'subject' of a sentence

Otter

Senior Member
English/American
Hi,

I'm an American, studying italian, and my tutor asked me today about the "logic" of English grammar and how we define the 'subject'. She and I both believe the subject can be a something other than a noun, such as, "Trusting can be difficult". However, other references I've checked only include 'subject' in the 'noun' category.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks.

Otter
 
  • Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    If you use the term "noun" broadly to include parts of speech that also function as nouns, then I don't think there is a problem. "Trusting" is a gerund, a verbal form that acts as a noun. Another verbal, the infintive, can also act as a noun: "To forgive is divine".
     

    Salvage

    Senior Member
    USA English
    This is simply my grade school memory, but I am recalling "subject" as being "a person, place, or thing". "Things" are not always tangible.

    Separately, "Trusting" is a noun in your example.
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    Interesting question (which I probably shouldn't be responding to because I'm not a grammarian!) but isn't your sample sentence abbreviated and incomplete? "Trusting" is an adjective that needs to modify something (ie. "people"). I can imagine someone saying this but I can't imagine seeing it in writing (in a formal discourse or thesis for instance).

    Well, glancing at previous posts, I can see that I'm in the minority... but it still sounds wrong to me. :)
     

    Otter

    Senior Member
    English/American
    This is simply my grade school memory, but I am recalling "subject" as being "a person, place, or thing". "Things" are not always tangible.

    Separately, "Trusting" is a noun in your example.
    Thanks. I'm not sure what you mean by 'Separately', trusting is a noun. . . ." To trust is a verb. Do you mean it in the sense that Matching Mole said, '"Trusting" is a gerund, a verbal form that acts as a noun'?

    To Dimcl, I didn't mean it as an adjective, such as "she's very trusting". I meant it as the gerund of "To Trust".

    This is all helpful. Thanks.


    I looked at another site while waiting for an answer and it said, "Sentences are made up of subjects and predicates.Sentences are made up of two parts - subjects and predicates. Simply put, the predicate is the verb and everything that follows it, while the subject is whatever comes before the verb." So one can have a verb as the noun and another as the verb.

    Sound right to everyone?

    Thanks.

    Otter.
     
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    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    In general terms, grammar works best if you use the labels to indicate a word's job in a particular sentence, not ascribe words to fixed word classes ..

    e.g. dog can be a verb: He dogs her steps
    dog can be a noun: The dog bit me


    similarly trusting can be a verb: He started trusting women again
    or an adjective: she is a very trusting woman
    or a noun: Trusting can be difficult (though this noun form is traditionally called a gerund, as others have said)
     

    picopico

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    In the case of subjects and predicates, that merely refers to sentence structures -

    The teacher asked that all her students place their things inside their desks

    In this sentence The teacher is the subject and the rest, the act of asking her students to place their things in their desks, the predicate. This is not to say that the verb, to place, becomes a noun in any sense or deviates from being a verb.

    But you probably already know this. As for the original question, it is possible for verbs to become nouns in certain cases, such as Trusting in the gerund form and To Forgive in the infinitive, as Mole mentioned earlier.

    Trusting can be difficult is an odd phrase out of context, because it isn't really a sentence standing alone. It would be more natural to hearor read trusting people can be difficult or trusting the government is impossible, where you have a basic verb + subject form. But the phrase does make sense, and would be well understood.

    I use verbs in the gerund form regularly as nouns, if that adds any more weight to the argument, but I've found through learning Spanish that English uses the gerund more frequently. In spanish, the infinitive is more common and proper to be used in this manner such as in mandates. I'm not sure if it's the same case in Italian.

    Either way, I agree, subjects can be something other than the noun.
     

    Frank78

    Senior Member
    German
    To put it in elementary school level:

    The subject is the person or thing which "acts" in a sentence. The subject does what the verb indicates.

    Subjects and verbs are the only 2 necessary parts of a sentence.

    "Trusting can be difficult" Who or What can be difficult? Trusting. I know there are no (real) cases so this maybe sound odd to English speakers but questioning does work ;)

    So it is the subject.
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    But the gerund plus object form (e.g. "trusting people") simply adds an object to the verbal "trusting" (like an adverb which defines a verb), the object "people" does not become a subject. The subject is still "trusting", except that it is narrowed in scope.

    The phrase "trusting can be difficult" may seem odd (I don't particularly find it so), but the point is still valid. To say that only a "noun" can be a subject, if you only mean words labelled "noun" in a dictionary, is clearly incorrect. Any part of speech or phrase that acts as a noun can be the subject of a verb.
     

    Frank78

    Senior Member
    German
    But the gerund plus object form (e.g. "trusting people") simply adds an object to the verbal "trusting" (like an adverb which defines a verb), the object "people" does not become a subject. The subject is still "trusting", except that it is narrowed in scope.

    The phrase "trusting can be difficult" may seem odd (I don't particularly find it so), but the point is still valid. To say that only a "noun" can be a subject, if you only mean words labelled "noun" in a dictionary, is clearly incorrect. Any part of speech or phrase that acts as a noun can be the subject of a verb.
    Are you sure? Isn´t "trusting" then an adjective describing people and thus people are the subject. Like "old people can be difficult".
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Is an order as sentence? Answer me. It has many of the attributes of a sentence, it is understandable in itself, it starts with a capital and ends in a major stop, yet the imperative form requires no explicit subject, and it doesn't even need an object. Answer.

    The prophet Elijah might have said that the subject of his imperative was the prophets of Baal, the people to whom it was addressed. What do the grammarians say?
     

    Frank78

    Senior Member
    German
    Is an order as sentence? Answer me. It has many of the attributes of a sentence, it is understandable in itself, it starts with a capital and ends in a major stop, yet the imperative form requires no explicit subject, and it doesn't even need an object. Answer.

    The prophet Elijah might have said that the subject of his imperative was the prophets of Baal, the people to whom it was addressed. What do the grammarians say?
    We distinguish 3 (basic) types of sentences: declarative sentences (need subject + verb), question sentences (do not need a subject: "Who sells cars?") and imperative sentences (do not need a subject as well)
     

    TrentinaNE

    Senior Member
    USA
    English (American)
    Are you sure? Isn´t "trusting" then an adjective describing people and thus people are the subject. Like "old people can be difficult".
    I think in this example "Trusting people" signifies "the act of placing trust in people" rather than "people who trust."

    Elisabetta
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Good, Frank, thank you. Then we are only talking about declarative sentences. Am I right in suspecting that the definition of the subject of a sentence is related to the definition of a noun? If I am then it's hard to see a logical way in which a subject can be anything other than a noun, or something acting in a nouny way, like those blanks in old Russian novels. _ is a small village in the west of Moscow province.
     

    Wilma_Sweden

    Senior Member
    Swedish (Scania)
    Are you sure? Isn´t "trusting" then an adjective describing people and thus people are the subject. Like "old people can be difficult".
    Trusting people is ambiguous, I agree. If you understand the phrase as adjective + noun, then the whole phrase becomes a noun phrase.

    However, if you, like Matching Mole, understand it as a non-finite subclause, meaning 'to trust people', then it's a non-finite subclause, but it is still very much the subject of the sentence. Difficult in both cases is a subject complement.

    Consider driving:
    Driving can be difficult. I like driving. Does anyone doubt that we mean 'the act of driving' and that it behaves as a noun, and is even classified as such in the dictionary?

    /Wilma
     

    Otter

    Senior Member
    English/American
    One person says to another:

    "Trust." We don't know the context nor do we need to. Perhaps it's a command or advice. Trust yourself. Trust me. Trust God. Trust the universe. Trust the Postal Service. It doesn't matter.

    The other says:

    "Trusting can be difficult". Could be this person has trust issues in general or, perhaps, just with the Postal Service.

    To me, they're both sentences and the verb, trust, is the subject (at least in the second - the answer)

    I've immensely enjoyed and learned from this dialog and appreciate all the clarification.

    Thanks again.

    Otter.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    The subject of a sentence can be definined different ways, depending on your point of view.

    Looking at a simple declarative sentence whose meaning is known, the subject is the word or phrase that denotes who or what the predicate says something about, the word or phrase the verb must "agree" with.

    Finding the subject of "can be" in a simple sentence whose meaning is not known is not always so simple, but a single word preceding "can be" is very likely to be the subject.

    In Italian, a predicate noun or pronoun can precede the equivalent of "can be" with the subject following the verb, but in English a noun phrase before "can be" cannot be a predicate noun or pronoun but must be the subject.

    In Italian, an infinitive can be a subject but a gerund cannot. The English gerund, however, works well as a subject and is in fact a more likely subject than the English infinitive.

    One thing a native English speaker, someone who understands the sentence well, can do is swap out words and phrases in the sentence to see what is what. For example, to determine the subject in "Trusting can be difficult", we start with the verb "can be".

    Any subject "agrees" with "can be", but we can try other verbs in place of "can be", such as "has to be", "have to be", "is", "are", or "am". Of these, only "is" and "has to be" can replace "can be" in "Trusting can be difficult", so the subject must be something singular (must denote one person or one thing).

    Can we now make "trusting" or "difficult" into a compound (with and) to force the verb to change to plural?

    Trusting is difficult and unnatural. [no change]
    Believing and trusting are difficult. [verb changes]

    Aha! The subject must be trusting, not difficult.

    I hope this helps.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I'm puzzled by this thread.

    I believe that the subject of a sentence is normally a noun or a pronoun*.

    In both "Trusting can be difficult" and "Trusting people can be difficult", "trusting" is a gerund - a verbal noun.

    We can talk further about the different types of verbal noun.
    ________

    * EDIT: though you can of course have eg whole clauses acting as subject.
     
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    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    Trusting is a gerund and functions as a noun. Italian gerunds are different than English gerunds so this may be confusing your Italian tutor in some way.
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    English has two verbal nouns, the gerund and the to infinitive:

    Seeing (something happen) is believing (it can happen).
    To see (something happen) is to believe (it can happen).

    Both can be used as subjects, but the gerund is more common. The situation is almost reversed in Italian since the Italian gerund derives from the Latin gerund, which had no nominative case (subject form), and the Italian one-word infinitive is more noun-like than the English infinitive with to.
     

    kalamazoo

    Senior Member
    US, English
    In English, the gerund is a verbal noun but the present participle has the same form ("Seeing is believing" "I am seeing this happen right in front of me") . In Italian, the gerund is a present participle, but not a verbal noun and it always refers to the subject of the sentence (e.g. I saw a man walking down the street - in Italian it has to be the speaker who is walking). So this tends to confuse speakers of both languages.
     
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