Ok, the title of this post is a bit misleading. Google doesn’t “know” anything. It just grabs some text from a website and puts it up top to give people an answer to their question. The problem here is that the answer they give you is wrong. Because the website that Google uses is wrong. But there’s more than that. The answer that Google gives has been called a “massive overgeneralization” by Huddleston and Pullum. And if that’s not bad enough, all of the results in the Google search give you the exact same incorrect answer. What the what?
Check out this recent search on Google for “the subject of a sentence is”:
That “answer” is wrong. But things don’t get better from there:
Holy bad linguistics, Batman! These posts all give the same fake news. They’re either mixed up about syntax and semantics, or they’re straight up bad at both. In a previous post, I recognized a website which made these claims and I explained how we find what the subject is. In this post I’m going to summarize and repeat what I said there. Then I’ll show why the claims on all these other websites are incorrect. I’ll also point out how the semantic ideas behind these claims are also not so good. And finally, I’ll give this info in a handy table to show how many websites are echoing this nonsense.
First, let’s quickly check out how we find the subject in a clause. There are several tests we can perform to see which element of the clause is the subject. These are collected from a few grammar books (see the references for this post).
- The subject gets picked up by a pronoun in a question tag.
- Batman loves to punch evil doers in their necks, doesn’t he?
- That Wonder Woman could probably beat Superman in a fight isn’t surprising, is it?
- The subject comes before the finite verb in declarative clauses and wh-questions where the wh-word is the subject.
- Spider-Man does whatever a spider can.
- Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
- The subject comes after the finite verb in yes/no questions and in wh-questions where the wh-word is not the subject
- Does Captain America love Tony?
- What arrow could Hawkeye shoot at Thanos? (Hawkeye is the subject, What arrow is the direct object, could is the finite verb)
- The subject determines number and person concord. Concord is shown only on present tense verbs and the third-person singular s-forms – except for the verb BE (which is just weird all around)
- Professor X / he teaches the X-Men.
- Niles Caulder is the leader of the Doom Patrol.
- When a pronoun is the subject, it is in the subjective case*. The subject can usually be replaced by a pronoun.
- I am vengeance. I am the night.
Grammar books give some more details about the subject, but these are the main points. What’s important to understand is that the subject is a matter of syntax. Syntax is what governs how words can be organized into grammatical sentences and clauses. Notice how none of the descriptions of a subject above are about semantics. None of them say that the subject is what the sentence is about or that the subject is the person or thing that is doing the action in the sentence. Because those kinds of things lie in the realm of semantics.
On a side note, I think it’s important to say that this information comes very early in most grammar textbooks. You don’t need to read too far into any of them to find out what a subject is. We’re talking the first 50 pages or so. It’s not some secret that linguists are hiding from you. And it’s not even that much to take in. Most grammar books cover the definition of a subject in a few pages – which you could just skip directly to. And then they move on. Because it’s really not something that you can dwell on – “Here’s what a subject is…” and that’s it.
So many bad internet posts on grammar
So how are all the articles on Google wrong? Well, they all make two major mistakes in describing how to find the subject of a sentence. The claims can be summarized as:
- The subject is the actor or doer in the sentence. AKA The subject is the one that performs the action of the verb or is the thing that is described in a state of being.
- The subject is what the sentence is about.
Both of these claims are NOT how we find the subject of a sentence. To answer the first claim, not every sentence (in English) has an actor or doer of the verb in the sentence. Consider:
The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.
Knowing isn’t an action. We can’t be asked “What does the Shadow do?” and respond with “He does knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men”. The same thing goes for other cognitive verbs like hope, see, forget and fear. And yet, The Shadow would pass all of our tests for the subject above.
On the other hand, sometimes there is something happening, but the subject isn’t the one that performs it. For example:
Raven suffers from ennui.
No evil shall escape my sight.
Raven isn’t performing the action of suffering from ennui. But Raven is still the subject. Likewise, No evil isn’t performing an action by not escaping my sight. But there it is being a subject.
Finally, in passive clauses, the subject is not the actor or doer, but rather the recipient or beneficiary of the action described by the verb:
Robin was killed by the Joker.
Clearly, Robin isn’t doing the action here, but Robin is the subject. The Joker is to blame for the action done. And he will be punished by Batman’s hammers of justice.
To answer the second claim, we need to consider that sometimes the subject is definitely not what the sentence is about. This idea approaches a semantic analysis without ever getting there. It’s probably too much to get into in this post, but long story short is this:
Deciding what the sentence is about is doing semantics. Specifically, this is analyzing the sentence for its topic (I’d also consider this doing discourse analysis; something we’re going to get into here). But there are a few problems:
Something is wrong with Batwoman’s utility belt.
The subject in this sentence is Something. But it makes absolutely no sense to say that the sentence is about something. I mean, every sentence is about something. Instead, the topic of this sentence is Batwoman’s utility belt, i.e. that’s what the sentence is about.
In space, nobody can hear you scream. **
What is the above sentence about? Would you say it’s about nobody? No, of course you wouldn’t. But nobody is the subject.
It is always sunny in Metropolis.
English has this thing where it really, really likes to have something in the subject slot, even if that thing doesn’t have any meaning at all. This is what we find with the “dummy it”. The word it is put in the subject place, but it doesn’t really refer to anything and doesn’t mean anything. It’s just filling the role of subject because English doesn’t like having nothing there. And we can’t say *Always sunny in Metropolis exists – English syntax doesn’t allow us to do that. Other languages are cool with not having anything in this slot though (Finnish and Italian can do it, for example).
I’m going to say it again: the subject is a matter of syntax, not semantics. Syntax does not decide who is doing what in the sentence, nor does it decide what the sentence is about. That’s what semantics and discourse studies do***. But semantics is not a way of finding the subject. That’s like using a French dictionary to find the meaning of an English word.
I know this is low stakes for Google and they’re not going to check this, but whatevs. Don’t believe everything that you read on the internet, kids.
For what it’s worth, Google updated its answer since I started writing this post. They now take the answer from the website of Butte College…. But it’s still wrong. *sigh*
And here’s that table of the first page of the Google search results for “the subject of a sentence is” along with some notes and whether they make each of the bad takes that I talked about in this post.
|Website||Subject = doer/actor||Subject = topic||Notes|
|Mometrix||x||x||Other bad claims about what a verb is; ends with a really bad take on the subject|
|Your Dictionary||x||x||Also claims that a complete sentence needs a direct object. And that the subject is a noun. Nope. FWIW, the first sentence of this post is an imperative, so it has no subject.|
|ThoughtCo||x||x||The author of this post should know better.|
|Guide to Grammar||x||-|
|Study.com||x||-||Also misidentifies "was walking" as a past participle|
|University of Ottawa||x||x||This is from a university! Shame, shame, know your name.|
|Howcast||x||-||YouTube video; Claims incorrectly that the subject is either a noun or a pronoun|
|Get Grammarous with Kerry Sensei||x||-||YouTube video; great channel name; gives good advice about the imperative; but some other general bad advice|
|Grammar Revolution||x||x||Also claims incorrectly that "the subject of a sentence will never be in a prepositional phrase"|
Biber, Douglas, Susan Conrad and Geoffrey Leech. 2002. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson.
Downing, Angela. 2015. English Grammar: A University Course (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
Huddleston, Rodney and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2005. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge: CUP.
Update Dec. 4, 2022: Hat tip to Mike Pope, who pointed out that I’m being misleading here. Google doesn’t “know” anything – it just repeats texts that it copies from websites. Mike’s right and there’s lots more behind the idea of whether AI or Google “know” what things “mean”. But yeah, sorry for the clickbait title.
* There may be exceptions to this rule in some varieties of English. We’re not going to discuss them here, but just be aware that this rule applies predominantly to standardized varieties. Mileage varies with all others.)
** Gotta hand it to Huddleston and Pullum here. Including the tag line from Alien is great.
*** And maybe soon I’ll write a post about how they do this. Who knows? Stay tuned!
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