A few hours ago, a kid asked me the subject of a sentence, which was "Linda makes black forest cake", and I answered 'Linda' by explaining 'Who makes the cake' 'the doer' of that action (makes) is the subject. Now, the kid asks the subject of another sentence, "What are their values?", and I answered it is unclear to me what the subject is in this sentence.

It was easy to find out the subject of the action verb, but when the verb is a 'Be' verb, it is quite tough for me to determine what the subject is.

  • Running in the park is my favorite activity.
    (I can determine the subject here, Running in the park, as the subject is also a noun(phrase) that is being described, so in this case, asking "What is my favorite activity?" reveals the subject to be "running in the park".

But "What are their values?" if we take it as an independent question, I can't determine the subject. I can take 'what' as the subject by understanding "Helping people and spreading harmony are their values". this approach helps me understand the subject, which I don't know if this is correct or not yet.

Please guide me in determining the subject in "Be" verb sentences.

  • James K uses the transformational grammar perspective which is why I love him. But in constituency grammar perspective (old one) the subject is 'what' and 'their values' is subject complement. Because the old perspective focuses on the constituents or the units of a sentence that function as a single unit. Feb 17 at 11:12

1 Answer 1


Yes, it is unclear (and that is why kids shouldn't be doing too much sentence parsing)

You normally identify the subject by reforming the clause to "canonical" form (not a question, negation or subordinate) and then identifying the noun phrase (etc) before the verb phrase.

But with "be" verbs, you can often (not always) express the same idea with different subjects: "Running is my favourite activity" and "My favourite activity is running". Either of this could be the answer to "What is your favourite activity?".

On the other hand "Bees are insects" and "Insects are bees" are not equivalent (and only the first is intended) So in the question "What are bees?" The subject is "Bees".

So for the sake of simplicity, in the clause "What are their values?", you can consider the interrogative pronoun "What" to be the fronted subject complement, "are" the verb, inverted with the subject, and the subject is "Their values". But note that there are alternate ways to parse that are equally valid, because the same idea can be expressed in multiple ways.

  • verbs we use depend on the subjects of questions, "What are their values?". And if I say "What is their values", it would be incorrect.
    – hwkal
    Feb 16 at 9:39
  • Yes, because the pronoun "what" is pretty much transparent to number, it could be taken as a plural, implied by the complement "values". The word "what" is not marked for number nor case, so there is a syntactic ambiguity, but no semantic ambiguity.
    – James K
    Feb 16 at 10:04
  • I've always understood these question-sentences as inverted, so that "What are bees?" really means "Bees are what." And while the answer, yes, could put either part of the equation first, the answer to an question is likely to take the order that inverts it. I.e. "What are bees?" "Bees are insects of the superfamily Apoidea" ... rather than answering with "Insects of [etc] are bees." Feb 16 at 14:21
  • @AndyBonner Yes, but only in the case of specifying predicative complements, where the order is often reversible, e.g. A gold pen was what they gave me" ~ "What they gave me was a gold pen".
    – BillJ
    Feb 17 at 7:56

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