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I am not able to understand what is the subject in the sentences below.

  • Stone walls do not make a Prison. ("Aren't we talking about Prison here?")
  • We cannot pump the ocean dry ("Aren't we talking about oceans here?")

The page Subject and predicate worksheet says: "The part of the sentence which names the person or the thing we are talking about is called the subject."

Bad habits grow unconsciously (The subject in this sentence is "bad habits". So does that mean that the subject could also not be a name or a thing?)

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    Subject ≠ Topic. Subject = that which does the action, or which is the thing, referred to by the verb in the sentence.
    – TimR
    Feb 23, 2016 at 12:07
  • @TRomano What like in "I was robbed"? Feb 23, 2016 at 18:11
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    @Araucaria: I wasn't aiming for comprehensiveness there, mainly trying to make clear to the OP that subject ≠ topic of discussion. But in that passive, the subject is I. The predicate "was robbed" is made in reference to I.
    – TimR
    Feb 23, 2016 at 19:47
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    The sentence is misquoted. The actual sentence is "Stone walls do not a prison make." It's from a 17th century poem by Richard Lovelace.
    – Mary M
    Jan 17 at 16:04
  • [I am not able to understand what the subject is in the etc.]
    – Lambie
    Jan 17 at 16:51

5 Answers 5

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The part of the sentence which names the person or the thing we are talking about is called the subject.

This is a bad definition.

Verbs are words that describe actions. A subject is a property of a verb, and it describes who or what is performing the action. (Objects come after the verb and describe who or what is the recipient or target of the action.)

Sometimes what we care about in a sentence is not the person or thing performing an action. However, English demands all sentences have a subject and a verb, and if it's not explicitly stated then heavily implied by surrounding context. So the subject needs to always be there even if you don't care about it, and it usually comes before the verb.

@Colin Fine puts it very well, the subject is not determined by the meaning or what the speaker/listener consider important (semantics) but by the position in the sentence and relation to other words (syntax).

However, with your examples I'm not following how you are having trouble:

Stone walls do not make a Prison. ("Aren't we talking about Prison here?")

No, this sentence is about stone walls and what they are not capable of making.

We cannot pump the ocean dry ("Aren't we talking about oceans here?")

No, this sentence is about "us" and our inability to pump an ocean dry.

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  • I'm hoping to upvote your answer, but can't do so while it says "verbs are words that describe actions". That's an even worse definition of verbs that the OP has of Subjects. Feb 24, 2016 at 9:05
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"Subject" is a complicated notion, that many books have been written about (and some academics dismiss it as not a useful notion at all).

But usually, it is regarded as a syntactic rather than a semantic concept.

In "We cannot pump the ocean dry", the subject is, unequivocally, "we". The fact that "we" is semantically almost empty here (it could be substituted with "one" or even "you", with scarcely any difference in meaning) does not affect this. "The ocean" is not the grammatical subject, it is the object.

The definition of "subject" you have quoted is inadequate. Often it works, but not always.

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A very common sentence structure in English is:

Subject (noun) - Action (verb) - Object (noun)

where the Subject is an actor, performing an action on the Object.

So, taking the first example:

  • Subject: walls (with preceding adjective- stone)
  • Action : make (with preceding negative - do not)
  • Object : prison

It is not necessary for the Subject to be a name or place. It can be any noun.

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The subjects in your sentences are " walls, we, habits".

The subject is the principal and grammatically independent part of the sentence. It can be expressed by a single word or a group of words. It can be expressed by a noun,a pronoun,an adjective,a numeral,an infinitive or an infinitive phrase, a gerund and different groups of words.

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Your definition of subject is vague and imprecise. In a declarative sentence the subject is placed before the verb, not at the end and you ask who does what or who is what. If the subject is a thing you ask what does what or what is what. In a sentence as "we talked about politics" the talk is about politics, but the subject is we. If you have personal pronouns in the sentence I, he, she, we, they clearly indicate the subject. If you can replace a noun by he,she they, it is the subject. (You and it are ambiguous, they can be subject or object.)

German children learn that a declarative sentence makes a statement and contains two indications. About whom or what is said something? That's the suject. And what is said about the subject? That is the predicate, containing the verb.

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  • So that means that in "There is a problem" the word there is the Subject, right? Feb 23, 2016 at 18:10
  • @Araucaria - I have no problem with the sentence type "There is/are + noun sg/pl". Actually I have never asked myself what the subject is in such sentences and was really astonished that some see "there" as subject. But I know there are different views about a lot of things in language and I can live with it. But the problem whether there is subject or not is for me no topic any longer.
    – rogermue
    Feb 23, 2016 at 18:47
  • I can completely see that :) But then that does cause a problem for students if you also say to them that the subject is placed before the verb. Feb 24, 2016 at 0:20
  • Special sentence types must be learnt too.
    – rogermue
    Feb 24, 2016 at 3:50

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