Subject: ways of expressing the sentence


The given annual project is dedicated to the linguistic problem - ‘The Subject: Ways of Expressing It in the Sentence’.

The main goal of the work is to identify the main features of the subject in the sentence, basing on the theoretical and scientific works of Russian, English, American, Moldovan and Romanian authors, and examine the subject and its features in the works of American and English fiction.

The objectives of the thesis, in their turn, represent ascending steps to the main goal of the project:

1. to define the notion of the subject;

2. to present the classification of the subject according to the theoretical sources of the examined works of the linguists.

3. to present the ways the subject is expressed in the sentence.

4. to identify the subject features and the ways it is expressed in the works of the investigated American and English fiction.

5. to compare the means the subject is expressed in fiction in the works of such writers as: ‘The Book of Grotesque’ by Sherwood Anderson, ‘The Magic Barrel’ by Bernard Malamud, ‘The Last Leaf’, ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O. Henry, ‘The Man with the Scar’, ‘The Door of Opportunity’, ‘A Friend in Need’ by W.S. Maugham.

Actuality of the work maintains the basic functions of the subject in the sentence as one of the main constituents and its continual study due to this fact. That is a linguistic phenomenon having been introduced into education on different educative levels starting from the simplest definitions in primary school and reaching gradually deep theoretical interpretations of the subject in the institutions of higher education.

The annual project is based mainly on the scientific sources of English and Russian linguists, such as:

Quirk, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, J. Svartvik, Richard Gardiner, Timothy Cobb, Geoffrey Leech, as for the Russian grammarians: V. L. Kaushanskaya, I. P. Krylova, M. A. Ganshina, N.M. Vasilevskaya, Б. А. Ильин.

Besides, the works of the Romanian scholars – Andrey Bahtaş and Leon Levitchi, and others.

Thus, Chapter One of the present project embodies three points:

1. The definitions of the subject;

2. Classification of the subject (from structural and functional points of view);

3. Ways of expressing the subject;

In English grammar the subject (along with the predicate) is researched by a number of linguists and philologists. It is defined in different interpretations, but still the entire variants base on one common backbone of the notion:

The subject (abbreviated sub. or su.) is one of the two main constituents of a clause or a simple sentence, according to a tradition that can be tracked back to Aristotle. It is the main part of a two-member sentence which is grammatically independent of the other parts of the sentence and on which the predicate is grammatically dependent.

The subject is sometimes said to be the relatively familiar element, to which the predicate is added as something new, ‘The utterer throws into his subject all that he knows the receiver is already willing to grant him, and to this he adds in the predicate what constitutes the new information to be conveyed by the sentence…’ (4, 154)

Besides, the following features of the subject are maintained in most definitions of the studied linguists:

a) the subject is normally a noun or a clause with nominal function;

b) the subject occurs before the verb phrase in declarative clauses, and immediately after the operator in questions;

c) the subject has number and person concord, where applicable, with the verb phrase.

The classifications of the subject are presented according to the role and structure of the subject in the sentence.

Ways of expressing the subject vary in conformity with the parts of speech and constructions it is presented by.

Chapter Two is the practical part of the given work on the basis of the studied fiction, such as:

1. American fiction: ‘The Book of Grotesque’ by Sherwood Anderson, ‘The Magic Barrel’ by Bernard Malamud;

‘The Gift of the Magi’, ‘The Last Leaf’ by O. Henry;

2. English fiction: ‘The Man with the Scar’, ‘The Door of Opportunity’, ‘A Friend in Need’ by W.S. Maugham.

The practical part is aimed at investigation of the subject features in the works of American and English fiction and fulfillment of the comparative analysis in the given works of two different cultures – American and English.

The results of the executed practical work demonstrating common and contrasting ways of expressing the subject in British and American fiction are evidenced in conclusion of the project.

subject sentence

1.Chapter One. The Subject: Ways of Expressing It in the Sentence

1.1 Definitions of the Subject

The notion of the Subject in the grammatical theory of the English language can be presented very briefly and clearly: it is the main part of a two-member sentence which is grammatically independent of the other parts of the sentence and on which the predicate is grammatically dependent. (8, 67)

The reason for calling the subject and the predicate the main parts of the sentence and distinguishing them from all the other parts which are treated as secondary, is roughly this. The subject and the predicate between them constitute the backbone of the sentence: without them the sentence would not exist at all, whereas all the other parts may or may not be there, and if they are there, they serve to define or modify either the subject, or the predicate, or each other. (10, 205)

A linguistic experiment to prove the correctness of this view would be to take a sentence containing the subject, a predicate, and a number of secondary parts, and to show that any of the secondary parts might be removed without the sentence being destroyed, whereas if either the subject or the predicate were removed there would be no sentence left: its ‘backbone’ would be broken. This experiment would probably succeed and prove the point in a vast majority of cases.

The question now arises: what criteria do we practically apply when we say that a word (or, sometimes, a phrase) is the subject of a sentence? (10, 206)

The grammatical phenomenon of the subject in English has been examined by a number of linguists, philologists and grammatical experts both of English and foreign origin in different epochs. This notion is defined in various interpretations; still the common backbone is identified in all of them. Let’s retrace this ‘common thread’, kept in all the definitions of the subject.

Sidney Greenbaum in ‘The Oxford English Grammar’ notes that the subject of a sentence is the constituent that normally comes before the verb in a declarative sentence and changes position with the operator in an interrogative sentence. It is applicable, the verb agrees in number and person with the subject (I am ready): the subject ‘I’ is first person singular and so is ‘am’ (2,305)

Paul Roberts in ‘Understanding Grammar’ presents the subject as the element stressed or the new element added to the discourse end in complexities that are interesting philosophically but useless grammatically. The beginner’s device to find the subject is first to find the verb and then ask ‘who?’ or ‘what’ before it. When the subject is very specific (e.g. a proper name), we may even invert the normal word order without befuddling out listeners. (6, 405)

Some brief definitions of the subject are presented by Richard Gardiner and Timothy Cobb in ‘Today’s English Grammar’ from one side, and by Geoffrey Leech in ‘An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage’ from the other side.

In ‘Today’s English Grammar’ the authors state that the word indicating the person or thing referred to is called the subject of the sentence. (1, 202)

Geoffrey Leech, in his turn, notes that the subject is a grammatical term for the past of a clause or sentence which generally goes before the verb phrase (in statements). (5, 413)

Russian philologists, such as Kaushanskaya in «Грамматика английского языка», say that the subject is the principal part of a two-member sentence which is grammatically independent of the other parts of the sentence and on which the second principal part (the predicate) is grammatically dependent, i.e. in most cases it agrees with the subject in number and person. The subject can denote a living being, a lifeless thing or an idea. (13, 115)

According to I. P. Krylova in ‘A Grammar of Present Day’ the subject is a word or a group of words which names the person, object or phenomenon the sentence informs us about. (14,85)

Thus, we can identify the following common points:

a) the subject is normally a noun phrase or a clause with nominal function;

b) the subject occurs before the verb phrase in declarative clauses, and immediately after the operator in questions;

c) the subject has number and person concord, where applicable, with the verb phrase. (3, 158)

Б. А. Ильин in «Строй современного английского языка» examines the question first of all by formulating the structure of the definition itself. It is bound to contain the following items: (1) the meaning of the subject, that is its relation to the thought expressed in the sentence, (2) its syntactical relations in the sentence, (3) its morphological realization: here a list of morphological ways of realizing the subject must be given, but it need not be exhaustive, as it is our purpose merely to establish the essential characteristics of every part of the sentence.

The definition of the subject would, then, be something like this. The subject is one of the two main parts of the sentence. (1) It denotes the thing whose action or characteristic is expressed by the predicate. (2) It is not dependent on any other part of the sentence. (3) It may be expressed by different parts of speech, the most frequent ones being: a noun in the common case, a personal pronoun in the nominative case, a demonstrative pronoun occasionally, a substantivized adjective or past participle, a numeral, an infinitive, and a gerund. It may also be expressed by a phrase. (10, 207)

1.2 Classification of the subject

There aresome classifications given by different authors. For example, from the structural point of view and functional point of view

1.2.1 Classification of the subject from the structural point of view

From the point of view of the structure, the subject can be:

1. Simple, expressed by a word or a number of words in the nominal case, the combination of which represents one doer of the action.

No glass renders a man’s form or likeness so true as his speech. (Ben Johnson, Timber)

The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application. (William Hazlitt, On Familiar Style)

All things are admired either because they are new or because they are great. (Francis Bacon)

Even in his novels Hardy’s pessimism is always a fighting pessimism. (T.A. Jackson, Thomas Hardy)

What do you think the weather will be tomorrow?

2. Compound, expressed by two or more nouns that represent one and the same notion (or one and the same person)

The great poet, essayist and philosopher died in 1882. (Emerson)

3. Coordinated or Homogeneous, that unites two or more different objects with the conjunction.

Tom and Maggie are the principal characters in ‘The Mill of the Floss’. (G. Eliot’s novel)

4. Complex, expressed by a special construction, first of all, by a noun in the nominal case with an infinitive or with a participle:

He had been reported to move house.

The rain could be heard rapping against the windows.

5. Double that is characteristic of the English folklore.

 ‘Some suits, some suits,’ the sheriff he said, ‘Some suits I’ll give to thee.’ (Robin Hood Rescuing the Widow’s Three Sons) (9, 186)

1.2.2 Classification of the Subject from functional point of view

The most typical semantic role of a subject is AGENTIVE; that is the animate being instigating or causing the happening denoted by the verb:

John opened the letter.

Apart from its agentive function, the subject frequently has an INSTRUMENTAL role; that is, it expresses the unwitting (generally inanimate) material cause of the event:

The avalanche destroyed several houses

With intransitive verbs, the subject also frequently has the AFFECTED role that is elsewhere typical of the object:

Jack fell down

The pencil was lying on the table

We may also extend this latter function to subjects of intensive verbs:

The pencil was on the table

It is now possible to see a regular relation, in terms of clause function, between adjectives or intransitive verbs and the corresponding transitive verbs expressing CAUSATIVE meaning:

S affected Sagent/instr.Oaffected

The door opened John/The key opened the door

The flowers have died The frost has killed the flowers

Saffected Sagent/instr Oaffected

The road became narrower They narrowed the road

I got angry His manner angered me

Sagentive Sagentive Oaffected

My dog was walking I was walking my dog (3,160)

The subject may also have a recipient role with verbs such as have, own, possess, benefit (from), as is indicated by the following relation:

Mr. Smith has bought/given/sold his son a radio → So now his son has/owns/possesses the radio

The perceptual verbs see and hear also require a ‘recipient’ subject, in contrast to look at and listen to, which are agentive. The other perceptual verbs taste, smell, and feel have both an agentive meaning corresponding to look at and a recipient meaning corresponding to see:

Foolishly, he tasted the soup

* Foolishly, he tasted the pepper in the soup

The adverb foolishly requires the agentive; hence, the second sentence, which can only be understood in a non-agentive manner, does not make sense.

Verbs indicating a mental state may also require a recipient subject:

I thought you were mistaken (cf It seemed to me…)

I liked the play (cf The play gave me pleasure)

Normally, recipient subjects go with stative verbs. Some of them (notably have and possess) have no passive form:

They have a beautiful house ↔ A beautiful house is had by them

The subject may have the function of designating place or time:

This path is swarming with ants (= Ants are swarming all over this path)

The bus holds forty people (=Forty people can sit in the bus)

Unlike swarm, the verbs in such sentences do not normally admit the progressive (* The bus is holding…) or the passive (* Forty people are held …).

Temporal subjects can usually be replaced by the empty it, the temporal expression becoming adjunct:

Tomorrow is my birthday (= It is my birthday tomorrow)

The winter of 1970 was exceptionally mild (= It was exceptionally mild in the winter of 1970)

Eventive subjects (with abstract noun heads designating arrangements and activities) differ from others in permitting intensive complementation with a time adverbial:

The concert is on Thursday (but * The concert hall is on Thursday)

Finally, a subject may lack semantic content altogether, and consist only of the meaningless ‘prop’ word it, used especially with climatic predications:

It’s raining/snowing, etc. It’s getting dark It’s noisy in here (3, 163)

Note: The ‘prop’ subject it as discussed here must be distinguished from the ‘anticipatory’ it of sentences like ‘It was nice seeing you’, where the ‘prop’ subject is a replacement for a postponed clausal subject (= Seeing you was nice).

1.3 Ways of Expressing Subject

As it is stated above, the Subject is the main part of a two-member sentence which is grammatically independent of the other parts of the sentence and on which the predicate is grammatically dependent. (7, 67)

The subject can be expressed by different parts of speech and by different constructions:

1. The noun in the common (or occasionally possessive) case;

The sulky waiter brought my tea. (Du Maurier)

Marcellus slowly turned his head. (Douglas) (13, 226)

The address must be written in the center of the envelope.

Jonathan Swift is the father of irony. (E.B. Browning, Aurora Leigh) (9, 185)

Occasionally a noun in the possessive case is used as the subject of the sentence.

Mrs. Gummidge’s was in a fretful disposition. (Dickens)

Oh, my dear Richard, Ada’s is a noble heart. (Dickens)

2. A pronoun (personal, demonstrative, defining, indefinite, negative, possessive, interrogative);

After about an hour I heard Montgomery shouting my name. That set me thinking of my plan of action. (Wells)

All were clad in the same soft, and yet strong silky material. (Wells)

All were happy.

Everyone was silent for a minute. (Wells)

Nothing was said on either side for a minute or two afterwards. (Dickens)

Theirs is not a very comfortable lodging … (Dickens)

Who tore this book? (Twain) (13, 226)

The pronouns ‘one, we, you are much used with the same general or indefinite force:

 ‘As long as one is young, one easily acquires new friends.’

 ‘We don’t like to be flatly contradicted.’

 ‘You don’t like to be snubbed.’ (12, 149)

3. A substantivized adjective or participle;

The Privileged have seen that charming and instructive sight. (Galsworthy)

The wounded were taken good care of.

4. A numeral (cardinal or ordinal);

Of course, the two were quite unable to do anything. (Wells)

The first and fourth stood beside him in the water. (Wells)

Two were indeed young, about eleven and ten. (Galsworthy)

The first was a tall lady with dark hair … (Bronte) (11, 335)

5. An infinitive, an infinitive phrase or construction;

To see is to believe.

To live uprightly, then, is sure the best. (John Dryden) (9, 185)

To prolong doubt was to prolong hope. (Bronte)

For him to come was impossible.

To be a rich man, Lieutenant, is not always roses and beauty. (Heym) (13, 226)

To walk is useful. Walking is useful. (17, 38)

6. A gerund, a gerundial phrase or construction;

Lying doesn’t go well with me.

Winning the war is what counts. (7, 67)

Walking is a healthy exercise.

Watching and ministering Kit was her best care. (Galsworthy) (11, 335)

Teaching others teaches yourself. (9, 185)

7. Any part of speech used as a quotation;

On is a preposition.

A is the first letter of the English alphabet.

And is a conjunction.

No is his usual reply to any request. (13, 227)

^ is the sign of perpendicular. (16, 50)

8. A group of words which is one part of the sentence, i.e. a syntactically indivisible group.

The needle and thread is lost. (here the subject represents one person).

Their friend and defender is darkly groping towards the solution. (7, 67)

Twice two is four.

How to do this is a difficult question. (11, 335)

9. It as the subject of the sentence.

In English the pronoun it is sometimes used as the subject of a sentence.


Types of subject itCharacteristicsExamples

it represents a living being or a thing and has the following characteristics:

P stands for a definite thing or some abstract idea – the personal it;

P points out a person or thing expressed by a predicative noun, or it refers to the thought contained in a preceding statement, thus having a demonstrative meaning – the demonstrative it;

The door opened. It was opened by a young girl of thirteen or fourteen. (Dickens)

If this is a liberty, it isn’t going to mean a thing. (Lindsay)

It is John.

It was a large room with a great window. (Dickens)

Dick came home late, it provoked his father. (Lindsay)


it doesn’t represent any person or thing. Here we must distinguish:

a) the impersonal it, which is used to denote:

* denotes natural phenomena (such as the state of the weather, etc.) or that which characterizes the environment. In such sentences the predicate is either a simple one, expressed by a verb denoting the state of the weather, or a compound nominal one, with an adjective as predicative.

* to denote time and distance

b) the introductory or anticipatory it introduces the real subject.

When the subject of a sentence is an infinitive, or a gerund or a whole clause, it is placed after the predicate and the sentence begins with the pronoun it which is called an anticipatory or introductory it.

c) the emphatic it is used for emphasis.

It is cold in winter.

It often rains in autumn.

It is stuffy in here.

It is delightfully quiet in the night.

It is five minutes past six.

How far is it from your office to the bank? (Galsworthy)

It is a long way to the station.

It is morning already.

It’s no use disguising facts.

It was curious to observe that child.

It was he who had brought back George to Amelia. (Thackeray)

It was Winifred who went up to him. (Galsworthy)