Subjects don’t do anything

Subjects are often described as the person or thing that “does the action” in a sentence. Similarly, objects are commonly understood to be the thing undergoing the action of the sentence. These are simple and intuitive definitions, and they work for most cases, but unfortunately they are still inaccurate. The most obvious counter example to this is the passive voice:

Alice ate a poisoned donut.
A poisoned donut was eaten by Alice.

In the passive sentence, the second one, the subject is a poisoned donut, but it certainly isn’t doing the action. It’s in fact undergoing the action of being eaten, and undergoing the action is supposed to be what an object does.

Another case where the definitions don’t work is the set of verbs known as “ergative”. These are verbs that can be either transitive or intransitive, and where the object of the transitive form is the subject of the intransitive form. That sentence was mostly technical garbage, so here is an example to help. The verb shatter is ergative:

Transitive: The baseball shattered the window.
Intransitive: The window shattered.

When shatter is transitive, as in the first example, the window is the object. When it is intransitive, as in the second example, the window is the subject. In either case, it’s the thing undergoing the action of being shattered, which is supposed to be something only objects do.

Yet another problem for these traditional definitions are dummy subjects, as in the following:

(1) It is snowing.
(2) It seems the hobbit is upset.
(3) It isn’t nice to taunt the octopus.

it is the subject of (1) and the subjects of the main clauses of (2) and (3). It doesn’t fit the traditional definition of subject very well though, because it’s not exactly “doing” anything in these sentences. It doesn’t refer to any entity that would be capable of doing anything in the first place. it is only there for purely syntactic reasons. There needs to be a subject so English grammar inserts an it.

(Edit: Upon reflection, I don’t think that third example shows what I want it to show. I think that actually it is a proform for the verb phrase to taunt the octopus, and not a real ‘dummy it’. But in any case, a verb phrase is a theoretical entity, and it isn’t the kind of thing that can “do an action”, so these kinds of sentences are still problematic for the traditional definitions.)

Defining a subject as the do-er raises too many problems. It’s at best a generalization. Instead of defining a subject in terms of what it does, it’s better to define it in terms of where it is. Subject is best understood as a position in a sentence, and anything in that position is the subject. The same goes for object.

In more technical jargon, subject and object are “grammatical functions”, and they are a matter of syntax. Whether something is a do-er or an undergoer of an action is technically known as a “thematic relation“, and this is a matter of semantics. Thematic relations are determined in an entirely different way than subjects/objects are, and they depend a great deal on what particular verb is being used in the sentence. For example, the verbs “listen” and “hear” describe essentially the same event, but differ in the roles they assign to the subject. The subject of “listen” is an agent, because when you listen it’s intentional. The subject of “hear” is an experiencer, because when you hear it’s passive reception. (Check out that wikipedia link to see a list and description of some of these relations.)

So getting back to subjects – if subject is a position, what position is it? It’s a little messy to explain this because there are several word orders possible in English.

“I’m leaving” Mark said
“I’m leaving” said Mark

The noun Mark is the subject of both these sentences, but in one case it comes before the verb, and in the other case it comes after the verb. This makes it look ludicrous to try and define subject as a position, because there are obviously two possible positions for it. And it wouldn’t be very useful to define subject as something that can come before or after a verb.

Objects can be slippery too:

Laura sent a letter to George.
Laura sent George a letter.
*Laura sent to George a letter.
(Click here if you don’t know what that asterisk means.)

The objects of sent can apparently switch places, and also something funny happens with the preposition to. Again, how can one define “object” as a position, when apparently they can be in more than one place?

Linguists approach the problem by assuming that in these kinds of sentences, there is only one basic sentence structure, a “deep structure“, and others can be derived from this deep structure through something called syntactic movement, or transformations. So the subject or object is only ever in one place in the deep structure, even though it can appear in more than one place when you hear a sentence (in the “surface” structure).

The basic word order of English is usually given as Subject then Verb then Object if there is an object. That’s your simple affirmative sentence, as in The snake lied and Eve ate an apple. In slightly more technical terms, it means that the phrase which is the sister to the verb phrase is the subject. If we were to represent these sentences as syntax trees, they would look like this:

If you imagine these as family trees, you can see where the term “sister” comes from. Say that the sentence is the mother, and she has two girls: verb phrase and noun phrase. They are sisters. In one of those trees, the verb phrase also has a noun phrase daughter.

More generally, you can think of a basic English sentence like this:

Anything in that first noun phrase is the subject. Anything in that second noun phrase is the object. From here, movement might happen. For example, the verb might end up on the other side of the subject due to question formation: She is angry => Is she angry?. The word she is in that noun phrase marked [SUBJECT] before the verb moves to the front.

Fixing this bit of miseducation is not going to be easy. To get an understanding of what a subject is, you really need to know how to draw a syntax tree. But traditional sentence diagramming tends to treat sentences as “flat” structures, and focusses on labelling just the individual words. There’s also an annoying problem with the Reed-Kellogg system that the surface word order of the sentences is not always represented in the diagram (a subject for another post, I think). There’s little emphasis on how words group into phrases, which is crucial in understanding anything in syntax. So the traditional definition certainly is easier to understand, but easier isn’t better if it’s wrong.



Filed under Linguistics

8 responses to “Subjects don’t do anything

  1. Paul

     This is very interesting, thank you for this page in particular and the whole blog in general. I will visit (and read more thoroughly than I have done now) several more of these posts.

    Just on the problem of the dummy subjects in the following

    > (1) It is snowing.
    > (2) It seems the hobbit is upset.
    > (3) It isn’t nice to taunt the octopus.

    are you aware of the E-prime concept (I copy an extract from its Wikipedia entry below), which may resolve this problem, and the use of passive voice is also addressed (ha, ha, by that it will be taught a lesson) :-

    E-Prime (short for English-Prime) is a form of the English language from which the verb to be in all its forms is avoided by the writer or speaker. Thus, E-Prime does not contain the words “be”, “is”, “am”, “are”, “was”, “were”, “been” and “being”, nor does it contain their contractions “‘m”, “‘s”, and “‘re”. E-Prime therefore re-phrases most statements which use the passive voice, thus encouraging writers and speakers to clearly state an action’s agent.


    • I’d never heard of E-Prime before, so thanks for mentioning it! It seems like a way to practice writing more than anything else. I certainly wouldn’t adopt it as a regular thing to do, because it robs you of more sentence constructions than it provides, and I don’t think any writer is helped with a reduced set of tools. It doesn’t just prevent use of the passive but also any simple copulas (“I am hungry”), progressive aspect (“She is running away”), clefted sentence (“What I want is a cup of coffee”) and probably others too.

      And just to clarify, dummy subjects aren’t really problems. They’re a normal part of English, and other languages too. Weather verbs, like “rain” or “snow” have these kinds of subjects in many languages. They are only a problem for the traditional definition of subjects as “the thing that does an action”. Changing the definition of subject to “a position in the sentence” fits with all the facts. And I think it’s better to change your theory of grammar to fit the facts, rather than ignoring facts to patch up the theory.


  2. Paul

    Thanks for the further clarification. I would agree that E-Prime is more an academic exercise than a practical tool in the real world of communication, however as a didactic instrument it may have its merits. (To English-I students: Cast that paragraph into E-Prime!).

    I apologise for the length of this comment, as frequently happens, I get swept up in the enthusiasm of subjects which I generally don’t have time for. (I had to add that little hook for the topic which I wandered onto below). I will be very interested to see if WordPress accepts it, as I have been having problems lately with comments being rejected (which it does without warning). For the record, this comment is 12736 bytes long (text) and 13316 (html formatting), in the event it is actually posted intact.

    I will think some more about dummy subjects, I came to the party with an initial interest in subjects in passive clauses or sentences. I will probably take the approach of Dryden (as below) to get my head around it. The trouble with English is that it commonly defies logic, and, (according to the O.E.D.) precedent becomes law, and furthermore (personally) when you hear something enough times, this establishes a precedent.

    I jotted down a few notes in my journal over the weekend, herewith the transcript :-

    Why do we actually care about what is the subject and the object in English?

    I got a wake-up call a few months ago when I was asked what the subject of a passive sentence was. In spite of knowing this very clearly in the past (I learned most of my intuitive feeling of English grammar from Latin, and I knew Latin very well in my day – but I am now very rusty) I could not remember!

    I know that, in technical writing, passive voice is deprecated, and one of the exercises we go through in Requirements Analysis is to re-write passive requirements in active voice, after decomposing the English into Actor, Action, Object, Means, Moment, Motive and all those classifications. According to this schema, I think I answered incorrectly that the actor was the subject.

    But in common, Garden English, why do we care about subject and object, after all we don’t decline nouns in English?

    Well, if one takes the trick-question quote,
      “Let him whom is without sin cast the first stone“,

    I think that you need to have the accusative case for “him” and “whom” correct (and that is not anything to do with passive voice). But “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” certainly rolls off the tongue very easily, without offending one’s sensibility. Then I doubted, and began to sink in my lack of certainty.

    I referred to Fowler’s (Modern English Usage, 2nd Ed. 1965 {but very likely most of the content as it was for 1st Ed. 1926}) over the weekend for something else. As is my usual wont, I browsed a few extra entries as I do whenever I open this little gem. I stumbled across the following, and how apt for the current train of thought :-

    Dryden, an acknowledged master of English prose, went through all his prefaces contriving away the final prepositions that he had been guilty of in its first editions. Dryden’s earlier practice shows him following the English instinct; his later shows him sophisticated with deliberate Latinism. “I am often put to a stand in considering whether what I write be idiom of the tongue, and have no other way to clear my doubts but by translating my English into Latin”.

    For the record, the rest are ad-lib additions, as I completed train of thought of the comment.

    I have the NIV and KJV as ready reference on my PC, both of these (John 8:7) use “him” in the accusative, but not who or whom :

      If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

      If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

    Interesting that the NIV (1976 I believe) uses the same archaic “is without sin” as the KJV (early 17th century – James I’s commission – wasn’t it?)

    I can check in Stephen’s Greek NT, and I have the Vulgate somewhere on my PC too, for further insight.

    I did a few web-searches too, and it appears that very few people have it correct :-

      “let him whom is without sin” Yahoo! 4 results
      “let he whom is without sin” Yahoo! 136 results
      “let he who is without sin” Yahoo! 126’000 results

    I thought I would look for the Dryden quote by Fowler, and I am so glad I did. I not only have the full context of it (in the gutenberg text), but also a nice grammar ready reference (thanks Lynn Gordon) and also

      Among my Books, Series 1, Dryden et al.html
      Poetry of John Dryden.Htm

    More stuff for the kindle at home :¬)

    So at the grave risk of being garrulous, for the sake of completeness and to test the posting limits of, I include the context of the Dryden quote, and also Lynn’s thoughts on prescriptive grammar.





    And as our English is a composition of the dead and living tongues, there is required a perfect knowledge, not only of the Greek and Latin, but of the old German, the French, and the Italian; and, to help all these, a conversation with those authors of our own, who have written with the fewest faults in prose and verse. But how barbarously we yet write and speak, your lordship knows, and I am sufficiently sensible in my own English. For I am often put to a stand, in considering whether what I write be the idiom of the tongue, or false grammar, and nonsense couched beneath that specious name of Anglicism; and have no other way to clear my doubts, but by translating my English into Latin, and thereby trying what sense the words will bear in a more stable language. I am desirous, if it were possible, that we might all write with the same certainty of words, and purity of phrase, to which the Italians first arrived, and after them the French; at least that we might advance so far, as our tongue is capable of such a standard. It would mortify an 236 Englishman to consider, that from the time of Boccace and of Petrarch, the Italian has varied very little; and that the English of Chaucer, their contemporary, is not to be understood without the help of an old dictionary. But their Goth and Vandal had the fortune to be grafted on a Roman stock; ours has the disadvantage to be founded on the Dutch[4]. We are full of monosyllables, and those clogged with consonants, and our pronunciation is effeminate; all which are enemies to a sounding language. It is true, that to supply our poverty, we have trafficked with our neighbour nations; by which means we abound as much in words, as Amsterdam does in religions; but to order them, and make them useful after their admission, is the difficulty.

    [4] Dutch is here used generally for the High Dutch or German.

    Lynn Gordon, “Traditional English Grammar”, 2012, Assoc. Prof., Wash. State Univ.


    Prescriptive grammars, on the other hand, assume the existence of better authorities than the usage and judgment of native speakers. People who write prescriptive grammars adduce better language users (educated speakers, high-class speakers, great writers), better languages (usually Latin) and better information systems (mathematics or predicate calculus) as authorities for preferring one usage over another.

    Prescriptive rules exist only to express a preference for one structure or usage or linguistic item over another. A prescriptive grammar will not contain rules that tell you to put articles before nouns, rather than after, because no native speakers of English put articles after nouns.

    Prescriptive rules are reserved for places where speakers have choices and they exist to limit those choices. For example, consider this discussion from Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

    Preposition at end.

    It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late (‘They are the fittest timber to make great politics of,’ said Bacon; and ‘What are you hitting me for?’ says the modern schoolboy).

    ‘A sentence ending in a preposition is an inelegant sentence’ represents what used to be a very general belief, and it is not yet dead. One of its chief supports is the fact that Dryden, an acknowledged master of English prose, went through all his prefaces contriving away the final prepositions that he had been guilty of in his first editions.

    It is interesting to find Ruskin almost reversing this procedure. In the text of the Seven Lamps there is a solitary final preposition to be found and no more; but in the later footnotes they are not avoided, e.g.

      Any more wasted words…I never heard of.
      Men whose occupation for the next fifty years would be the knocking down every beautiful building they could lay their hands on.

    Dryden’s earlier practice shows him following the English instinct; his later shows him sophisticated with deliberate latinism: ‘I am often put to a stand in considering whether what I write be the idiom of the tongue, … and have no other way to clear my doubts but by translating my English into Latin’. The natural inference from this would be: you cannot put a preposition (roughly speaking) later than its word in Latin, and therefore you must not do so in English.

    Gibbon improved upon the doctrine, and, observing that prepositions and adverbs are not always easily distinguished, kept on the safe side by not ending sentences with on, over, under, or the like, when they would have been adverbs.

    The fact is that the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its prepositions late and omitting its relatives is an important element in the flexibility of the language. The power of saying
      A state of dejection such as they are absolute strangers to
    instead of
      A state of dejection of an intensity to which they are absolute strangers,
      People worth talking to
    instead of
      People with whom it is worthwhile to talk,

    is not one to be lightly surrendered.

    But the Dryden-Gibbon tradition has remained in being, and even now immense pains are sometimes expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English.

      That depends on what they are cut with
    is not improved by conversion into
      That depends on with what they are cut;
    and too often the lust for sophistication, once blooded, becomes uncontrollable, and ends with,
      That depends on the answer to the question as to with what they are cut.

    Those who lay down the universal principle that final prepositions are ‘inelegant’ are unconsciously trying to deprive the English language of a valuable idiomatic resource, which has been used freely by all our greatest writers except those whose instinct for English idiom has been overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards.
    The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained; in respect of elegance or inelegance, every example must be judged not by any arbitrary rule, but on its own merits, according to the impression it makes on the feeling of educated English readers.

    Notice that Fowler said that Dryden in revising himself did not ask “What sounds good in English?”, instead he very explicitly changed his writing so it existed as a pseudo-translation of Latin (an odd thing to do unless you really believe in the superiority of Latin). Fowler distinguishes between style and grammar much more effectively than most prescriptivists. He is arguing in favor of (or against) different usages because of what he perceives their stylistic effect to be – he is not claiming that ending a sentence with a preposition (or avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition) is “ungrammatical”. He is expressing a stylistic preference.

    There has been a long tradition in prescriptivism to claim that those things which the prescriptivists dislike are ungrammatical. H. Ramsay Fowler, “The Little, Brown Handbook” suggests that split infinitives or verb phrases are somehow wrong; the data suggests that not only do English speakers prefer to split infinitives sometimes, sometimes they actually must.


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