and noun phrases matters in English. Even though the following sentences contain exactly the same words they are different, and mean different things:

  • The dog chased the man.
  • The man chased the dog.

We understand the dog is the Subject in the first sentence because it occurs before the verb chased. The same goes for the man in the second.

2. The closed question test

When we make a yes/no question in English using an interrogative clause the Subject and auxiliary verb swap places (and if there isn't an auxiliary in the normal declarative sentence we need to use the dummy auxiliary DO). If we turn the Original Poster's sentence into a closed question (a yes/no question) we will see that the word it and the auxiliary was change places:

  • Was it his goal to become a writer?

This shows that it is the Subject here.

3. The question tag test

When we use question tags in English, the pronoun in the tag must correspond with the Subject of the sentence in terms of number, gender and grammatical person:

  • Those elephants are grumpy, aren't they?

In the example above we see the plural third person pronoun they used to represent those elephants. If we change the subject to be a single female, for example, we will see a feminine singular pronoun:

  • Bertha is grumpy, isn't she?

If we have a pronoun as the Subject, we will always see that same pronoun in the question tag:

  • He's a clown, isn't he?
  • They're cute, aren't they?

If we stick a question tag onto the Original Poster's sentence, we will see the word it in the question tag, showing that it is the Subject:

  • It was his goal to become a great writer, wasn't it?

All of the evidence above shows it to be the Subject of the Original Poster's sentence.

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  • Any reason for the downvote? Can't improve my answers without one! May 19, 2017 at 13:18
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    Looks good to me, I've added a third upvote.
    – BoldBen
    May 19, 2017 at 13:23
  • This site is plagued by anonymous downvotes, with no explanation given and no explanation other than pure malice possible. But if you dare to say so ... english.meta.stackexchange.com/a/10241/194459 May 19, 2017 at 19:17
  • @michael.hor257k there are some users who downvote anything, regardless of quality because in their view off topic questions should not be answered. You'd be amazed at how many downvotes (veteran and esteemed) users cast in a single week. Sad.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 30, 2017 at 13:39

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