But What’s the Subject?

There are two questions fundamental to almost every sentence we write: what are we talking about? and what are we saying about it? These two questions will keep us thinking clearly, and thinking clearly is the first requirement of writing clearly. Simple enough, right?

We write about what we perceive, whether in the world or in our mind, but we forget sometimes that we can’t click a photo with a sentence. Words divide up what we see and want to say something about; they isolate every last perception we have in a scene—who’s doing what to what, how and where and why—and they lay out those perceptions, both concrete and abstract, one after the next across sentences one after another. What we might quickly see as the subject of a sentence might not be the real subject at all, and that misperception will affect both our grammatical construction and our logical understanding.

Take, for example, this sentence: That ten-acre property, with its hundreds of pine trees and small stream running down from the hills, is an especially beautiful parcel. If we apply to it the first of our two fundamental questions, what is the writer talking about?, how are we to answer? Property? That ten-acre property? That ten-acre property and pine trees and a small stream? To sort this out, we must make the distinction between the thing, the central perception, about which we’re really saying something, and other things that are merely part of the circumstances in which that essential thing exists. This sentence names six nouns, from concrete entities to an abstract number, but it is saying something about only one of them: property. That one word constitutes what is called the substantive of the subject, the one real, ultimate thing about which something is being said by the verb in the predicate.

No sooner, though, do we identify property as the substantive of the subject, than our common sense jets up to say that it’s not just property the writer is talking about, but that ten-acre property, which is something much more specific. It certainly is, and that is why grammar makes the distinction between the substantive of a subject and what is called the complete subject. As the substantive of the subject, the noun property stands alone; but when we next take into view the two adjectives that modify it, the demonstrative adjective that and the compound adjective ten-acre, we see not only the substantial and logical essence of what the writer is talking about, but what defining qualities he is attributing to it: location with that and quantity with ten-acre.

This information helps us in two ways. Grammatically, we know now that the verb for this subject must be singular, because the substantive of the subject is the singular noun property—and indeed the writer has used the correct form is: that ten-acre property is an especially beautiful parcel. But what about all the nouns that intervene between the substantive property and the verb? Are they not to be included in the subject and thereby affect the number of the verb? This, in fact, is a not uncommon error in composition, and the answer is decidedly no. A phrase that is merely meant to describe the real subject more fully (called a nonrestrictive element) does not determine the number of the verb because it is not essential to the subject—not, at least, to the subject as it has been conceived for the sentence.

Which brings us to the second way in which this distinction between the substantive subject and the complete subject can be so practical. The writer perceived a scene of six nouns and wrote a sentence that took one of them, property, as its essential subject. But he could very well have taken a number of those other perceptions as the subject and used them together to create a plural subject: Those hundreds of pine trees and small stream running down from the hills make this ten-acre property an especially beautiful parcel. And this compositional observation serves to remind us that grammar concretizes our perceptions, requiring that they stand for the moment in a fixed logical relation to one another. But change the direction from which we perceive a scene, and both the logic and grammar will change. This should encourage us to revise our work more energetically and see what we’ve written from an entirely new perspective. The changes that result might surprise us.


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