This is an exercise in Chapter 5 of a textbook by Bas Aarts, English Syntax and Argumentation, 4th edition, published 2013, on page 88:

  1. In previous editions of this book I allowed for adjective phrases, adverb phrases and bare infinite clauses to function as Subject, and I used the examples below to illustrate these possibilities:

    (i) [ AP Restless] is what I would call him.

    (ii) [ AdvP Cautiously] is how I would suggest you do it.

    (iii) [ bare inf. clause Party the night away] is a nice thing to do.

However, the italicized strings in these examples are best not taken to be Subjects. Why not? Review Section 2.1 to remind yourself of the distributional properties of Subjects.

I don't know how to answer this question.

If you have the book English Syntax and Argumentation, 3th or 4th edition, please help me to answer this question. Even if you don't have that book, of course you can help me.

  • Because they're clunky, unwieldy and not natural English. They're not completely unused, just uncommon.
    – Catija
    Mar 28, 2015 at 6:26
  • Is this the book?
    – Catija
    Mar 28, 2015 at 6:31
  • 3
    Especially #3. I would call it ungrammatical as well as clunky. "Partying* the night away. . ." would be grammatical. Mar 28, 2015 at 7:34
  • 1
    I've never read the book, and I don't have it, but I think it's more common to think of what I would call him (rather than Restless) in Restless is what I would call him as the subject of the sentence. If that sounds strange, try to think of the sentence as an alternate version of What I would call him is restless. Mar 28, 2015 at 8:55
  • +1. That be a very good question! I know someone who ought to be interested in helping to solve this mystery! I'll go and give him a ping. :)
    – F.E.
    Mar 28, 2015 at 9:58

3 Answers 3


Your question is "Can the subject be an adjective phrase, adverb phrase, or a bare infinitival clause?"

I think technically the answer is that an infinitive can be a subject, as in "To live is to suffer," but that adjectival phrases and adverb phrases can not be a "subject" as that concept is usually understood.

In your examples (i) and (ii), the subject of those sentences is "I."

Restless is what I would call him.
Cautiously is how I would suggest you do it.

Re example (iii), the subject could be "to party the night away." as in is

To party the night away is a nice thing to do.

In examples (i) and (ii), it might help in thinking of this kind of construction to imagine quote marks around Restless and Cautiously, as in:

"Restless" is what I would call him.
"Cautiously" is how I would suggest you do it.

You probably wouldn't actually write it with the quote marks, but it helps to understand how this would be spoken and what it means. These two sentences are good idiomatic sentences.

However, "Party the night away is a nice thing to do" is not idiomatic at all. It would be puzzling to a listener/reader. "To party the night away is a nice thing to do" works grammatically, though it doesn't flow very well.


This question has two answers: a simple answer, and a complicated answer.

First, the simple answer the author of this book is clearly fishing for. The author thinks you should avoid using these constructions because, in the example sentence given, changing the subject of the sentence also allows you to change the sentence from the passive voice to the active voice. So, instead of:

Restless is what I would call him.

the author wants you to say:

I would call him restless.

The passive voice is a bugbear for many proscriptive grammarians. Overuse of the passive can be a real problem, but the passive voice, if not abused, can also be a useful and expressive part of the English language. A grammarian might not call these sentences part of the classic "passive voice" (his examples contain mostly predicate adjective phrases, not passive verbs), but to a rhetoritician, which I assume this author is, they have the same effect.

Now for the more complicated (and more interesting) answer. We'll take this in two parts.

First: there is absolutely nothing wrong with using an infinitive as the subject of a sentence.

To know him is to love him.

This is straightforward and idiomatic. On the other hand, using a bare infinitive:

* Know him is to love him

is not idiomatic in American or British English. The author's third example sentence will just sound wrong to most native speakers. Not awkward, but wrong, like using the wrong tense or number. I have no idea why the author would ever have thought a bare infinitive could be the subject of a sentence--or, at least, why this would be an acceptable example of it.

Ajdectives and adverbs can be sentence subjects, but doing this means something. At a minimum, it shifts the emphasis of the sentence.

Was she pretty? No, not pretty. Striking is what I would call her.

This is a perfectly idiomatic English construction; but it has a different feel, and a different emphasis, than:

Was she pretty? No, not pretty. I would call her striking.

In other words: the real answer is that the author wants you to avoid these passive or passive-like constructions because he or she is trying to oversimplify a complex feature of English grammar.

  • 1
    a) There are no passives in these sentences, though it is true (and a useful thing to point out) that one function of these constructions is the same sort of "information packaging" the passive aims at. b) The bare infinitive is grammatical, and colloquial. It is licensed as the referent of pro-verb do at the end, which bears the necessary to marker: A fun thing to do is party all nightParty all night is a fun thing to do. Mar 28, 2015 at 16:36
  • 1
    A fun thing to do is to party all night. Partying all night is a fun thing to do. Not to say one couldn't say it with the bare infinitive, but some of us wouldn't, when there are more natural-sounding ways available. Apr 7, 2015 at 8:25
  • "Dance the night away sounds good to me." Jul 6, 2015 at 20:08
  • "Who wants to have pizza and who wants to have burgers? --Have pizza's my choice!" Jul 6, 2015 at 20:11

For the first two, they are not the subjects because they are actually the direct objects.

Restless is what I would call him.

In this sentence "I" is doing an action ("call"), "restless" is what "I" called, and "him" is the indirect object that received the calling.

The last one is a poor example.

[to] Party the night away is a nice thing to do.

In this case "party the night away" really is the subject.

In all three cases, especially the last, it is appropriate to use quotation marks due to the atypical usage.

"Party the night away" is a nice thing to do.

We aren't actually necessarily quoting someone, but the quotation marks let us know that the verb refers to the entire phrase "party the night away". Similarly the second example:

"Cautiously" is how I would suggest you do it.

I'm actually talking about the concept of the word "cautiously".

  • 1
    "For the first two, they are not the subjects because they are actually the direct objects." <== Could you please show us (in your answer post) how they are actually "direct objects"?
    – F.E.
    Apr 7, 2015 at 6:17

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