How to Identify the Subject of a Sentence

Video Lesson on How to Identify the Subject of a Sentence

Don't pass over this lesson! You may think you know how to find subjects and verbs in a sentence, but picking them out can be harder than you think. Identifying subjects and verbs is the first step to unlocking nearly everything else about English composition.

How to Identify the Subject of a Sentence

You probably think you know what a subject and a verb is, since you can't have a sentence without at least one of each. But can you pick them out of a lineup? Let's try - in the style of a 1940s crime noir drama.

The stubborn case had busted wide open again.

When looking for the subject in a sentence, look for the verb first. Remember that a verb is a word that either helps a subject perform an action (ran, drank, fights, swims) or shows a state of being (is, was, are, were) that connects the subject to the action. In the sentence here, the main verb is 'busted.' What is the thing being busted? The case.

When we talk about subjects we'll talk about simple subjects, complete subjects, and compound subjects.

Simple Subject

A simple subject is just the subject without any of its modifiers (adjectives, adverbs - that is, any explanatory details). So the simple subject here is 'case,' while the complete subject contains all of the verb's descriptors - that would be 'stubborn case.' Let's try another example.

The husband wasn't dead.

Put 'who' and 'what' in front of the verb to see if you can find the subject. Here, the verb is a linking verb - 'was.' Linking verbs link the subject ('The husband') to the subject's state of being. Who was not dead? The husband. That's your subject.

Let's keep going.

He was walking down Royal Street in a three-piece suit!

Here we have a past participle form in verb phrase 'was walking.' So again you have 'was,' and we know he 'was walking.' But you can use the same formula. Who was walking? 'He' was. So the pronoun 'he' is the subject of the sentence. We'll talk more about pronouns a little bit later.

Multiple Subjects and Verbs in a Sentence

Sentences can also have more than one verb, more than one subject, or multiple pairs of subjects and verbs.

Johnny shot someone else that night, and the husband played along.

Here you have two subjects, 'Johnny' and 'the husband,' and a verb for each: Johnny 'shot' someone and the husband 'played along.' Each subject and verb pair forms its own independent clause joined by a conjunction in this sentence but could just as easily be two separate sentences, because each has its own subject and verb.

Conjunctions can join multiple subjects or verbs as well as independent and dependent clauses. Only independent clauses - again, that's a clause that contains both a subject and verb - can form their own sentences, however. Take this counter-example:

Johnny and Mr. Violet settled their debts, at least.

Here you have a compound subject - 'Johnny and Mr. Violet' - and the verb 'settled.' Two subjects are joined by a conjunction, but this cannot be broken into more than one sentence since just one verb is helping both parties perform the action.

On the flip side, you can have multiple verbs and just one subject performing the actions of those verbs:

The detective pulled down the brim of his hat and walked home.

Here we have the subject ('the detective'), and 'pulled' and 'walked' are the two verbs, so he's performing multiple actions. This is something you do every day when you're writing - you talk about the different actions that you are doing or somebody else is doing, so the idea of one subject and multiple verbs should be familiar to you.

Personal Pronouns

Back at my desk, I poured myself a rattlesnake, grabbed it by the tail, and gulped it down.

When you see a personal pronoun - 'I,' 'you,' 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' 'we,' and 'they' - a verb will follow. In this case, the verb that follows is 'poured,' followed later by 'grabbed' and 'gulped.'

One exception to this rule is when the pronoun refers to the earlier subject. Take this example:

The lady led him on a wild goose chase, didn't she?

Using the same formula as before, we see that 'led' is the main verb. What 'led'? 'The lady.' No verb follows 'she' in this special case because its function is to ask a question related to the clause preceding it. That is, 'The lady led him on a wild goose chase.' The 'she' is 'the lady,' so it doesn't need a verb to follow after it. But in general, when you see a personal pronoun, a verb will follow, and that personal pronoun is the subject of the sentence.

Passive Constructions: Where's the Subject?

In a passive sentence, the subject does not 'do' the action; the action instead happens to the subject. Let's return to our floundering P.I.

That, or the death had been faked by the husband for some more mysterious reason.

You're right if you think that 'death' is the subject here. After all, what was faked? The death 'had been faked.'

Hidden (Implied) Subjects

In the case of a command - that is, when someone is telling you to do something - there won't be any clear subject in the sentence. Instead, the subject is implied - the subject is you!

So the sentence, Wait! Don't be a fool. is really, (You) Wait! Don't (you) be a fool. Keep an eye out for those implied subjects, especially in a sentence where it's not exactly clear where the subject is. The same thing is true of passive sentences.

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns 'which,' 'that,' 'who,' 'whom,' and 'whose' can be used to create an adjective clause that describes something about the subject. Remember before, when we were talking about a simple subject versus a complete subject - 'case' versus 'stubborn case?' Relative pronouns kind of do the same thing on a larger scale; they explain something about the subject. You'll see here.

The husband and the lady who hired him were the same person all along!

Okay, that's not a great twist ending, and I'm no Dashiell Hammett, but can you pick out the subject and verb in this sentence? You have a couple of verb candidates here: 'hired' and the linking verb 'were.'

The relative pronoun 'who,' however, begins an adjective phrase that describes something about the main subject - 'who hired him' - but is not essential to the sentence, which could just as easily read, The husband and the lady were the same person all along. See, that's what an adjective clause does - it describes something about the subject ('The husband and the lady'), but something that's not essential. Hence, the linking verb 'were' is the main verb in this sentence.

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