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Subject and Predicates

Grammar rocks

The basic English sentence form is the statement form, the declarative sentence. A well-formed (shapely, studly) declarative sentence must have both a subject, something the statement is about, and a predicate, something that is said about the subject. The need for a subject sets the declarative sentence apart from both exclamatory and imperative sentences, where the subject is optional. The predicate of a declarative sentence is unlike the required verb of the imperative sentence because it must include a verb which can be interpreted as carrying past or present tense--in other words, a verb which meets the tests we've just used to identify verbs.

A declarative sentence which lacks a subject or predicate is not grammatically complete, and we call it an incomplete sentence or a sentence fragment. There is such a thing as a legitimate use of a sentence fragment--certainly in response to a question--but when in doubt, avoid them. Readers who notice you using a sentence fragment in formal prose might think you don't know any better and fail to invite you to their A-list parties.

The simplest possible subject is a single noun, like grammar.
The simplest possible predicate would be a single verb, like stinks

To help keep up morale, we will change the verb to rocks, giving us a simple but eloquent sentence:

(1) Grammar rocks

We'll get to some unusual structures later, but in the basic declarative sentence, the subject comes in front of the predicate. English doesn't signal the subject by any special inflection on its main noun, so we usually rely on the order in which words appear to tell us what is the subject and what is the predicate. If we can pick out the main verb, we can usually assume that what comes before it is the subject, even when we are not dealing with a two-word sentence. Consider the underlined subjects in these sentences:

(2) The pretty girl in the red dress winked at me.
(3) The old man with a beard, who had heard the whole thing, laughed.
(4) That you feel no remorse amazes me.
(5) Eating spinach is good for you.

Sentences (2) and (5) are the easier ones, since each has only a single verb (winked, is), so that the complete subject includes all the material that comes before it. Both sentences (3) and (4) include more than one verb, but the main ones are laughed and amazes, which should help us. Although both sentences (2) and (3) are headed up by nouns (girl, man), with the rest of the subject modifying them, in sentence (4) the whole sentence-like expression (that you feel no remorse is the subject, and in sentence (5) the verb-like eating is the main word. These odd subjects have been stuck in to make the point that sentence subjects are not always nouns or phrases headed by nouns, though most are.

Exercise 1: Identifying Subjects

Identify the complete subject of the following sentences:
1.01 Breaking up is hard.
1.02 Clowns give the circus its special air of melancholy.
1.03 Everybody loves somebody sometime.
1.04 George is a good shot.
1.05 Girls crowd around him.
1.06 Going the extra mile wins customers.
1.07 Screams echoed down the hall.
1.08 What I have noticed is that she cheats sometimes.

Sentence Diagramming. Now that we are all the way up to two word sentences, we can begin diagramming them. The purpose of such diagrams is to help one visualize the structure of a sentence, its parts and how they fit together. We'll be using tree-diagrams, which can look like upside-down trees if you try hard enough. What we know so far about declarative sentences is that they consist of a subject and a predicate. Our tree diagram might look like this:

As a matter of convention, though, in drawing trees it is customary to abbreviate the labels. Let's get started on that by using one letter abbreviations for sentence, noun, and verb:

This kind of visual representation doesn't seem very important as long as our sentences are two words long, but this division between subject and predicate is the first step in any analysis of a declarative sentence. We'll make more complicated diagrams later. In the meantime, we can represent sentences with more complicated subjects like this:

Just for the Record: Impersonal Verbs. English is so strict about requiring a subject that it supplies them even for verbs which don't really need them and don't have them in some other languages:

(6) It rains.
(7) It snows.
Verbs that require no semantic subject at all are called impersonal verbs--in English, they are mainly weather verbs. As we'll see later, English also uses it in the subject position when the real subject, underlined in the sentences below, has been moved to the end of the sentence:
(8) It seems that there is no way out.
(9) It is unclear why he wanted the pumpkin.

How Much of This Will be on the Test?
The key here is learning to divide an English declarative sentence into a subject and predicate. We've introduced terms like incomplete sentence and sentence fragment, but we aren't ready yet to identify them. We've introduce phrase-structure trees, but we haven't developed all the terms you'll need to draw them. It would be nice if you could remember that verbs like rain and snow are called impersonal verbs, but that is not a major point.