Subject of a Sentence

What Is the Subject of a Sentence?

homesitemapA-Z grammar termssubject of a sentence
The subject of a sentence is the person or thing doing the action or being described.
  • Lee ate the pie.
  • (Lee is the subject of the sentence. Lee is doing the action.)
  • Lee is angry.
  • (Lee is the subject of the sentence. Lee is being described.)
In these two sentences, the verbs are ate and is. Lee is the subject of these verbs. That's what makes Lee the subject of the sentences.

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Subjects
  • Types of Subject
  • (1) Simple Subject
  • (2) Complete Subject
  • (3) Compound Subject
  • How Subjects Are Used in Sentences
  • Why the Subject of a Sentence Is Important
  • Test Time!

Easy Examples of Subjects

Every sentence must have a verb, and every verb must have a subject. In the examples below, the verbs are shown in bold and the subjects are shaded.
  • The New York phone book contained 22 Hitlers before World War II.
  • The world's youngest pope was 11 years old.
  • All butterflies taste with their feet.
  • The King of Hearts is the only king without a moustache.
  • Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.
  • Digital currency will be the greatest social network of all. (Entrepreneur Tyler Winklevoss)
The subject of a sentence is a noun (or a pronoun) and all the modifiers that go with it. In the six examples above, the simple subjects are book, pope, butterflies, king, person, and currency. All the other words that have been shaded as part of the "complete subjects" are modifiers.

A sentence has one main subject, which is the subject of the main verb. However, a sentence can include other subjects that are the subjects of other verbs. Look at these examples:
  • Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system.
  • (Venus is the main subject. It is the subject of the main verb is.)
  • Venus is the only planet that rotates clockwise.
  • (Venus is still the main subject. It is still the subject of the main verb is, but the sentence contains another subject and another verb.)
  • It is the second brightest object in the night sky.
  • (Remember that subjects can be pronouns too.)
Read more about sentences that contain more than one subject and verb.

Types of Subject

There are three common terms related to subjects: simple subject, complete subject, and compound subject.

(1) Simple Subject

  • Pierre puts a lot of garlic in his food.
  • (Pierre is the subject. This is an example of a simple subject. A simple subject is just one word without any modifiers.)

(2) Complete Subject

  • That boy puts a lot of garlic in his food.
  • (That boy is an example of a complete subject. It is the simple subject (in this case, boy) plus all modifiers.)
Let's look at this example again:
  • The world's youngest pope was 11 years old.
  • (The world's youngest pope is the complete subject. Pope is the simple subject. The, world's and youngest are modifiers.)

(3) Compound Subject

  • Pierre and Claudette put a lot of garlic in their food.
  • (Pierre and Claudette is a compound subject. That just means it's made up of more than one element.)
  • That new boy from Paris and the tall girl with the long hair put a lot of garlic in their food.
  • (This is a compound subject. You can think of it as two complete subjects, each of which contains a simple subject, boy and girl.)
NB: A complete subject will be a noun phrase or a noun clause.

How Subjects Are Used in Sentences

subject of a sentence
Here are the four ways a subject appears in a sentence:

(1) The subject performs an action:

  • My dog bit the postman.

(2) The subject is described:

  • My dog is boisterous.
  • (When the subject is being described, the verb will be a linking verb.)

(3) The subject is identified:

  • My dog is the one in the middle.
  • (When the subject is being identified (which is just another way of being described), the verb will be a linking verb.)

(4) The subject has an action done to it:

  • My dog was taken to the vet.
  • (When the subject has an action done to it, the sentence is called a passive sentence.)
The subject of a sentence is one of the basic parts of a sentence. The other basic part is the predicate. The predicate tells us something about the subject (i.e., it tells us what action the subject is performing, or it describes the subject). Read more about predicates.

Why the Subject of a Sentence Is Important

There is an excellent reason to care about subjects: subject-verb agreement.

Subject-verb agreement means using the right version of the verb to agree with the subject. That's easier than it sounds. It just means saying "The dog is happy" and not "The dog are happy." (NB: Changing a verb to match its subject is called conjugating a verb or verb conjugation.)

Even though verb conjugation is a simple idea, writers often incorrectly give a singular subject a plural verb or a plural subject a singular verb. When this happens, we say there is no subject-verb agreement. A subject and its verb must agree.

Below are the 15 most common issues that cause writers issues with subject-verb agreement.

(Issue 1) Modifiers get between the simple subject and its verb and confuse writers.

Sentences can get complicated, but writers are pretty good at making the subject and the main verb agree.
  • Simon, who is the oldest of the four brothers and who, just as he did before last year's contest, has been suffering back spasms, is expected to take the first leg.
The biggest issue occurs with shorter constructions, typically in a format like a list of ideas or a range of factors.
  • A container of nuts and bolts were found in the cellar. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong. It should be was. The simple subject is container, which is singular.)
  • A range of factors have been considered. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong. It should be has. The simple subject is range, which is singular.)
This is covered in more detail on the entry for prepositional phrases.

(Issue 2) Terms like as well as do not form a compound subject.

Terms like as well as, along with, and together with do not compound the subject like and does.
  • Jack and his son are visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • (The word and creates a compound subject.)
  • Jack together with his son is visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • (The terms together with does not create a compound subject.)

(Issue 3) Or and nor do not conjoin.

Unlike and, the conjunctions or and nor do not conjoin.
  • Jack or his daughter is visiting tomorrow. correct tick
Compare that with these:
  • Jack and his daughter are visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • Neither Jack nor his daughter are visiting tomorrow. wrong cross
  • (This should be is because nor does not conjoin; i.e., or does not add to the number of the subject.)
There's a quirk though. Look at this example:
  • Neither Jack nor his daughters are visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • (This is correct because one of the nouns in the compound subject is plural.)
The example above sounds right because the noun nearest the verb (daughters) is plural. To some, it sounds awkward when the plural noun is the first one.
  • Neither his daughters nor Jack are visiting tomorrow. correct tick
  • (This is correct for the same reason; i.e., one of the nouns in the compound subject is plural.)
The words or and nor (called conjunctions) usually appear in the pairings either/or and neither/nor (called correlative conjunctions).

You should also be aware that there is a reasonably well-followed rule called the Proximity Rule, which offers different guidance. Under the Proximity Rule, the verb is determined by the nearest noun to the verb.
  • Neither cakes nor chocolate is going to give you the nutrients you need.
  • (This is correct under the Proximity Rule because chocolate (singular) is the nearest noun to the verb, but it is wrong under the standard ruling because cakes (plural) is part of the compound subject.)
So, should you follow the standard ruling or the Proximity Rule? For consistency, adopt the same convention as those around you. If you can't find any examples, pick one that doesn't grate on your ear and be consistent.

Here's a good tip: Reword your subject to adhere to both rules.
  • Neither chocolate nor cakes are going to give you the nutrients you need. correct tick
  • (Now both rules are satisfied.)

(Issue 4) Either and neither are singular.

When used by themselves (i.e., as pronouns), either and neither are singular. Writers are often tempted to treat them as plural because they seem to refer to two things.
  • Beef or lamb? Either is preferable to tofu. correct tick
  • Neither of the sisters is eligible to attend. correct tick
Read more about either and neither.

(Issue 5) Collective nouns can be singular or plural.

A collective noun is a word that represents a group (e.g., board, team, jury). A collective noun can be singular or plural depending on the sense of the sentence.
  • The jury is late returning to the courtroom. correct tick
  • (When a collective noun is considered as one unit, treat it as singular.)
  • The jury are all wearing different coloured shirts. correct tick
  • (When the focus is on the individuals in the group, treat your collective noun as plural.)
Often, it's difficult to make a decision on whether to opt for singular or plural. A good trick is to precede your collective noun with words like members of, which forces you to go plural.
  • The members of the jury are late returning to the courtroom. correct tick
Read more about treating collective nouns as singular or plural.

(Issue 6) Some words that look plural aren't, and some words that are plural in Latin aren't in English.

The words listed below often cause issues with subject-verb agreement:
WordSingular or Plural?
(even though it is the plural of agendum)
(Unlike data and agendum, criteria has retained its plural status because the singular criterion is still in common usage.)
dataSingular nowadays
(even though it is the plural of datum)
mediaSingular or Plural
(Treat media like a collective noun as opposed to the plural of medium.)
Plural only words like glasses, pliers, scissors, trousers, underpantsPlural but note that "a pair of [insert word]" is singular.
There is more on this topic in the entry for number.

(Issue 7) The expression more than one is singular.

Somewhat counterintuitively (given its meaning), more than one is singular.
  • More than one person was involved in this robbery. correct tick

(Issue 8) None can be singular or plural.

The indefinite pronoun none can be singular or plural. However, be aware that treating none as plural might irk some of your readers as many people believe none can only be singular.
  • None of the team is ready. correct tick
  • (This is the safest option, and, let's face it, it sounds more highbrow.)
  • None of the team are ready. correct tick
  • (If going singular with none sounds too highbrow for you, you are safe to go plural these days. Hey, live on the edge.)
Here's a tip: If your none translates best as "not one of," then treat it as singular. If it translates best as "not any of," then treat it as plural. If this doesn't work for your example, then try to treat it as singular. If treating it as singular grates on your ear too much, be brave and go for plural.

If you're facing the "his/their dilemma" (see also Issue 12), then treat none as plural.
  • None of the team has polished their boots.
  • None of the team have polished their boots. correct tick (This is far tidier.)

(Issue 9) Terms like half of, the majority of, and a percentage of can be singular or plural.

Expressions such as half of, a part of, a percentage of, a proportion of, and a majority of are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural.
  • The majority of my blood is Asian. correct tick (Golfer Tiger Woods)
  • Half of my employees are women. correct tick (Businesswoman Christie Hefner)
  • Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. correct tick (Actor Woody Allen)
  • If eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of all of your items, just carry those twenty percent. correct tick (US politician Henry Kissinger)

(Issue 10) Number of is plural...most of the time.

The term number of will nearly always be plural.
  • Lee, a number of cakes have been stolen from the buffet. correct tick
  • A good number of my friends are married, which seems very old-fashioned. correct tick (Actress Allison Williams)
Be aware though that number can be singular when referring to an arithmetical value.
  • The number of women was sixty-four. correct tick
  • The number of women were sixty-four. wrong cross

(Issue 11) Words like all and some can be singular or plural.

All, any, more, most, and some (types of indefinite pronoun) are singular when they refer to something singular but plural when they refer to something plural.
  • All of the bread has been stolen. correct tick
  • All of the biscuits have been stolen. correct tick
  • All of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare. correct tick (Actor Mike Myers)
  • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. correct tick (Singer Jim Morrison)

(Issue 12) There's no suitable possessive determiner to agree with words like someone, and anyone.

Anyone, each, everyone, no one, nobody, and someone are singular. (These words are types of indefinite pronoun.)
  • The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. correct tick (Author Robert Heinlein)
  • Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. correct tick (Film producer Elizabeth Warnock Fernea)
That all seems pretty straightforward. However, if you use a word like his and her (called possessive determiners) later in the same sentence, problems start to arise.
  • Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.
What if the person isn't male? Here are two good options:

(Option 1) Reword your sentence to make it all plural.
  • People who go to a psychiatrist should have their heads examined. correct tick
(Option 2) Use their instead of his.
  • Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have their head examined. correct tick
The English language doesn't have a gender-neutral singular pronoun for people. This flaw has compelled us to treat their as singular as well as plural. Read more about treating they and their as singular.

(Issue 13) The positive element governs the verb.

When a subject has a positive element and a negative element, make your verb agree with the positive one.
  • The CEO not the board members makes the final decision. correct tick
  • (The CEO is the positive element. The board members is the negative element.)
  • The prawns not the fish were responsible for the vomiting outbreak. correct tick
  • (The positive element is the prawns. The negative element is the fish.)

(Issue 14) Each is singular, but its modifiers often confuse writers.

The word each is often used in a prepositional phrase (e.g., each of the cars, each of the boxes). If this prepositional phrase is the subject, don't be fooled by the plural modifiers (cars and boxes). The word each is the subject, and the verb must be singular. For example:
  • Each of the guide dogs is assigned a trainer. correct tick

(Issue 15) The subject is plural, but the concept is singular.

It's not that common, but there are times when the subject and verb don't have to agree. Look at this example:
  • Alpacas in a field is a fairly common sight these days.
  • (This is correct even though alpacas (the simple subject) is clearly plural. Here, our subject is a concept, which is singular.)
  • Leaving a list of passwords, increasing your life insurance and writing a will, gives you peace of mind while you are on operations.
  • (Here, we have a compound subject that looks plural, but if you envisage this list of tasks as a singular concept (perhaps under an imaginary heading like "sorting your life out"), then it is possible to use a singular verb.)
    (You might also have noticed that the subject ends with a comma. This is not a popular practice (and it will definitely annoy some people), but a comma can be used to end a complex compound subject to group it neatly for your readers.)
Read more about using a comma to group an awkward subject.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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