The subject is king


Exploring what constitutes the subject of a sentence and how it is used.

A KING rules over his subjects, yes – but no, this article is not an anti-monarchist call. Rather it is a tract concerning a cardinal rule in English grammar, viz. that the subject (of a sentence) rules over the verb (specifically a finite verb). This rule manifests itself as follows: a singular subject governs a singular verb, and a plural subject governs a plural verb; e.g. the dog barks (singular subject, singular verb), and the dogs bark (plural subject, plural verb). A subject may, of course, rule over several verbs, as in a compound sentence, e.g. that dog usually barks, then chases after the ambulance, but gives up the chase after a short run.

The singular and the plural of a verb can take many forms depending on the tense, the mood, and the voice; e.g. is/are, calls/calls, is calling/are calling, was calling/were calling, has called/have called, is called/are called, was called/were called, has been called/have been called.

So much for the verb in respect of subject-and-verb concordance. The focus of this article is, however, on the subject of subject. What constitutes the subject of a sentence?

Nature of subject

The subject of a sentence can take the following forms: (1) noun, (2) pronoun, (3) gerund, (4) infinitive, (5) noun phrase, and (6) noun clause. An important consideration is to recognise whether these are in the singular or the plural.

The noun as subject

Normally the noun has a singular form and a plural form, the latter being obtained by tagging on the suffix “-s” or “-es” (boy/boys, tomato/tomatoes). There are, however, unusual formations for the plural, e.g. child/children, knife/knives, ox/oxen. Furthermore, there are nouns whose singular and plural share the same form (aircraft, boar, carp, deer, sheep).

Beware loan words. They may have special inflectional suffixes to form the plural, e.g. Latin alumnus/alumni (masculine), alumna/alumnae (feminine), bacterium/bacteria; Greek crisis/crises, phalanx/phalanges, phenomenon/phenomena, stigma/stigmata; Hebrew cherub/cherubim, kibbutz/kibbutzim; Arabic fellah/fellahin, mujahid/mujahidin; Italian paparazzo/paparazzi; German autobahn/autobahnen.

At this juncture, I should add that there are a few loan words where confusion may arise regarding their grammatical number. Take the word medium, derived from the neuter gender of Latin medius “middle”. Used as a noun, the plural is media. “The traditional view is that it should therefore be treated as a plural noun in all its senses in English. In the sense ‘television, radio, and the press collectively’, it behaves as a collective noun (like staff or clergy, for example), which means that it is acceptable in standard English for it to take either a singular or a plural verb” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004). In the same vein, we have the noun data, the plural of the Latin singular datum. “In non-scientific use, however, it is often treated as a mass noun, ... which cannot normally have a plural and which takes a singular verb” (Concise OED, 2004). Yet another analogous word is agenda, the plural of Latin agendum. “In standard modern English, it is normally used as a singular noun with a standard plural form (agendas)” (Concise OED, 2004).

Then there is the collective noun – for a group of persons or things, like committee, crew, electorate, family, jury, team. As the subject of a sentence, a collective noun is singular when the group is treated as a whole (the tribunal is made up of a representative each from the judiciary, the employers panel, and the employees union); and it is plural when the components of the group are treated as individuals or as parts of the whole (the tribunal have been arguing over the case for six hours). Note, however, that American English tends to treat collective nouns as singular in all situations.

A special type of noun exists, in the form of an adjective which is used in reference to people. Such nouns are preceded by the definite article “the”, e.g. the poor, the rich, the lame, the wounded, the dying, the dead. These nouns are plural in nature and they take plural verbs (the poor live in that particular part of town). There are a few exceptions. For example, the accused in a court case may be singular or plural (referring to one person or a few persons being charged); and the deceased (NOT the dead) at a wake is singular (referring to the subject of the wake)!

Finally, look at the nouns folk and folks. They look like the singular and the plural of the same word. However, either one, on its own, is grammatically plural. Folk refers to people in general (the folk in this village are very friendly), while folks relate to one’s close relatives (the folks at home always fuss over the Chinese New Year reunion dinner).

The pronoun as subject

Obviously pronouns, like nouns, can act as subject of a sentence. The demonstrative pronouns and the personal pronouns are somewhat special. The demonstrative pronouns (this and that) do not form the plurals in the usual way, the corresponding plurals being these and those. Nevertheless, as the subject of a sentence, the singular and the plural govern the verb in the usual way. However, the personal pronouns are a mixed bag. In the nominative case (when used as the subject of a sentence), the forms of the personal pronouns are I (first person singular), you (second person singular) and he, she, it (third person singular); and we (first person plural), you (second person plural) and they (third person plural). These govern the singular or the plural verb in accordance with the aforementioned cardinal rule – EXCEPT that the first person singular and the second person singular take the plural verb (I walk to school, NOT I walks to school; and you do as you wish, NOT you does as you wishes).

The gerund as subject

A gerund – formed by tagging the inflectional suffix “–ing” to the base form of a verb, e.g. walking, swimming – is also called a verbal noun, because it can act both as a verb and as a noun. As a noun, it can function as the subject of a sentence (swimming is a good all-round exercise). The gerund is always singular.

The infinitive as subject

The to-infinitive can act as a substantive, and, as such, it can function as the subject of a sentence, thus: to err is human, to forgive divine. The to-infinitive is invariably singular.

The noun phrase as subject

The subject of a sentence can also be a noun phrase. Normally consisting of a gerund or a to-infinitive plus a few other words, a noun phrase is singular in function. Examples: (1) Carrying two buckets of water on the way home is very tiring work; (2) To be an Olympic swimmer has been his abiding ambition.

The noun clause as subject

Consider the following sentence: It is well known that she was a champion athlete in her younger days. The sentence can be inverted so that the noun clause becomes the subject of the sentence, thus: That she was a champion athlete in her younger days is well known (noun clause singular, verb singular). The verb is plural if two or more noun clauses are combined to form a compound subject, e.g. That he was a convict AND that he is a philanthropist are two well-known aspects of his life story.

Closing remarks

I have attempted to summarise the grammatical aspects of the subject of a sentence. The effort made me ponder over the derivation of the word subject. The word is derived from Latin subjectus “thrown under”, which itself is made up of sub “under” + iacio, iacere, ieci, iactum “to throw”. How is it that such a kingly word – a word that rules over verbs in a sentence – has such a lowly connotation in its etymology?


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