Subject

Subject

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 chubby.
  • (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.

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 underlined.
  • 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 underlined 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, subjects can be pronouns too.)
The idea of multiple verbs in a sentence is covered in more detail in the entry on sentences and the entry on clauses.

More about Subjects

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

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.)

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.)

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.)
A complete subject will be a noun phrase or a noun clause, which have their own entries.

Even More about Subjects

Here are the main ways that a subject appears in a sentence: The subject performs an action:
  • My dog bit the postman.
The subject is described:
  • My dog is boisterous.
  • (When the subject is being described, the verb will be a linking verb. There is an entry on linking verbs.)
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.)
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. There is an entry on passive sentences.)

Why Should I Care about Subjects?

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. 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]
  • (This is wrong. It should be was. The simple subject is container, which is singular.)
  • A range of factors have been considered. [wrong]
  • (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.
  • (The word and creates a compound subject.)
  • Jack together with his son is visiting tomorrow.
  • (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.
  • Compare that with these:
    • Jack and his daughter are visiting tomorrow.
    • Neither Jack nor his daughter are visiting tomorrow. [wrong]
    • (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.
  • (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.
    • (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). There is a section on 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.
    • (Bosh! Both rules 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.
    • Neither of the sisters is eligible to attend.

    (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.
    • (When a collective noun is considered as one unit, treat it as singular.)
    • The jury are all wearing different coloured shirts.
    • (When the focus is on the individuals in the group, threat 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.
    There is more on this in the entry for collective nouns.

    (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?
    agendaSingular
    (even though it is the plural of agendum)
    criteriaPlural
    (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)
    measlesSingular
    mediaSingular or Plural
    (Treat media like a collective noun as opposed to the plural of medium.)
    newsSingular
    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.
    • More than one swallow does a good summer make, doesn't it?

    (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.
    • (This is the safest option, and, let's face it, it sounds more highbrow.)
    • None of the team are ready.
    • (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 Issue 10), then treat none as plural.
    • None of the team has polished their boots.
    • None of the team have polished their boots.
    • (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. (Golfer Tiger Woods)
    • Half of my employees are women. (Businesswoman Christie Hefner)
    • Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. (Actor Woody Allen)
    • If eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of all of your items, just carry those twenty percent. (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.
    • A good number of my friends are married, which seems very old-fashioned. (Actress Allison Williams)
    Be aware though that number can be singular when referring to an arithmetical value.
    • The number of women was sixty-four.
    • The number of women were sixty-four. [wrong]

    (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.
    • All of the biscuits have been stolen.
    • All of Scottish cuisine is based on a dare. (Actor Mike Myers)
    • Some of the worst mistakes of my life have been haircuts. (Singer Jim Morrison)

    (Issue 12) There's no suitable possessive adjective 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. (Author Robert Heinlein)
    • Nobody is ever met at the airport when beginning a new adventure. (Film producer Elizabeth Warnock Fernea)
    That all seems pretty straightforward. However, if you use a word like his and her (called possessive adjectives) 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's the quick answer:
    • Reword your sentence to make it all plural. (Acceptable version: People who go to a psychiatrist should have their heads examined.), or
    • Use their instead of his. (Acceptable version nowadays: Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have their head examined.)
    The English language doesn't have a gender-neutral singular pronoun for people. This flaw has compelled us to treat their as singular now as well as plural. (This is covered in more detail on the entry on possessive adjectives.)

    (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.
    • (The CEO is the positive element. The board members is the negative element.)
    • The prawns not the fish were responsible for the vomiting outbreak.
    • (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.

    (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.)

    Key Points

    As a native English speaker, you will be good at making your subject and verb agree. Be aware of the following traps though: Don't be distracted by plural modifiers. For example:
    • His collection of coins are valuable. [wrong]
    Terms like as well as and together with do not behave like and. For example:
    • Jack as well as Jill are happy. [wrong]
    Or and nor do not behave like and. For example:
    • Neither Jack nor Jill are outside. [wrong]
    • Neither Jack nor his daughters are outside.
    • (Remember, if one of the nouns is plural, go plural.)
    Either and neither are singular. For example:
    • Neither are an option. [wrong]
    Collective nouns can be singular or plural. For example:
    • My team is outside. My team are running off in different directions.
    Plural in Latin does not necessarily mean plural in English. For example:
    • This data is corrupted.
    • These data are corrupted. [wrong]
    • (Marking this as wrong is harsh. No, it isn't. I've changed my mind.)
    More than one is singular. For example:
    • More than one check is a re-check.
    None can be singular or plural. For example:
    • None of us is a volunteer.
    • None of the souffles are presentable.
    • With all, any, most and some and expressions like half of, the majority of, and a percentage of, the noun that follows determines the verb. For example:
      • Some of the cheese is missing.
      • Half of the cheeses are missing.
      • Number of is plural unless it refers to an arithmetical value. For example:
        • A number of pies are missing.
        • The number of missing pies is 4.
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