Being a Subject

As in previous fall semesters, I’m teaching (jointly with my colleague Nik Gisborne) a course that tries to unite modern modes of thinking about language with the description of English grammar. Just basic, ordinary grammar of the sort you would think might be taught in grade school (and once was). And once more, as I reaquaint myself with some of the statements obediently repeated in virtually all traditional grammars, I am staggered that anyone could ever have believed claims that are so obviously false, or trusted definitions so obviously unfit-for-purpose.

I’ll illustrate with just one example (though there are many): I’ll look at the notion of grammatical subject. Two different definitions of the term have been kicking around for at least 200 years. Both are arrant nonsense, as can immediately be seen from the way the term is actually used in syntactic description.

Take the definition given in My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?), a successful 2008 book by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines, aimed at the general public:

The subject is the person or thing carrying out the action in a sentence.

First, let me eliminate a metaphysical calamity that is of secondary importance: They don’t mean that the subject is the person or thing. The subject of a clause or sentence is a word or phrase; it may perhaps denote a person or thing, but it’s distinct from what it denotes. Lee Harvey Oswald isn’t the grammatical subject of the sentence Oswald assassinated Kennedy. The subject is Oswald, not Oswald. Oswald is a proper noun, still alive and useful, whereas Oswald has been dead since 1963.

But with that corrected, now consider the basic content of the definition: that subjects carry out actions. Consider the following sentences, and try to apply this notion of action and actor:

  1. Mary knows the answer.
  2. You remind me of my mother.
  3. Charles just wants to die.
  4. Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.
  5. It’s cloudy today.
  6. The child underwent an operation.
  7. She struck me as highly intelligent.
  8. The wing had a hairline crack in it.
  9. That Scotland seeks independence shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Not an actor or an action in sight. The subjects of these simple one-clause sentences are, quite uncontroversially, as follows:

  1. Mary
  2. you
  3. Charles
  4. there
  5. it
  6. the child
  7. she
  8. the wing
  9. that Scotland seeks independence

Not one of those words or phrases denotes anything that performs an action. The whole idea that subjects are actors is bunk. It’s totally inapplicable in an indefinitely vast array of cases.

There’s a completely different and incompatible definition of “subject” that has also been knocking around for centuries. This it is how it is stated in Nevile Gwynne’s self-promotingly titled (and utterly atavistic) book Gwynne’s Grammar (2013):

The subject of a sentence or clause is: who or what the sentence or clause is all about.

This is even more obviously wrong than the previous one (and incompatible with it). Take sentences like these:

  • There is nothing America can do about the disastrous situation in Iraq. (All about America’s impotence; not about “there.”)
  • I doubt that you’ll be able to get past the security at the museum. (All about the security at the museum and your chances of bypassing it; the subject is “I,” but the sentence isn’t about me.)
  • They say big problems lie ahead for the president. (All about the president facing trouble; not about the unspecified “they” who spread the pessimistic mood.)
  • It seems people are getting suspicious about all politicians. (All about people’s suspicion of politicians; not about “it”—which doesn’t really mean anything at all.)

Neither of these timeworn definitions withstands even a few seconds’ confrontation with obvious facts. Why have they both drifted down to us as if they made some sense? Why do they still figure in popular grammar books, and how can the people who buy and read them trust such vapid, useless, indefensible definitions?

It’s not that “subject” can never be defined for English. It can. Present-tense verbs agree with their subjects (they say but she says); pronouns have to be nominative when they’re subjects of tensed verbs (it’s they say, not *them say); subjects come second in yes/no interrogatives (Should Scotland be an independent country?); interrogative tags have to agree with subjects (Tuesdays Jill goes to pilates, doesn’t she?); and so on. But the traditional books just repeat this drivel about doer-of-the-action or what-it’s-all-about.

This is perhaps the weirdest thing about teaching my subject: that it is dominated by obvious and ridiculous 200-year-old falsehoods that somehow still inspire credence.

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