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How to Find the Subject of a Sentence

English grammar teachers like to torture students by asking them to find the subjects of sentences. But why does it matter whether you can find the subject of a sentence?

Well, all sentences contain verbs that express action or state of being. But you can’t have an action in a vacuum. You can’t have a naked, solitary state of being either. Someone or something must also be present in the sentence — the who or what you’re talking about in relation to the action or state of being expressed by the verb. The someone or something doing the action or being talked about is the subject.

A someone must be a person and a something must be a thing, place, or idea. So guess what? The subject is usually a noun because a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. Although, sometimes the subject is a pronoun such as he, they, it, and so forth.

One way to think about the subject is to say that the subject is the who or what part of the subject-verb pair. The subject-verb pair is the main idea of the sentence, stripped to essentials. Here are a few examples:

Jasper gasped at the mummy’s sudden movement.

In this sentence, Jasper gasped is the main idea; it’s also the subject-verb pair.

Justin will judge the beauty contest only if his ex-girlfriend competes.

You should spot two subject-verb pairs in this sentence: Justin will judge and ex-girlfriend competes.

Now try a sentence without action. This one describes a state of being, so it uses a linking verb:

Jackhammer has always been an extremely noisy worker.

The subject-verb pair is Jackhammer has been. Did you notice that Jackhammer has been sounds incomplete? Has been is a linking verb, and linking verbs always need something after the verb to complete the idea. The subject-verb pair in action-verb sentences may usually stand alone, but the subject-verb pair in linking verb sentences may not.

Subjects and verbs pair off, but sometimes you get two (or more) for the price of one. You can have two subjects (or more) and one verb. The multiple subjects are called compound subjects. Here’s an example:

Dorothy and Justin went home in defeat.

Here you notice one action (went) and two people (Dorothy, Justin) doing the action. So the verb went has two subjects.

Now take a look at some additional examples:

Lola and Lulu ganged up on George yesterday to his dismay and defeat. (Lola, Lulu = subjects)
The omelet and fries revolted Eggworthy. (omelet, fries = subjects)
Snort and Squirm were the only two dwarves expelled from Snow White’s band. (Snort, Squirm = subjects)

Another variation is one subject paired with two (or more) verbs. For example:

Justin's ex-girlfriend burped and cried after the contest.

You’ve got two actions (burped, cried) and one person doing both (ex-girlfriend). Ex-girlfriend is the subject of both burped and cried.

Some additional samples of double verbs, which in grammatical terms are called compound verbs:

George snatched the atomic secret and quickly stashed it in his navel. (snatched, stashed = verbs)
Ella ranted for hours about Larry’s refusal to hold an engagement party and then crept home. (ranted, crept = verbs)
Eggworthy came out of his shell last winter but didn’t stay there. (came, did stay = verbs)

Verbs in English grammar can be a little sneaky sometimes. You may ask who? or what? in front of a verb and get no answer or at least no answer that makes sense. When this happens, you may gather that you haven’t really found a verb. You’ve probably stumbled upon a lookalike, or, as grammarians call it, a “fake verb.” Here’s an example:

Wiping his tears dramatically, Alex pleaded with the teacher to forgive his lack of homework.

Suppose you pop the verb question (What’s happening? What is?) and get wiping for an answer. A reasonable guess. But now pop the subject question: Who wiping? What wiping? The questions don’t sound right, and that’s your first hint that you haven’t found a real verb. But the question is not important. The answer, however, is!

And there is no real answer in the sentence. You may try Alex, but when you put him with the “verb,” it doesn’t match: Alex wiping. (Alex is wiping would be okay, but that’s not what the sentence says.) So now you know for sure that your first “verb” isn’t really a verb. Put it aside and keep looking. What’s the real verb? Pleaded.

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