The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. You can find the subject of a sentence if you can find the verb. Ask the question, "Who or what 'verbs' or 'verbed'?" and the answer to that question is the subject. For instance, in the sentence "The computers in the Learning Center must be replaced," the verb is "must be replaced." What must be replaced? The computers. So the subject is "computers." A simple subject is the subject of a sentence stripped of modifiers. The simple subject of the following sentence is issue:

Sometimes, though, a simple subject can be more than one word, even an entire clause. In the following sentence —

—the simple subject is not "computer repair," nor is it "what he had forgotten," nor is it "he." Ask what it is that "could fill whole volumes." Your answer should be that the entire underlined clause is the simple subject.

In English, the subject of a command, order, or suggestion — you, the person being directed — is usually left out of the sentence and is said to be the understood subject:

For purposes of sentence analysis, the do-er or the initiator of action in a sentence is referred to as the agent of the sentence. In an active sentence, the subject is the agent:

In a passive sentence, the agent is not the subject. In fact, sometimes a passive sentence will not contain an agent.

Subject-Verb Inversion

The normal English order of subject-verb-completer is disturbed only occasionally but under several circumstances. Burchfield* lists about ten situations in which the subject will come after the verb. The most important of these are as follows (subjects in blue):

  1. In questions (routinely): "Have you eaten breakfast yet?" "Are you ready?"
  2. In expletive constructions: "There were four basic causes of the Civil War." "Here is the book."
  3. In attributing speech (occasionally, but optionally): "'Help me!' cried Farmer Brown."
  4. To give prominence or focus to a particular word or phrase by putting the predicate in the initial position: "Even more important is the chapter dealing with ordnance."
  5. When a sentence begins with an adverb or an adverbial phrase or clause: "Seldom has so much been owed by so many to so few."
  6. In negative constructions: "I don't believe a word she says, nor does my brother. Come to think of it, neither does her father."
  7. After so: "I believe her; so does my brother."
  8. For emphasis and literary effect: "Into the jaws of Death, / Into the mouth of Hell / Rode the six hundred."**

There are other uses of inversion, but most of those result in a strained or literary effect.

*The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press. Examples our own.

**from Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854).

For additional help in identifying and working with subjects, see Chapter 3 of Sentence Sense: A Writer's Guide.

QuizIdentifying Simple and Compound Subjects