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Grammar 101: Subject, Object & Passive Voice

by Jacky Dahlhaus

Let`s look at the subject of subject and object objectively. Sorry, I couldn`t resist. As I am learning English as a foreign language, I am always confused with the words subject and object. I often think the subject is the object, especially when the subject isn`t a person but an actual object. The word subject actually isn`t subjected but subjects the object to his action in a sentence. Confusion all round. Therefore, I thought it may be of use to discuss the subject and object of sentences to make things more clear.

Grammar 101: Subject, Object & Passive Voice

Subject

Most sentences have a verb and a subject. The subject of a sentence is the person, animal, place, thing, or idea that is ‘doing` or ‘being` the verb.

There are multiple forms of subjects. Have a look at this table from Wikipedia:

Noun (phrase) or pronoun

The large car stopped outside our house.

A gerund (phrase)

His constant hammering was annoying.

to-infinitive (phrase)

To read is easier than to write.

A full that-clause

That he had travelled the world was known to everyone.

A free relative clause

Whatever he did was always of interest.

A direct quotation

I love you is often heard these days.

Zero (but implied) subject

Take out the trash!

An expletive

It is raining.

Acataphoric it

It was known by everyone that he had travelled the world.


To keep it simple, a subject can be a simple subject, a complete subject, or a compound subject.

Simple Subject

Example: I read a book.

In the above example the verb is read. To find the subject, ask ‘who or what does the reading?` The person in this sentence who does the reading is I. Therefore, I is the subject.

The subject in this sentence is called a simple subject; there are no modifiers of the subject noun. The subject isn`t always a single word though.

Complete Subject

Example: What he wanted to learn about writing was not going to be found in the library.

What he wanted to learn about writing is the subject of this sentence, not just he or writing or what he wanted to learn. Even though it consists of multiple words, it`s a simple subject as there are no modifiers.

The complete subject contains all the modifiers of a subject.

Example: The hardworking, persevering, tenacious writer finally published her first book.

In the above example, the subject who does the publishing is the hardworking, persevering, tenacious writer. It is the complete subject as all together they describe who does the publishing. The simple subject in this sentence is the writer as hardworking, persevering, tenacious are modifiers of the simple subject.

Compound Subject

A compound subject is a subject consisting of more than one element. This could be pronouns, noun phrases, and noun clauses. The individual subjects are put together with the help of coordinating conjunctions (and, or, neither, nor, as well as, alongside).

Example: She and I are collaborating on a book. (pronouns)

Example: Imagination, typing skills, and perseverance are needed to be a writer. (noun phrase)

Example: Whomever publishes my book shall not be disappointed. (noun clause)

When using ‘and` as the coordinating conjunction, the subject can be replaced by ‘they` so use the verb that goes with ‘they.`

Example: Joe and Jane work together.

The Proximity Rule

When using ‘or,` ‘neither/nor,` ‘as well as,` or ‘alongside,` the verb used goes with the subject that is closest to the verb. This is called ‘the proximity rule.`

Example: Joe or Jane is writing the story.

Example: The Smiths or the Joneses are preparing the picnic.

Example: A novel or a maximum of two short stories are accepted.

Subject-Verb Inversion

Usually, the subject comes before the verb. Sometimes, however, the subject is mentioned after the verb. This is called locative inversion or subject-verb inversion. There are many situations when this is used. Here are a few:

Example: Did you finish reading the book yet? (question)

Example: Here is my version. (expletive)

Example: “Don`t do it!” said the girl. (attributing speech)

Example: More important is this particular reason. (give prominence)

Example: Never in my life was I so frightened. (sentence begins with adverbial phrase/clause or adverb)

Example: I don`t get it, nor does she. (negative construction)

Example: I get it, so does he. (after ‘so`)

Example: Doomed was he. (literary effect)

No Subject

Not all sentences have a subject. Statements, questions, imperatives (orders, commands, warnings, or instructions), and exclamations don`t always have a subject.

Example: Not a lot of writing today. (statement)

Example: Who published your book? (question)

Example: Write that down! (imperative)

Example: Great story! (exclamation)

Prepositional Phrases

The subject is never part of a prepositional phrase (that part of a sentence starting with an indication of location; a preposition, and ending in a noun, pronoun, or gerund).

Example: Neither of these books is liked by the students.

You would almost think that these books is the subject of this sentence, but as it is part of the prepositional phrase of these books, the subject is actually neither (as is emphasised by the singular form of the verb).

Linking Verbs

Not all verbs convey an action. Sometimes they describe the subject and are called linking verbs. Am, is, are, was, were, seem, etc. are examples of these. They link the subject to something said about it.

Example: Jane`s book is excellent.

Excellent says something about the book, not Jane, hence book is the subject in this sentence.

No Subject

Sometimes it seems there is no subject in a sentence. This is often the case in commands, orders, and suggestions.

Example: Don`t write about that in your young adult novel! (vs. Don`t you write about that…)

Example: Why not write an adult novel? (vs. Why don`t you write…)

In these cases, the subject, you, is assumed but not written.

Passive Voice

Another possibility is that the sentence is a passive sentence; there is no subject or thing doing the ‘verbing.` It is replaced by the object of the sentence.

Example: Three books of his were considered by the publisher.

In this sentence, the three books seem to be the subject, but they are not doing the considering. This is done by the publisher, but as this is part of the prepositional phrase by the publisher and can hence not be the subject, there is no subject in this sentence.

Object

Transitive vs Intransitive Verbs

Verbs can be transitive or intransitive. A transitive verb takes an object (it transfers its action upon an object) whereas an intransitive verb is an action verb, but it doesn`t take an object.

Example 1: Jane writes poetry.

Example 2: Jane sneezed.

In Example 1, what does Jane write? She writes poetry, hence writing is a transitive verb.

In Example 2, you can`t ask ‘what does Jane sneeze. Jane performs the action, but the action has no effect on anything or anybody; there is no object. Sneezed is an intransient verb.

Object

An object is a noun (or pronoun) that is affected by a transitive verb and usually comes after the verb. It can be a noun, a pronoun, a noun phrase (a noun or pronoun with dependent words), or a noun clause (a clause that acts as a noun).

There are 3 kinds of objects: a direct object, an indirect object, and an object of a preposition.

Direct Object

span>To find the direct object, you need to find the verb first (and possibly the subject). Then you ask what or who this ‘verbing` has effect on.

Example: I am writing a book.

What am I writing? I am writing a book. A book is the direct object.

Indirect Object

The indirect object only exists if there is a direct object and are usually individuals (human or animal). When you have found the direct object, ask who or what is receiving the direct object.

Example: John gave Jane the book.

The verb in this sentence is gave, the subject is John. What did John give? John gave the book. The direct object is the book. To whom did John give the book? John gave the book to Jane. Jane is the indirect object.

Verbs acting upon a direct object and an indirect object are called double object verbs. In these sentences, the indirect object is always placed before the direct object.

Example: Mother read her children a story.

Her children (the indirect object) is placed before a story (the direct object).

Object of a Preposition

The object of a preposition is an object introduced by a preposition, usually to or for. The prepositional phrase is always placed after the direct object.

Example 1: Jane gave John a book.

Example 2: Jane gave a book to John.

In example 1, John is the indirect object and placed before the direct object (a book). In Example 2, to John is the prepositional phrase in which to is the preposition and John the indirect object. They are placed after the direct object (a book).

Note: Objects are always in the objective case. See the table below:

Subject Case

Object Case

I

Me

You

You

He/She/It

Him/Her/It

We

Us

You

You

They

Them

Who

Whom

Whoever

Whomever


When unsure if you need to use I or me when using a ‘compound` object; simplify the sentence.

Example: The book store manager picked her and me to open the book fair.

Is it her and me, her and I, or she and I? If we simplify the sentence we get:

Example 1: The manager picked she.

Example 2: The manager picked her.

Example 3: The manager picked I.

Example 4: The manager picked me.

Examples 1 and 3 are wrong as the object nouns are in subject case. The correct sentences are Examples 2 and 4 (objects in object case) and hence the original sentence above is correct.

Passive Voice

In passive voice, the object becomes the subject. Obviously, you can only have passive voice sentences with transitive verbs (verbs that act upon an object).

Example 1: The famous writer gave a signed book to his greatest fan.

Example 2: The signed book was given by the famous writer to his greatest fan.

Example 3: His greatest fan was given the signed book by the famous writer.

In Example 1, the sentence is active; the writer wrote the book. In Examples 2 and 3, however, the subjects are The signed book and His greatest fan resp., but they don`t do the writing. They were the direct objects and indirect objects resp. in the active sentence. Hence, sentence 2 and 3 are passive sentences.

Passive voice sentences are frowned upon and should be avoided if possible. There are a few instances in which this isn`t possible though.

Example: The baby was born at midnight.

Being born is a passive process; you can`t actively ‘birth` yourself, hence the sentence containing someone/some animal being born will always be in the passive form.

Sometimes the passive voice is useful:

  • When you want to be deliberately vague

Example: The man was killed by one of the guests.

  • When you really don`t know who did it

Example: The man was killed by somebody.

  • When it doesn`t matter who did it

Example: The man was killed.

Should you find something in this article that needs corrected/added, please don`t hesitate to contact me.

Jacky Dahlhaus

http://jackydahlhaus.com

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