How to Identify the Subject of a Sentence

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  • 0:54 Simple Subjects
  • 2:03 Multiple Subjects and…
  • 3:45 Personal Pronouns
  • 4:50 Passive Constructions:…
  • 5:16 Hidden (Implied) Subjects
  • 5:47 Relative Pronouns
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Curley
Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Don't pass over this lesson! You may think you know how to find subjects and verbs in a sentence, but picking them out can be harder than you think. Identifying subjects and verbs is the first step to unlocking nearly everything else about English composition.

How to Identify the Subject of a Sentence

You probably think you know what a subject and a verb is, since you can't have a sentence without at least one of each. But can you pick them out of a lineup? Let's try - in the style of a 1940s crime noir drama.

The stubborn case had busted wide open again.

When looking for the subject in a sentence, look for the verb first. Remember that a verb is a word that either helps a subject perform an action (ran, drank, fights, swims) or shows a state of being (is, was, are, were) that connects the subject to the action. In the sentence here, the main verb is 'busted.' What is the thing being busted? The case.

When we talk about subjects we'll talk about simple subjects, complete subjects, and compound subjects.

Simple Subject

A simple subject is just the subject without any of its modifiers (adjectives, adverbs - that is, any explanatory details). So the simple subject here is 'case,' while the complete subject contains all of the verb's descriptors - that would be 'stubborn case.' Let's try another example.

The husband wasn't dead.

Put 'who' and 'what' in front of the verb to see if you can find the subject. Here, the verb is a linking verb - 'was.' Linking verbs link the subject ('The husband') to the subject's state of being. Who was not dead? The husband. That's your subject.

Let's keep going.

He was walking down Royal Street in a three-piece suit!

Here we have a past participle form in verb phrase 'was walking.' So again you have 'was,' and we know he 'was walking.' But you can use the same formula. Who was walking? 'He' was. So the pronoun 'he' is the subject of the sentence. We'll talk more about pronouns a little bit later.

Multiple Subjects and Verbs in a Sentence

Sentences can also have more than one verb, more than one subject, or multiple pairs of subjects and verbs.

Johnny shot someone else that night, and the husband played along.

Here you have two subjects, 'Johnny' and 'the husband,' and a verb for each: Johnny 'shot' someone and the husband 'played along.' Each subject and verb pair forms its own independent clause joined by a conjunction in this sentence but could just as easily be two separate sentences, because each has its own subject and verb.

Conjunctions can join multiple subjects or verbs as well as independent and dependent clauses. Only independent clauses - again, that's a clause that contains both a subject and verb - can form their own sentences, however. Take this counter-example:

Johnny and Mr. Violet settled their debts, at least.

Here you have a compound subject - 'Johnny and Mr. Violet' - and the verb 'settled.' Two subjects are joined by a conjunction, but this cannot be broken into more than one sentence since just one verb is helping both parties perform the action.

On the flip side, you can have multiple verbs and just one subject performing the actions of those verbs:

The detective pulled down the brim of his hat and walked home.

Here we have the subject ('the detective'), and 'pulled' and 'walked' are the two verbs, so he's performing multiple actions. This is something you do every day when you're writing - you talk about the different actions that you are doing or somebody else is doing, so the idea of one subject and multiple verbs should be familiar to you.

Personal Pronouns

Back at my desk, I poured myself a rattlesnake, grabbed it by the tail, and gulped it down.

When you see a personal pronoun - 'I,' 'you,' 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' 'we,' and 'they' - a verb will follow. In this case, the verb that follows is 'poured,' followed later by 'grabbed' and 'gulped.'

One exception to this rule is when the pronoun refers to the earlier subject. Take this example:

The lady led him on a wild goose chase, didn't she?

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Additional Activities

Identifying the Subject Activities

Identify the Simple Verb and the Simple Subject

For this activity, identify the simple verb(s) or verb phrase(s) and the simple subject(s) of each sentence. First, identify the simple verb. After recognizing the verb, it will be easier to find the subject as it typically comes directly before the verb. Keep in mind that some sentences can have multiple verbs and/or subjects.

  1. Christmas break is only three weeks away!
  2. Text me over the holiday break.
  3. My favorite holiday tradition is making sugar cookies with my grandma.
  4. The snowman was built by my little sister and her friend from next door.
  5. I think that the best part of the holiday season is spending time with friends and family.
  6. Although it may snow, you should still go on a walk to see all of the beautiful Christmas lights.
  7. Elf and Christmas Vacation are my favorite holiday movies.
  8. She told me that I should visit her during the break, but I don't have any time.
  9. My Jewish friend asked if I wanted to go with her to the synagogue to celebrate Hanukkah.
  10. I joined her, and I learned a lot about her religion.


Question #1

  • Verb: is
  • Subject: break

Question #2

  • Verb: text
  • Subject: you (implied)

Question #3

  • Verb: is making
  • Subject: tradition

Question #4

  • Verb: was built
  • Subject: snowman

Question #5

  • Verb: think
  • Subject: I

Question #6

  • Verb: should go
  • Subject: you

Question #7

  • Verb: are
  • Subject: Elf & Christmas Vacation

Question #8

  • Verb: told/do (not) have
  • Subject: me/I

Question #9

  • Verb: asked/wanted
  • Subject: friend/I

Question #10

  • Verb: joined/learned
  • Subject: I/I

Label the Verbs and Subjects

For this activity, write several sentences on the same topic. Your final writing should be at least 10 sentences. Then underline the simple verb/verb phrase. Next, circle the subject of the sentence. Make sure that you are writing both compound and complex sentences as well as simple sentences.

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