I thought the grammar terms such as 'subject' and 'object' were countable. But I notice that they can sometimes be used without any determiner.

For example, here's the first sentence of a linguistics paper (Prepositional phrases as subjects and objects):

The positions of subject and object in simple active sentences, and object of a preposition are normally filled by NP's but they can also be filled by PP's.

Does this mean that these terms can be uncountable nouns?

I have received these notable comments below:

It's the same as saying "The lion is (the) king of the jungle". A kind of generic use, I suppose. Notice the relational meaning conveyed by the of PP. Same with "Ed is (the) subject (of the clause)". – BillJ

@BillJ It think that both in your example, and in OP's, the word subject is a bare role NP. Same goes for King of the jungle. The preposition in the OP's role of subject seems to me to take a PC, not an Object (the 'role' and the title/moniker are the same thing). Note that we cannot freely use subject as an actual subject without a determiner. For example, "Subject is the phrase the man" won't work. What do you think? – Araucaria

It's not specific to these grammar terms. The position of Vice President is mostly ceremonial. – Barmar

The consensus of the comments seems to be that grammar terms are not peculiar in that they might belong to what @Araucaria calls "a bare role NP". I do see how the sentence "Subject is the phrase the man." doesn't work without any determiner for the word "Subject". But I also see that you can add either the definite or indefinite article in this modified example. (In order to simplify the issue, I have modified the original quote.):

a. The position of subject in a simple active sentence is normally filled by an NP but it can also be filled by a PP. [modified original]

b. The position of a subject in a simple active sentence is normally filled by an NP but it can also be filled by a PP.

c. The position of the subject in a simple active sentence is normally filled by an NP but it can also be filled by a PP.

Can the bare role NP normally be allowed to take the indefinite article as well as the definite article?

  • Water eroded the writing. That's an example of an active sentence that uses uncountable nouns as subject and object. If that doesn't work, you have to clarify the question. Oct 7, 2019 at 1:32
  • @JasonBassford I'm asking about the nouns 'subject' and 'object' that are used as grammar terms, if somehow that's not clear to you.
    – listeneva
    Oct 7, 2019 at 2:05
  • You mean the words literally? (Words as words?) Because that has nothing to do with what you quoted, where they are not being used literally. The words subject and object are both countable nouns. Oct 7, 2019 at 8:34
  • 1
    When functional terms are used in connection with grammar, it is normal to omit the determiner. Sometimes, though, a determiner is used, e.g. in "Ed ate all the pies", we say that "Ed" is (the) subject.
    – BillJ
    Oct 7, 2019 at 9:55
  • 1
    @JasonBassford Neither BillJ nor Araucaria seems to have any problem understanding what the question's asking, so I don't understand what your problem is.
    – listeneva
    Oct 8, 2019 at 4:29

1 Answer 1


Occasionally, articles are omitted altogether before certain nouns. In these cases, the article is implied but not actually present. This implied article is sometimes called a “zero article.” Often, the article is omitted before nouns that refer to abstract ideas. This is not to mean that those ideas are not countable. It would be prudent to consider the grammar terms like "subject/object etc" as common nouns, contextually specific or unspecific.. generalization is a broad statement or an idea that can be applied to a whole group of people or things. When we generalize, we omit articles. As

  • Man is mortal.

If you are squeamish, you would demand an article , here"a" before man. The result would be disastrous giving a wrong signal to the reader suggesting you have a certain man in mind, the referred one who is mortal. SUBJECT/OBJECT are naming of concepts of grammar and can be used without article(s) in such situations where generalisation is involved. Please remember that uncountable nouns are those nouns that are not generally counted.

  • I think A man is mortal means the same thing as Man is mortal. While you can use man (meaning "the human race") as subject, you cannot use subject as subject.
    – listeneva
    Oct 13, 2019 at 1:31
  • I am afraid the same logic holds good here as well: (a) subject is the doer of actions and object is the receiver of action.. Oct 13, 2019 at 3:24
  • I don't understand what you're saying. The reason man can be used without any determiner in your example is not because it works the same way as subject in my example but because it has a distinct use as an uncountable noun, which subject doesn't have. This distinct use of man as an uncountable noun isn't found in human, either. You cannot say Human is mortal., can you?
    – listeneva
    Oct 13, 2019 at 3:35
  • Grammatical terms are countable ideas and may have no article if they are used in general sense as is the common with countable nouns. Oct 13, 2019 at 4:52

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