The “Holy” Subject in an English Sentence: English as a Subject-Prominent Language
Updated: Feb 17
To qualify as an independent clause and to be able to stand alone and function as a sentence, an English clause must have both subject and verb clearly stated. Such prominence of the subject in a sentence—its “holiness,” that is—can explain why the English language is classified as a subject-prominent language.
Explicit and Implicit Subjects
In English, by definition, having a subject and a finite verb is sufficient for a clause to make sense.
An English sentence must have a subject even if it is not overtly expressed. Having a subject for an English sentence is absolutely essential so much so that, if there is no obvious subject stated in the sentence, English would employ a dummy subject, using it or there, or the indefinite pronoun one:
It is raining. There is a house over there. One has to be careful when handling poisons.
In imperative sentences, the subject is an implied you:
[You] Listen! [You] Come over, please.
Subjects, and auxiliary verbs, may be ellipted in an informal context:
[I’ll] See you soon.
Not all subjects are the same. Linguists distinguish between grammatical or syntactical, logical, and psychological subjects.
Grammatical Subjects in Sentences and Logical Subjects as Agents
We can distinguish between the grammatical (syntactical) subject and the logical (real) subject. They mirror the distinction between the agent (the doer of the action) and the patient (the receiver of the action), respectively. In an active sentence (with an active main verb), these two kinds of subjects coincide. In a passive sentence, however, the grammatical subject is usually different from the logical one.
For example, in the active sentence on the left, the grammatical subject man is also its logical subject. In the passive variant on the right, the grammatical subject apple is different from the logical subject man:
The man ate the apple. The apple got eaten by the man.
Psychological Subjects as Topics
Pragmatically, we can further distinguish between the grammatical subject defined by syntaxis and psychological subject defined by its position in the sentence, namely, by its sentence-initial position. Incidentally, from the information structure point of view, this position is defined as the topic of the sentence.
Psychological subject expresses the concern of the message. It is also the subject-matter of the information conveyed in the message; it is the starting point for clause-making. It is called psychological because it is what the speaker has in mind when producing the clause.
As for my wife, we are expecting her tomorrow.
The sentence’s grammatical and logical subject, we, is not the sentence’s topic, which is as for my wife. The topic tells us what the speaker has in mind, which is why this is the psychological subject of the sentence.
Subject in a Regular (Canonical) Sentence in English
A regular (canonical) English sentence has the following word order:
Simple Sentence = Subject + Verb + Object = SVO
A regular (canonical) English sentence is an active sentence whose subject is all of the following:
1. Grammatical (syntactical) subject: it’s the noun/ pronoun in the Nominative case (i.e., non-case-marked) that comes before the verb.
2. Logical (real) subject: it’s the agent performing the action.
3. Psychological (pragmatic) subject: it’s the topic of the sentence, telling us what or whom the sentence is about.
Every regular English sentence (save for imperatives) must have a grammatical or syntactical subject, which may or may not coincide with its logical or real subject (agent). Whether syntactical or real, the subject is generally associated with an active finite verb (action), which is either transitive (requires an object to perform its action) or intransitive (performs its action without an object).
For example, in the sentence below the subject the hungry father represents all three kinds of subjects:
The hungry father ate delicious apples with his kids in the kitchen.
The Subject-Making Strategies in English
As I mentioned before, the obligatory English syntactical subject may or may not coincide with its logical or psychological subjects.
Even when a sentence has no explicit subject, English uses one of its several subject-making strategies:
Outside is cold. ⟹ It is cold outside.
A white cat is in the kitchen. ⟹ There is a white cat in the kitchen.
The it- and there-dummy structures are sometimes called anticipatory because they “announce” subjects.
The it-structure is often used as focusing it-cleft sentences. There is typically used as an introductory subject in a special type of sentence called existential, which tells us about something that exists in the world or is present or available in a specific location. By introducing a dummy subject, these structures can push the real subject to the predicative position, making it focused, or newly presented information.
The table is scratched easily. ⟹ This table scratches easily.
Ergative verbs can be both transitive (can take an object) and intransitive (do not require any object to make sense), and the direct object of the transitive verb can have the same form as the subject of the intransitive verb. The quality of being ergative in English verbs is not fixed, and the number of verbs developing ergative qualities is growing.
The hope is that we will overcome this. ⟹ One can only hope that we will overcome this.
4. Passive voice:
People in Japan make these cars. ⟹ These cars are made in Japan.
English allows the promotion of both direct and indirect objects to subject in a number of passive voice constructions. Passive structures are extremely useful when the agent behind the action described is not important: for example, in scientific papers describing experiments. In fiction, writing from the point of view of a passive observer, e.g., a child, would involve passive structures.
Writers and poets often use figurative language, including metaphors, simile, hyperbole, etc., by presenting the world around us as a living, breathing entity to create an impactful imagery and to add drama to the narrative. Such a literary device is called personification.
As a linguistic device in general, we often describe our surroundings as reflective of ourselves; we often think that the purpose of things around us somehow has to do with us. We have a strong tendency to assign human characteristics to nonhuman entities like animals or even inanimate objects. This process of humanizing animals and animating objects that come into contact with us is called anthropomorphism:
The speech recognition engine accepts only the following words.
Anticipatory Dummy Subjects It, There
The core of any regular English sentence is a subject and a finite verb (plus an object if the verb requires it). Knowing this core is sufficient for understanding the sentence.
So, any regular English sentence starts with a subject that is immediately followed by the verb. English rarely allows this core to be interrupted. This is the reason why English prefers shorter subjects and longer predicates.
If the subject has to be long or a “heavy,” English employs the pronoun it or the adverb there as dummy introductory subjects, followed by a linking verb (to be, to seem, etc.). This way, the long subject can be moved (delayed or postponed) to the end of the sentence, the predicative position, resulting in an impersonal sentence:
[To cook this meat thoroughly] is important. ⟹ It is important [to cook this meat thoroughly].
[When you come] doesn’t matter. ⟹ It doesn’t matter [when you come].
Introductory it- and there-structures are commonly used with to-inﬁnitives, that-clauses, wh-clauses, or -ing participial clauses as subjects:
To drive without a license is illegal. ⟹ It is illegal to drive without a license.
That she wasn’t hurt is a miracle. ⟹ It’s a miracle that she wasn’t hurt.
Why Diego decided to leave Spain is clear. ⟹ It is clear why Diego decided to leave Spain.
Asking Sophie to help is useless. ⟹ It is useless asking Sophie to help.
The use of these structures aligns with the end-weight principle, according to which the “heavier” part(s) of a sentence should be placed towards the end:
Or is it merely a conveniently unexpunged superstition?
M. Moore, “Compactness Compacted,” Predilections
The it-structure is often used with passive verbs:
It will be remembered that when Essex made his tempestuous return from Ireland, against the queen's orders, in September of 1599, he was suspected and remitted to custody.
Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories
We usually use there as a kind of preparatory subject in sentences which say that something exists (or does not exist) somewhere. This allows us to put the real subject after the linking verb. Subjects in existential sentences are often followed by place adverbials, called locative codas. In such sentences, the part after the introductory it or there and the linking verb is focused as new information:
There is no iron that can enter the human heart with such stupefying effect as a period placed at just the right moment.
In opening sentences, locative codas are often fronted or topicalized as a framing device that situates readers in the time and place of the story being told:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, the opening line
There-structures can be used with regular verbs:
Suddenly there appeared in the path ahead of them a rude door put together from stout plank.
Jean Speiser, River in the Dark
Other idiomatic uses of the dummy it include:
It takes about three minutes to get to the town. Whatever she did, it made no difference.
It’s about five miles from here to their house. In the jungle, it made all the difference in the world.
We think it a pity that this project was canceled. I consider it unlikely that he will reach his destination.
I appreciate it that you didn't wake me up earlier.
Ergative (Labile) Verbs
Another promotion-to-subject strategy in English involves using the so-called ergative verbs, which can be both transitive and intransitive. They can take an object when transitive and make it a subject when intransitive.
I quickly opened the door. An explosion shook the rooms.
Suddenly the door opened. The whole room shook.
I’ve boiled an egg. I rang the bell.
The egg is boiling. The bell rang.
This strategy keeps producing new terminology by extending to marketing, business, ecommerce, etc.:
The company sold this model. The family grew its business in one year.
The model sells well. The family business grew in one year.
Recently, the same strategy has been widely used in computer science and information technology:
Make sure to reboot your computer. You must install the latest version of the software.
Wait until the computer reboots. The update should install on your phone.
Indefinite Pronoun One
Using the indefinite pronoun one is another convenient literary device for creating a subject:
Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.
Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning: An Autobiography
Most current style guides in the English language highlight the essential “ingredient” of one’s good style in English—the strong preference for active voice or active verbs, which should express the actions of the clearly identified subject.
The passive constructions, on the other hand, are often dismissed as stuffy, overly wordy, weak, and evasive. The systematic criticism of the passive voice by English grammarians and writers at times sounds like a moral crusade, for the choice of the passive voice is invariably suspected of obscuring one’s accountability.
This view of passive voice, as a mere transformation of active voice, with little or no attention to the context, fails to take into account the effects of information structuring. In any kind of writing, subjects are selected not because they are related to active verbs but because they are determined to be topics in the context.
By using passive voice, we can topicalize objects or compliments without having to use an emphatic topic, which is a heavily stressed topic due to being fronted or contrastive:
My father rejected this plan.
regular active sentence with the object this plan
This plan, my father rejected.
active sentence with the fronted (topicalized) object this plan ➝ irregular noncanonical sentence with the emphatic (heavily stressed) topic this plan
This plan was rejected by my father rejected.
passive sentence with the subject this plan, which is also its topic
Using passive voice is essential for maintaining coherence: we can topicalize objects or focalize agents (doers of the action) without producing emphatic topics or focuses.
For example, the focus of the first sentence becomes the topic of the next sentence, which requires the use of the passive voice:
The three machines tested in the report contained different types of safety valves. All the valves were manufactured by Boron Group in Germany.
The passive gives the sentence end-focus, where the active would not. For example:
A. Where did [these chairs] come from?
B. [They] were bought here [by your uncle].
backward-linking topic (pronoun) focus
The passive also gives the sentence end-weight, where the active would not. For example:
[John trying to tell everybody what he thought] annoyed me. ⟺ I was annoyed by [John trying to tell everybody what he thought].
[That she had not written to her parents for over two years] surprised me. ⟺ I was surprised [that she had not written to her parents for over two years].
The passive can make it possible to continue narrating from the point of view of the same subject. For example:
He waited for two hours; then he was seen by a doctor; then he was sent back to the waiting room. He sat there for another two hours—by this time he was getting angry. Then, at last, he was taken upstairs.
Finally, to create subjects, English employs a personification strategy (or anthropomorphism) by attributing human properties to non-human entities, including inanimate objects, thus licensing their subject status. We all know and regularly encounter anthropomorphism in its more recognizable forms: for example, when we are entertained by reading a fairytale or watching an animation cartoon with talking, singing, dancing animal characters, or when we talk to our own pets as if they were human. However, a more subtle form of anthropomorphism manifests in how we tend to attribute intention not only to real or fairytale animals but to inanimate objects, concepts, or processes.
The majestic New York City skyline cannot help commanding attention.
That research led me to think that the immune system could fight cancer.
The redistributionist agenda allows them to hit Wall Street and C.E.O.s.
Some extreme cases of anthropomorphism can be found in news reporting and journalism. Due to space considerations, journalists tend to opt for shorter expressions, which they often artificially construct as grammatically active and semantically urgent.
2021 saw a rise in antisemitic and hate incidents.
Emotions are running high between the two teams.
The situation remains confused as both sides claim success.
Washington may grind to a halt.
In the last sentence, the affected subject Washington is additionally related by metonymy, which is another linguistic and cognitive device of referring to something by the name of something else that is closely connected or associated with it.
For example, organizations and institutions are often subjectified by metonymy:
The U.S. financial sector ➝ the Wall Street
The U.S. government ➝ the White House
The UK government ➝ the Whitehall
The World Economic Forum ➝ Davos
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which the name of an object or concept is replaced with a word closely associated with or suggested by the original.
To transform grammatical subjects into agents, English uses a personification strategy by presenting abstract and figurative notions and even inanimate objects as real agents:
Yesterday, the White House held a press conference.
The shareholder class is getting richer.
Trust me, your dedication will pay off.
My window suddenly shut.
The English inanimate subjects are often the means or instruments through which certain unspecified (and human) agents perform the actions described.
Studies of the recent changes have revealed unexpected data.
The software will greatly help the students.
The new evidence proves my theory.
Although some style guides warn against such attribution of human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects—in a process culturally known as anthropomorphism—there is no definitive rule about exactly which terms should be considered anthropomorphic.
For example, the APA Manual for Publications provides the following puzzling pair of expressions that should and should not be used in a scientific paper:
OK ______✔ NO _____ ✘
the theory addresses ✔ the theory concludes ✘
Furthermore, the Manual approves all the phrases listed below:
the theory indicates ✔ the data provide ✔
the theory presents ✔ research contributes ✔
the results suggest ✔ the study found ✔
🤔 According to the APA Manual for Publications, it is only researchers, and not a theory, that can conclude, although for a theory, it is perfectly fine to address, indicate, or present. All these verbs, it seems, have acquired ergative functions.
Personification goes well beyond science and computer technologies. It’s regularly applied in all kinds of areas: business, government, public health, marketing, journalism, or casual correspondence.
the lawsuit claims ✔ the work involves ✔ the recommendation instructs ✔
the report outlines ✔ the note contains ✔ the TV channels broadcast ✔
the figure reflects ✔ the picture tells a story ✔ the statement emphasizes ✔
the resolution states ✔ the annex provides for ✔ the meeting reaches a quorum ✔
Matthew Stevens, in his Academic Subtleties of Scientific Style, illustrates the subtler form of anthropomorphism by showing the following example of how anthropomorphism can sneak upon us through syntaxis:
However, some plants have evolved mechanisms to reduce the impact of photorespiration.
According to Stevens, the to-infinitive (to reduce the impact of photorespiration) used in the sentence conveys a purpose or intention on the part of plants—which can’t do, Stevens tells us. So, he suggests “a simple solution” as a corrective:
However, some plants have evolved mechanisms that reduce the impact of photorespiration.
By changing to to that, he has changed the adverbial infinitival clause of purpose, which modifies the head verb evolve, to the relative clause that modifies the headword mechanisms. This means that he has simply shifted the intention from plants to mechanisms. Remarkably enough, the author sees no such intention on the part of mechanisms that can reduce the impact of photorespiration or on the part of plants, which don’t simply evolve but evolve mechanisms.
👉 The truth is, to English speakers, any noun, any common item of our everyday lives, whether it is animate, inanimate, or abstract, can become a subject, if not immediately, then surely in time.
While an English clause must have both the subject and the verb to make sense and qualify as independent, a Turkish clause centers around its predicate, with its subject being secondary and potentially omittable.
Click to read more about the Turkish subject: