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Identifying the Subject

Identifying the Subject

Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson goes over how to identify the subject of a sentence.

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Before we can identify the subject of a sentence, let’s review what a subject IS and what it DOES in a sentence.
The subject of a sentence is the agent or doer of the action in a sentence; it is what the sentence is about, or the topic of the sentence. Usually, the subject appears as a noun or noun phrase.
In order to locate the subject, you’ll need to find the main verb of the clause or sentence. Check the tense of the verb to see if the subject will be plural or singular, and if it will be in first, second, or third person. This can lead you to the subject, the doer of the action.
Let’s talk about some of the places where the subject likes to hang out: 
Head (or beginning) of a phrase or sentence
  • A group of gargoyles can’t scare me!
    • In this example, the main subject of the sentence is “a group,” and it appears at the beginning of the phrase. The rest of the phrase, “of gargoyles,” follows the main subject. The main verb, “can’t” or “cannot," follows.
    • The entire subject, “a group of gargoyles,” appears at the beginning of the sentence, which is the most common pattern in Standard English: Subject followed by Verb.
  • Two more examples:
    • The mayor was delighted by the turn of events.
    • Platypuses have poor eyesight, so they must use the sensors in their duckbills to forage for food.
      • In this final example, there are two clauses and each has its own subject. Both of the subjects appear before the verb at the head or beginning of the clause.
Inverted Subject and Verb
Sometimes writers like to invert (or flip flop) the subject and the verb for emphasis or sentence variety. When the subject and verb are inverted, the subject does not appear at the head or beginning of the phrase, clause, or sentence. The subject is instead located after the verb.
  • Opposite the blue house lies a red house with yellow trim.
  • Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
When it comes to inverted sentences, it can sometimes be helpful to rewrite the sentences, locate the main verb, and then the subject:
  • A red house with yellow trim lies opposite the blue house.
  • The head that wears the crown is heavy.
Passive Voice
The passive voice also inverts the subject-verb order by listing the object in the subject position and the subject in the object position. Sometimes the passive voice leaves the subject unnamed.
  • The pastries were baked by our chef just this morning.
  • The monkeys were observed in three 8-hour shifts. (Subject unnamed)
As with inverted sentences, it can sometimes be helpful to rewrite a passive sentence in the active voice.
  • Our chef baked the pastries just this morning.
  • [The scientists] observed the monkeys in three 8-hour shifts. 
Difficult Constructions
Sometimes the sentence appears in subject-verb order, but it is difficult to pinpoint the main subject, as in the following sentences:
  • Few of us remember what it means to fly.
  • A group of girls saran-wrapped the car!
In this type of construction, look closely at the phrase to find the main subject.
In the first example, the main subject is “few.” If we were to change “few” to “one,” the verb would change from “remember” (present tense for plural) to “remembers” (present tense for singular)
  • “few” is plural and “one” is singular.
  • this means that "few" is the main subject

If we look closely at the phrase “A group of girls,” we can now see that the article “A” indicates one group (even if there are multiple girls within that group); therefore, the subject is a group (singular). 

Identifying the Subject