Where is a subject placed?

Considering that the subject can be a noun, pronoun, noun phrase, gerund, infinitive, or subordinating clause, it is important to understand where a subject is placed.

01 The simple case

The subject of a simple sentence or a clause usually appears before the corresponding verb. For example,

  • The sun rises in the east.

It is also common for various phrases to appear between the subject and the verb. For example,

  • The Sun, located at the center of the Solar System, is a nearly perfect sphere of hot plasma.
  • The lights, hanging from the ceiling, are made of glass.

These intervening phrases usually do not modify the nature of the subject, especially its characteristics. You might be easily misled by the noun closer to the verb (in this case, “Solar System”), but care must be taken to identify the correct subject (“The Sun”).

02 Position of the subject in an inversion

Inversion is the grammatical word order in a sentence, phrase, or clause, where the normal word order pattern of subject + verb in English is reversed. In inversions, the subject takes the form of the auxiliary verb as either singular or plural but before the main verb. To explain further, the normal order is subject + auxiliary verb + main verb, with the auxiliary verb being optional. In our first example,

The sun (subject) + does (aux. verb) + raise (main verb) in the east.

In inversions, the order is auxiliary verb + subject + main verb.

While there are many different types of inversions, the most commonly known inversion is a question. For example,

In which direction does (aux. verb) the sun (subject) rise (main verb)?

03 With subordinate clauses as subjects

Subordinate clauses can act as the subject of a sentence. A that-clause is the most common subordinate clause and begins a sentence or clause. A that-clause is also known as a declarative content clause. Science texts are replete with such that-clauses.

  • That the two responsibility regimes have differing foundations leaves their relationship unclear.

Relative clauses are another possibility. These are also tricky concepts in English grammar. A relative clause begins with a relative pronoun whose antecedent is (usually) the object of the previous clause. The challenging part comes when the object is a noun phrase with one or more prepositional phrases (in which case, the antecedent can be any of the nouns in the prepositional phrase) or when the relative pronoun indicates the entire previous clause (in which case, the subject is the entire previous clause). Here are some examples:

  • the book that I’ve just written (the book is the antecedent)
  • the book on the table that was stolen yesterday (what was stolen yesterday, the book or the table?)
  • So we do not need to step out of the house for days, which I am so looking forward to (the antecedent of which is the fact that we do not need to step out of the house for days – the entire clause)

04 With possessive cases

In subject phrases containing possessives, the head subject is the noun following the possessive.

  • Jonathan’s house is located near the hill.
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