What Is the Simple Subject? (with Examples)

Simple Subject

"Simple subject" is the term used for the single word that is the subject of a verb.

A simple subject will often have modifiers before or after it, but, once these are removed, the word left is the simple subject.

simple subject example

Examples of Simple Subjects

Here are some sentences with the simple subjects highlighted.
  • The hungry fox darted across the yard.
  • ("The" and "hungry" are modifiers for the simple subject "fox.")
  • The small carton of nails was found under the seat.
  • ("The," "small," and "of nails" are modifiers for the simple subject "carton.")
  • The Lord's extensive collection of coins is on display until June.
  • ("The," "Lord's," "extensive," and "of coins" are modifiers for the simple subject "collection.")

Why Should I Care about the Simple Subject?

Here are three good reasons to think more carefully of the simple subject.

(Reason 1) The simple subject nearly always determines the number of the verb.

The simple subject nearly always determines the number of the verb (i.e., whether it is singular or plural).
  • The small carton of nails was found under the seat.
  • (The simple subject "carton" means "was" (and not "were") is correct. Note: The word "nails" plays no role in determining the number of the verb.)
  • The Lord's extensive collection of coins is on display until June.
  • (The simple subject "collection" means "is" (and not "are") is correct. Note: The word "coins" plays no role in determining the number of the verb.)
Be aware that the modifiers around a singular simple subject can sometimes fool a writer into using a plural verb. For example:
  • A container of nuts and bolts were found in the attic.
  • (The verb should be "was" not "were." The simple subject is "container," which is singular.)
This is covered more in the lessons on prepositional phrases, subjects, and subject-verb agreement.

(Reason 2) The simple subject does not always determine the number of the verb.

A noun phrase is a phrase that plays the role of a noun. The head word in a noun phrase will be a noun or a pronoun. The head word is the simple subject. In the examples below, the noun phrases are shaded and the simple subjects are in bold.
  • The black cow in that field is standing by itself.
The overwhelming majority of the time, the simple subject will determine the number of the verb (i.e., whether it is singular or plural). However, this is not always the case. On rare occasions, the sense of a noun phrase can determine number. For example:
  • Boisterous chickens in a field is a rare sight nowadays.
  • (The subject is singular even though the simple subject is plural. This does not happen very often, but be aware it can.)

(Reason 3) Terms Like "half of" and "the majority of" can be singular or plural.


In expressions such as "a half of," "a part of," "a percentage of," "a proportion of," and "a majority of," the word before "of" is the simple subject. Even though these words look singular, they are only treated as singular when they refer to something singular. They are treated as plural when they refer to something plural. For example:
  • Half of the world knows not how the other half lives. (Poet George Herbert)
  • (Here, the simple subject is "half." It is singular (hence "knows") because "world" is singular.)
  • Worldwide, half of all brains are in women. (Astronomer Vera Rubin)
  • (Here, the simple subject is "half." It is plural (hence "are") because "brains" is singular.)
This point is the opposite of the point made in "Reason 1" above. With terms like "a half of," "a part of," etc., the modifier does affect the number of the verb.

Read more about subject-verb agreement.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited and printed to create exercise worksheets.

See Also

What are modifiers? What is number? What are noun phrases? What are prepositional phrases? Glossary of grammatical terms