The subject is not (always) the “doer” in a sentence

Here’s some advice on grammar that I’ve seen a lot, both online and in print: the notion that the subject is the person or thing that is the “doer” of the verb in a sentence. Turned around a bit, this advice is given as a way to find the subject in a sentence. Just figure out who or what is doing the action in the sentence et voila! You’ve found the subject.

But this is wrong. Let’s find out why.

The most recent place that I’ve seen this bad linguistics advice is on a site called Lemon Grad. On a post called “4 Essential Grammar Rules for Spoken English”, they write:

Subject in a sentence is the person or thing that performs the action of the verb. It may be noun, pronoun, or a combination of words.

This post actually starts out with good advice, then gets wild and wacky with it’s discussion of verb tenses (maybe I’ll write about that some day), before getting to the truly wrong statement above.

Let’s start with the easiest first. I suppose the Subject in a sentence can be a “combination of words”, so that part of the advice isn’t technically wrong. But that description covers literally everything in language. All of language is a combination of words. Not exactly the most discriminating way of analyzing language. Moving on.

The first sentence in Lemon Grad’s definition is the bad advice I’m talking about. In order to understand why, we need a quick description of what the term Subject describes. In grammar, the Subject is a matter of syntax. It’s a syntactic element of the clause, like a Direct Object or a Complement. (p.s. linguists usually use the term “clause” instead of “sentence” for a bunch of reasons which I’m not going to get into now. Sorry. Maybe another time.)

Ok, so since the Subject is a matter of syntax, we need to use syntactic analysis to figure out what it is. And “the person or thing that performs the action of the verb” is not a syntactic analysis. It’s a semantic one. Semantics is another way of analyzing language. Semantics can make use of syntax, but the field also has it’s own way of looking at language. For example, semantics would use the term “Actor” for the person or thing that performs the action of the verb.

Now, here’s the tricky thing: In English, the Subject and the Actor can one and the same in the sentence. That is, both the syntactic Subject and the semantic Agent can be fulfilled by the same combination of words in a sentence. For example, in the following sentence, Claude is both the Subject and the Actor:

Claude shot the puck into the net.

But importantly (!!!) the Subject and the Actor do not have to be the same combination of words in a sentence. In the following sentence, Claude is now the Actor, but the subject is now The puck.

The puck was shot into the net by Claude.

That’s the Subject? Oh yeah? Prove it, wiseguy.

I’m going to explain how we figure out what the Subject of a sentence is now. So if you already know how to do this, or if this is going to put you to sleep, maybe skip ahead to the next section. It’s super interesting though (and yes, I know my idea of “super interesting” is super relative, but whatevs).

The Subject is a primary element in an English clause. The English language really, really likes to have a Subject in its sentences – more so than other languages. English likes it so much that sometimes we have to put meaningless words in our sentences just so there’s a Subject (as the sentence It is raining – the word It is the Subject but it doesn’t actually mean anything. It just fills the Subject role.).

We can actually perform a series of tests to find the Subject of a sentence. In other words, we can ask a series of questions to figure out which combination of words is the Subject. These tests/questions are:

1. The Subject is picked up by the pronoun in a question tag. So add a question tag to the end of a clause and the pronoun you use will refer to the Subject. Check it:

Ya boy Carter is a good goalie, isn’t he?

The pronoun he in the question tag refers to the Subject Ya boy Carter.

2. The Subject comes before the main verb (the finite verb) in the declarative clause and in Wh-questions where the Wh-word is the Subject:

The Flyers made a trade.

Who is this Superman?

3. It comes after the finite verb yes/no questions and in Wh-questions where the Wh-word is the Subject. So turn your clause into a question and the combination of words that are moved after the finite verb is the Subject:

The fans were pleased with the result. –> Were the fans pleased with the result?

Travis saw The Room last night. –> What movie did Travis see last night?

There are a couple more tests (such as how the Subject is what determines number and person concord with the main verb in the clause), but those ones are going to get you pretty far. Much farther than the notion that the Subject is what the performer of the action in the sentence. Go check a good grammar book for the other ways to figure out the Subject. I recommend Downing’s English Grammar, Huddleston’s and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, and the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English.

Why it’s Bad Advice

Now, let’s take a closer look at why the Subject isn’t always the one that performs the action in the sentence. This idea is called a “massive overgeneralization” and a “traditional error in defining the Subject” by Huddleston and Pullum in their book A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. They’re not wrong.  

Sometimes there is no performer of the action

So here’s the thing: not every verb describes an action. I know. Wild, right? Check out these sentences:

  1. Hamlet knew Yorick.
  2. The Flyers suffer from not knowing how to play hockey.
  3. My friend from high school was bitten by a radioactive spider.

In the first sentence, there’s not really an action being done. Knowing someone or something isn’t an action that you do. If I asked Hamlet “What do you do?”, he wouldn’t reply with “I knew Yorick”. Because that would be weird. Because the verb know relates to a state of being, not an action of doing. But still, this sentence has a Subject and it is Hamlet.

In the second sentence, the subject The Flyers isn’t doing something by suffering. No one is performing the action of suffering and it’s certainly not an action that the Flyers are performing on knowing how to play hockey.

And finally, the last sentence is passive. We saw one of these above with The puck was shot into the goal by Claude. In passive sentences, the Subject is often the person or thing that experiences the action of the verb. The Actor of this sentence is a radioactive spider. And that is not the Subject. It would fail our above tests. The subject instead is My friend from high school.

Do not subject an actor to this

So if you see this kind of advice around, please disregard it. And maybe also be on your toes for other advice in the same book or website that tells you the Subject is the performer of the action in the sentence. It’s not hard to find a good resource on syntax in English. But it’s probably even easier to find this bad advice since I’ve seen it in so many places.

Not for nothing, but the first three sentences of that Lemon Grad post do not follow their own advice:

  1. Some believe that better grammar means better spoken English.
  2. That’s mistaken.
  3. Recall how you acquired your first language.

In the first sentence, we see a verb that does not describe an action (believe). In the second, we see a dummy Subject and a verb that describes a state rather than an action (That and is). And in the third, there is no Subject; it’s an imperative clause so the Subject is an implied you.

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