In Linguistics, there is a lot of talk about 'subject' (and many other things). A Linguist will say, "This is the subject of this sentence."

In fact, as far as I can see, neither subject, nor sentence have any robust definition.

Do any of you have such a definition, which will work, without exception, in say English, German, Spanish and Chinese?

  • 2
    There's not a universal robust definition, no. In some languages there isn't a concept of "subject" as there is in English or Swahili. All languages have predicates and arguments, though, and there are always ways of distinguishing specific arguments. So "subject" is, like "the phoneme /e/", a language-specific concept. Unless you define it away in your theory, of course.
    – jlawler
    Oct 9 '13 at 0:15
  • Hmm, i agree with @curiousdannii that this is a dupe but it's a bit tricky at this point as both questions have received reasonably well thought out answers.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 9 '13 at 7:39

While there are comprehensive definitions of subject, they won't apply to every language. Some languages use a topic-comment structure instead, such as Japanese.

Most communication is intended to convey propositions to the listeners. Propositions generally start with a piece of known information, and then add a new piece of information. Sometimes the new information is communicated through nouns or adjectives (such as John is a man or John is tall) and sometimes through verbs (John is running.) In all three of these examples John is the topic, and in English John is in the subject position.

The contrasting position is usually called the object. Transitive sentences will have both a subject and an object (John kicked the ball.) In these cases John has the role of actor, while the ball has the role of undergoer. But roles do not always correspond to the same grammatical position. In passive sentences the undergoer becomes the subject (The ball was kicked.)

So for these reasons you can't always identify the subject based on the meaning of the sentence. But you can identify it based on factors such as:

  • Case - some languages have case for all nouns, but English only has it for pronouns. I is nominative and only appears in the subject position, while me is accusative, and does not appear in the subject position (usually. Let's not get into this discussion, but sentences like this will often be made by many native English speakers: John and me are going to the beach)
  • Verb agreement - in many languages the verb will agree with the subject. In English we say I was jumping and They were jumping. In some languages though the verb is also marked for the object!
  • Syntactic position - in many languages the subject must appear in a fixed position. In English it is before the verb. But there are other constructions which can change it around, such as Left-dislocation: The girl, the dog bit.
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    I was under the impression that Japanese had case, and that the grammatical subject received nominative case.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 9 '13 at 7:24
  • Looking a little more, I think you're right. If anyone can edit my answer to clarify the distinction between topics and subjects, please do!
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 9 '13 at 7:33
  • Different constituents, not just subjects, can be topics. In "(As for me,) I had an apple", "I" is the topic. In "(As for the apple,) I had it", "the apple" is the topic.
    – dainichi
    Oct 9 '13 at 16:02
  • Perhaps you're thinking of Philippine languages? These have often been said to not have a 'subject' as such. Oct 10 '13 at 2:08

Thanks for that. I would point out the following:

  1. If you try to use 'object' to define 'subject', you are simply avoiding the issue. Without a robust definition of 'subject', it is pointless to talk of object.

  2. Without a definition of subject, how can you talk of 'subject position'? See if you can tell me the subject, and therefore the 'subject position' of this German sentence: Die Katze biss die Frau. Since feminine nominative and accusative case are identical, it is impossible to say which is which. Case was invented to indicate the roles of arguments. It is a very flawed invention.

  3. 'John is a man.' or 'John is tall.' are not propositions, but statements. If you wish to identify the 'subject' of 'John is a man' which criteria would you apply? Languages that use case will show both to be nominative, the case often associated with 'subject'. If you say the first noun is the subject, you mentioned left dislocation, which will immediately contradict this.

  4. Chinese has no verb inflections. Do you wish to say Chinese has no concept of subject, as has been mooted by some? (I'll provide a name later, can't find it right now).

  5. If you wish to identify 'is' as a verb, tell me if you think it is passive or active.

  6. In the market place stood a tall statue. Syntax will not define the subject.

  7. If position, case, syntax and verb agreement (cf my German sentence die Frau biss ..., die Katze biss ...) do not identify 'subject', ask yourself what are you doing to identify subject. You are using an art, but not a science.

In summary, I would say, with respect, your intuitive grasp of what 'subject' is, is entirely arbitrary, English orientated and not useful.

  • Whom are you "thanking"?
    – jlawler
    Oct 9 '13 at 4:15
  • Your answer to your own question, which is really a response to curiousdannii's post, invites further discussion. Alas, the Linguistics Stack Exchange is not a forum for discussions. See the relevant rule here: (linguistics.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask). Oct 9 '13 at 6:22
  • 1
    a. It wouldn't be very hard to figure out the subject of 'Die Katze biss die Frau in spoken German - if 'die Katze' was the theme, fronting of the theme requires marked prosody. b. 'John is a man' and 'John is tall' ARE propositions. A proposition is simply something that is truth-evaluable. c. I'm not sure what you mean in (6) by 'syntax will not define the subject - the subject is a tall statue.
    – P Elliott
    Oct 9 '13 at 7:29
  • Ermm, this is not a discussion, so what is it?? To evaluate the truth of something, must I not first state it? I would hardly propose 'John is a man' Would you rather see subject and object replaced with agent and theme? Can they be solidly defined? Oct 10 '13 at 3:37

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