1. What is a Simple Subject?
A simple subject is a single noun or pronoun connected to a verb. Normally, the simple subject of a sentence will come before the verb. While the complete subject may contain modifiers (adjectives, relative clauses, and prepositional phrases), the simple subject contains only one, unmodified person, place, thing, or idea. Every complete sentence includes at least one simple subject.
2. Examples of Simple Subjects
- Dogs are good pets.
Dogs is the simple subject; it is the noun that the sentence is about.
- Peter and I live in Seattle.
Some sentences contain multiple simple subjects. “Peter” is a simple subject here, and “I” is also a simple subject.
- The people here are all my friends.
The articles a/an/the are not included in simple subjects. In this example, “people” is the simple subject.
- Baseball players exercise often
“Players” is the simple subject. Modifying nouns are not part of a simple subject.
- Is she your best friend?
Simple subjects can also come after the verb.
3. Parts of Simple Subjects
A simple subject is a standalone noun (a person, place, thing, or idea):
- Planes fly in the air.
In this sentence, planes is the simple subject. It is a single noun connected to a verb (fly). The simple subject is the main focus of the sentence.
- Fast jet planes fly in the air.
Here, planes is still the simple subject. The modifier “fast” is not part of the simple subject, since it does not tell us what the main idea of the sentence is; rather it gives us more information about that noun. Similarly, “jet” only gives extra information about the kind of planes being discussed, and so “jet” is not part of the simple subject either.
- Fast jet planes and blimps fly in the air.
This last example contains two simple subjects, planes and blimps. The phrase “planes and blimps” is called a compound subject (see section IV for more details). Importantly, “and” is not part of either simple subject.
In addition to nouns, pronouns can also be simple subjects.
- Whoever collects the most stickers wins.
Although whoever is an unspecified pronoun, it is still clearly the focus of the sentence. Any pronoun can be the simple subject of a sentence.
- Green ones are especially rare.
“One” is the only pronoun which can be modified by an adjective. Since ones is the main focus of the sentence, it is the simple subject. Just as with other simple subjects, the modifier “green” is not included.
c. Predicate Nouns
Sometimes, a simple subject does not perform an action, but instead is equated (or linked) to another noun phrase. This is done with the verb “to be.” For example:
- Kenji is that firefighter.
This sentence could be rewritten as
- That firefighter is Kenji.
In the first version, Kenji is the simple subject. In the second version, firefighter is the simple subject. So, when two nouns are equated by a form of “to be,” the first noun is considered the subject of the sentence, while the second noun is part of the predicate.
4. Types of Simple Subjects
a. One-word Subjects
The most common type of simple subject is a single word:
- My brother rides his bike to school.
No matter how many modifiers are added to the subject, the simple subject remains the same:
- My favorite older brother, who just started tenth grade, rides his bike to school.
b. Compound Nouns and Proper Nouns
Some nouns are composed of two words in a compound. Often there is a hyphen between the parts of the compound, but sometimes the single noun is written as two unconnected words.
- Ice cream is my favorite dessert.
Because we can’t say which part of the compound modifies the other, we must treat ice cream as an independent concept. This kind of compound noun stands alone as a single noun and can be considered a simple subject.
Proper nouns may also contain two or more words while still referring to a single concept:
- American Samoa is an island territory of the United States.
Here, American is part of the proper name American Samoa. The two words are part of the single name of a territory.
c. Nouns and the Passive Voice
Sometimes the subject of a sentence does not perform the action of the verb, but instead has an action performed on it. The verbs in these sentences are called passive verbs. Consider the following:
- The dog chased the cat.
In this sentence, dog is the simple subject. The dog performs the action of the verb “chased.” The sentence can be changed slightly to produce the opposite meaning:
- The dog is chased by the cat.
In this sentence, dog is not performing the action of “chasing,” but is instead receiving that action by being “chased by the cat.” Although the meaning of the sentence has been reversed and the dog is no longer performing the action, dog is still the simple subject because it comes before the verb.
d. Interrogative Pronouns
There are many different ways to ask questions in English. Usually, normal word order changes when we ask questions. This can make it confusing to identify the simple subject of a sentence. However, when an interrogative pronoun (who, what, which) begins a sentence, it will always be the simple subject:
- Who said that we didn’t have class today?
In this case, the focus of the sentence is who. Who is also the noun that performs the action of the verb (said).When “to be” is used to ask a question, the simple subject of a sentence may be very vague:
- Who is the girl on the swing?
Although “girl” is much more specific than who, “the girl” is not the focus of the sentence. We know that who is the focus because it comes before “the girl.”
- Which of these books is yours?
Which here is the simple subject because it is the main focus of the sentence.
- Is that the boy you were talking about?
That here is the simple subject. The verb (is) equates that with “the boy.” Because that comes first, it is the main focus of the sentence.
When making a command, both in speech and in writing, we are always instructing someone: either “you” or “you all.”
- Hand me the screwdriver.
In this sentence, the simple subject is not included: there is only a verb (hand), a direct object (the screwdriver), and an indirect object (me). The sentence can be rewritten to show the understood subject:
- [You] hand me the screwdriver.
Since every complete sentence must have a subject, we say that you is the simple subject. Even though it is not explicitly included, you is not only the person who performs the action of the verb (hand), but is also the main focus of the sentence.
f. Compound Subject
While a simple subject is a standalone noun, a compound subject includes two or more noun phrases linked to the same verb:
- Mona and Tyrese played tennis all day.
In this example, both Mona and Tyrese “played tennis.” Therefore, this sentence has a compound subject: “Mona and Tyrese.” Compound subjects contain any linking words (and/or) between them. There are two simple subjects in this sentence: Mona is one, and Tyrese is the other.
- Tall buildings and windy weather don’t mix well.
In this example, there are also two simple subjects: buildings and weather. Together, they are part of a longer compound subject: “tall buildings and windy weather.” When you see a compound subject in a sentence, remember that the simple subjects it contains do not include any modifiers or linking words.
5. How to Use Simple Subjects
Using simple subjects requires us to identify the single noun that is most important for the sentence to make sense. The simple subject is the noun which cannot be removed without completely changing the meaning of the sentence. In order to use simple subjects correctly, we must decide which person, place, thing, or idea is truly the focus of a sentence.
a. Using Sentence Structure to Find the Simple Subject
In most sentences, the first noun will be the simple subject. However, there are exceptions.
- Dog breeders keep very exact records.
Although “dog” is the first noun in this sentence, its function is to modify breeders by telling us what kind of breeders are being referred to.
More complicated types of sentences often have more than one simple subject.
- Andre and his mother went shopping at the mall.
- Andre or his mother will pick out a present for Tracy.
The first sentence contains two simple subjects linked with the word and. The word or can also be used to connect multiple simple subjects (as in the second sentence).
Other types of sentences may also have more than one simple subject:
- Andre looks for toys and his mother looks for shoes.
This sentence has two simple subjects, Andre and mother. Each one is part of an independent clause.
Other sentences contain dependent clauses, which do not include simple subjects:
- After Andre returns from the mall, he will play tennis with a friend.
Although “Andre” is the subject of the verb “returns,” he is the subject of the sentence’s main clause. The simple subject of a sentence will always be part of an independent clause. You can tell whether a clause is independent or not if it would be a complete sentence on its own:
- After Andre returns from the mall.
This is not a complete sentence; it is a sentence fragment and a dependent clause.
- He will play tennis with a friend.
This has a subject and a verb, and forms a complete sentence which can stand alone. So, this is an independent clause (and also the main clause).
b. Simple Subjects in Yes/No Questions
If we are asking whether or not something is true, or whether or not a certain thing happens in a certain way, we ask yes/no questions. There are four ways to form these questions: with a change in word order, with a tag question, with a change in emphasis, or with the verb “to do.”
- Is that a new hat? “that is” → “is that” indicates a yes/no question
- You like my new hat, right? “Right?” indicates a yes/no question
- Do you like my new hat? “Do you” indicates a yes/no question
In these examples, the simple subject is clear: both that and you come before the verb, and so each is the main focus of the sentence.
c. Simple Subjects in Commands
The way we give a command is by leaving the pronoun “you” out of the sentence; after all, it’s always clear that we are talking to “you.” Consider these examples:
- You eat your dinner with a spoon.
- Eat your dinner with a spoon.
By including “you,” the first example means that you tend to eat dinner with a spoon. The second example, on the other hand, is a command that means you should eat dinner with a spoon. Although you is not contained in the second sentence, it is still the simple subject. When you is the simple subject but does not appear in a sentence, we refer to you as “understood,” since we understand that it is intended even though it’s not there.
6. How to Avoid Mistakes with Simple Subjects
a. Noun Compounds
In section 4. b, we learned about compound nouns (like ice cream), which are single nouns composed of two or more words. Compound nouns cannot be split into separate nouns without the second noun losing its meaning. Compound nouns contain a single unmodified person, place, thing, or idea; on the other hand, noun compounds include a modifier (the first noun) and a modified part (the final noun).
A few examples of noun compounds: coffee cup, water bottle, power tools, pig farmer. Noun compounds are very common in English, and most of them are not proper nouns. Like the examples above, noun compounds are formed with a modifier followed by a core noun. Consider the following examples:
- The movie star was infamous for his temper. “movie” modifies star
- Phone booths are becoming obsolete. “phone” modifies booths
- Diesel engines are very fuel efficient. “diesel” modifies engines
In these examples, the core noun is the simple subject of the sentence. Because these noun compounds are not proper nouns, the thing being referred to does not require both nouns to be understood: all “movie stars” are stars, all “phone booths” are booths, and all “diesel engines” are engines. In a common noun compound, only the final noun will be included in the simple subject.
b. Question Words and Interrogative Pronouns
Question words are who, what, which, where, when, why, and how. Only who, what, and which can be simple subjects, because these three are the only interrogative pronouns (remember from section 4 that only nouns and pronouns can be simple subjects). Here are a few examples:
- Who gave you that present? [Mom gave you that present.]
- What is your favorite color? [Blue is your favorite color.]
- Which belongs to Kim? [The green one belongs to Kim.]
The other question words, however, cannot be pronouns, and so cannot be simple subjects. You can tell if a question word is a pronoun if you can replace it with a noun and form a complete answer without changing word order (as is done in brackets above).
- Where is your school? Answer: Franklin High is your school.
Although “Franklin High is your school” is a complete sentence, it does not answer the question “where?”
- When will you be ready? Answer: Tomorrow will you be ready.
For this answer to make sense, you’d have to change the word order.
- Why is he always so mean to me? Answer: Jealousy is he always so mean to me.
Once we know that a question word is not a pronoun, we must look elsewhere for the simple subject.
- How do you go to school in the morning?
Because “how” is not a pronoun, it cannot be the simple subject. So, we look next to the verb “go.” The subject of the verb “go” will be the simple subject. In this sentence, the subject of “go” is you.
- Why is she doing my homework for me?
Here the verb is “is doing.” The subject of “is doing” is she, and so she is the simple subject.