Subject (grammar)

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In linguistics, subject denotes a grammatical function of a part of a sentence for the whole sentence. Typical characteristics of a subject are given for languages ​​such as German:

In school grammar, the term subject is usually equated with the term sentence object . However, there is also another, narrower meaning of the term "sentence object", which relates to the information structure of the sentence, and in this meaning the term is not congruent, but only has a more or less clear correlation with the subject as a grammatical function on. - Likewise, a subject as such is not directly linked to specific meaning properties, even if the subject term is often explained in a non-scientific manner in such a way that it designates “the agent of a situation”. Significance factors of this kind (namely semantic roles such as “ agent ”) are involved in determining what becomes the subject of a verb, but the possible semantic roles of a subject are so diverse that here too there is only a loose correlation. - Overall, therefore, neither the property “sentence object” nor that of being an “agent” can serve as a definition of the subject.

The term subject ultimately denotes the idea that the named properties (such as nominative case, triggering of congruence, hierarchically highest position and others) regularly come together in one and the same sentence element. On closer inspection, and especially when comparing languages, this relationship only shows itself as a rough tendency with many exceptions. Thus, the term “subject” has blurred boundaries and can not be applied in exactly the same way to different grammatical types of languages. For German, it is considered a consensus that the subject property can mainly be determined by the assignment of the nominative case, but not all nominatives in the sentence are automatically subjects (they can also be salutations or predicatives ).

Approaches to determining subjects

School grammar

In the tradition of grammar teaching at school, the main task is to be able to break up sentences into parts of sentences, and the aim is often to relate grammar to clear, communication-related questions. This corresponds to the common procedure of linking the determination of case and grammatical functions to a question test. The nominative case is also referred to as “who-case” and the term subject is explained in such a way that the subject of the sentence is what can be asked for with a “who (or what)” question. The subject of a sentence is the addition that can be replaced by the question word “Who” (if a person is designated), just as it could be replaced by a personal pronoun “he” or “she”.

For the general definition of the term “subject”, this test is synonymous with the statement that a subject is what is in the nominative (since it can be replaced by a question word, and the question word itself now has a clear nominative form; the replacement by a The question word combines evidence of the nominative case with a constituent test ). In the case of inanimate subjects who could only be asked with “What”, the question test can no longer easily differentiate between subject and object, which is a possible source of error in grammar lessons. In addition, the replacement test with “Who” cannot be used in many sentence types that have a subject, for example when a question or exclamation sentence is already present (e.g. in “Oh, the muse would kiss me harder”). There are also meaningless ( expletive ) subjects that cannot be queried, for example some uses of the pronoun es in German .

Grammar writing in the German tradition

The Duden grammar (p. 613f.) Lists the following identifiers of the subject. Subject is a complement to the verb that

  1. ... is in the nominative.
  2. ... enforces a suitable personal form of the finite verb,
  3. ... is used in finite verb forms, but omitted in the infinitive form of the verb,
  4. ... represents one of the supplements in the active sentence, but is omitted in the corresponding passive form of the same verb.

Examples: " The dog bit the postman"

  1. ... (and not " The postman bit the dog ")
  2. ... (and not " The dog bite s the postman.")
  3. ... (cf. "... [-] to bite the postman"; not: "The dog to bite the postman")
  4. ... (cf. "The postmen were bitten"; however, "The dog was bitten" would be passive to another sentence)

Furthermore, the Duden grammar does not attempt a content definition, but only offers (p. 632f.) Examples of possible content functions of the subject such as agent (“someone who carries out an activity or action”) or the “carrier of a process or State ”(“ the leaves are falling ”,“ the child is sleeping peacefully ”). In connection with verbs with little meaning such as the copula , functional verbs or passive auxiliary verbs, there are also numerous special cases.

Linguistic theories

In theories of formal linguistics, "subject" is occasionally introduced as an elementary concept of grammar, as in lexical-functional grammar . In the generative grammar in the wake of Noam Chomsky , however, one tries to define the term “subject” on a purely structural basis. According to this, the essential aspect of a subject is that it appears as a so-called specifier of the sentence according to the X-bar theory , i.e. as the first phrase that is separated from the remainder that contains the predicate when the sentence is divided. The appearance of nominative case and congruence is subordinated to this structural property, as it deals with appearances that are bound to this syntactic configuration. Both within the generative school (e.g. Haider 2006) and outside (e.g. in the Role and Reference Grammar ), however, doubts have been expressed as to whether such a purely structural definition of subjects can also be maintained for languages ​​with free word order . (The question is determined by whether variation in word order can be derived from a fixed basic structure through transformations , and is represented differently in different languages).

In language typology , the question of whether a category “subject” can be identified across languages ​​has long been a contentious issue. In a classic paper, Edward Keenan (1976) suggested that a term “subject” that claims validity across any language should be seen as a prototypically organized category, that is, a category that cannot be defined from the presence of fixed features , but the present, as soon as there are enough features from a group of possible features in the individual case to result in a global similarity with other representatives of the category (without any individual feature being necessary in itself). Keenan lists a good 30 different properties that could thus contribute in varying ways to the determination of subjects.

Differentiation from other terms

Subject and agent

“Subject” as a grammatical function must be differentiated from terms such as agent , patient , etc., which are semantic roles, i.e. properties that participants have in the situation indicated by the verb. However, these are used to predict the choice of the subject for a particular verb. Classically, an attempt is made here to set up a hierarchy of possible participant roles, which is arranged according to "subject worthiness" and covers all types of verb meanings. This hierarchy of semantic roles then gives rise to rules for mapping to the subject position, for example: that the highest role assigned by a particular verb occupies the subject position. Since the role of “agent” is at the top of the subject's worthiness (a consciously acting cause of a situation), the result is that an agent, if present, has to become a subject in any case - and in this respect represents a “typical” subject. The term “subject” is needed independently, precisely because a wide variety of other participant roles can also be mapped to the subject position if they represent the highest (or only) participant role available for a particular verb. Due to the great variety of verb meanings and participant roles, there are many cases of verbs whose subject does not designate the "agent of a situation" even in the active :

  • The tailgate accidentally stayed open.
  • The guitar fell out.
  • The guitar got scratches.
  • The guitar has since disappeared.

(Note also that in the first sentence the behavior of the “oversight” is not ascribed to the subject, but to a person in charge who remains unnamed in the sentence because the verb “remain open” does not assign the corresponding participant role).

While subjects in the active already have a variety of roles, additional variation arises from the passive , as the argument is usually subject here, which would be mapped to the position of the direct object in the active . This is made possible because the higher-order argument provided by the verb meaning is suppressed by the passive form (often, but not always, an agent). The suppressed argument of a passive clause is sometimes referred to as the “logical subject” because the passive does not change the meaning of the verb and the suppressed argument is still implicitly denoted by the verb. (But it is precisely not a subject of the passive clause, nor is it a logical property, but a semantic one).

Subject and sentence object

Another category that is separate from the actual concept of the subject, is what in modern linguistic literature Topik is called, set subject in the strict sense or "psychological subject." It "represents the idea (...) which is first present in the soul of the speaker", as Hermann Paul (1919) put it in a classic formulation. The remainder of the sentence that follows is then a sentence statement that makes a “comment” about this unit serving as a starting point and usually provides new information. The subdivision that is at stake here is essentially the one between known information that is linked to with a statement and new information. Known information in this function as a connection point (i.e. a topic) is typically at the beginning of the sentence. Since in many languages ​​the subject is at the beginning of a sentence for grammatical reasons, there is a correlation between the subject status and the function as a topic. In German, however, this connection is weak, as German has so much freedom of word order that every part of the sentence can be brought to the beginning of the sentence. For example, in the following sentence, the object has this function:

  • "You can't read this text at all without glasses."

In languages ​​with a more rigid word order such as English, however, the connection can be closer: In English, a passive construction is often chosen in order to be able to place an underlying object at the beginning of the sentence, where it can more easily serve as a topic.

  • This text can't be read without glasses.

The function of the sentence object (in this narrower sense) correlates more or less with the status as a subject, but cannot serve as a definition for the category of subject.

The subject in the structure of the sentence

Special types of subjects

The simplest cases of subjects are independently occurring nouns (e.g. proper names), pronouns or noun groups (i.e. nouns with attributes that depend on them):

  • " Otto is listening."
  • " Otto's pug hops away."

In addition to nominal units, whole sentences can also appear in the function of a subject (just as they can be objects of a verb), e.g. B. Subordinate clauses that are introduced with the conjunctions “that” or “whether”, subordinate clauses introduced with question or relative pronouns (“who, what ...”), infinitive constructions, etc. a .:

  • "It is uncertain whether Otto's pug will return ."
  • " Those who smoke die earlier."
  • " Stringing words with the sound" o "together gives me pleasure."

Like noun groups, these can be replaced by a pronoun or a question word. In contrast to the latter, sentences have no characteristics for person and number, which affects the congruence rules (see below ).

Some verbs require a meaningless pronoun "es" as the subject, which does not seem to have a precisely determinable semantic role and cannot be replaced by a question word:

  • "Let's raining there , then snowing it again."

This use of “es” is often referred to as “ expletive pronouns ” (filling pronouns) in that it appears empty of content. But it is a subject that is required by the respective verb and occurs in all constructions with this verb. This type must therefore be distinguished from such explicit pronouns, which are verb-independent and occupy the subject position or another position of the sentence, if this would otherwise be left empty by a certain syntactic construction. (See below in the section "Sentences without a subject")

The subject as the highest position in the hierarchy of obscurations

As supplements to the verb, subject and object are not on the same level. This can be seen in so-called constituent tests , such as the displacement test. What can be rearranged as a whole in a sentence forms a coherent unit (constituent), so (infinite) verb and object can form such a unit, but not subject and verb excluding the object:

  • " I haven't read the article either."
  • NOT: " I haven't read the article either."

Another property that points to a higher place in a hierarchy is the fact that reflexive pronouns such as "themselves" can depend on the subject in object position, but a reflexive as a subject can never be tied to an object:

  • "The monkey recognized himself in the mirror."
  • NOT: " The monkey recognized himself in the mirror."

This effect cannot be due to the order of the words alone (for example that the reflexive should always follow the reference word), as it cannot be eliminated by simply rearranging the parts of the sentence. Likewise, it cannot be solely due to the fact that a nominative form of the reflexive pronoun does not exist, because it is possible that reflexives can appear as a subject in other cases. For example, according to a widespread analysis, the reflexive "himself" in the following example is the subject of an infinitive clause:

  • "John had never expected [ himself to visit the pope]."

Still, the reflexive pronoun cannot be tied to the object of the same sentence (because the sentence can never mean: "John never expected the Pope to visit himself"); it can only be bound by a higher subject ("John"). So this effect shows that subjects are the highest and most prominent addition to a verb.

Sentences without a subject

Subjectless verbs in German

Often the subject is described as the central and most important part of the sentence, which always makes up the core of the sentence together with the predicate, whereas a direct object is less central because it does not always have to appear. However, the grammar of German in particular allows many exceptions to this. German has a number of verbs or constructions that result in sentences without a subject.

  • "I'm freezing."
  • "I would be very interested in a thick sweater now."
  • "The cake is still there."

Verbs of the type “me freezes” are exceptions to the above-mentioned principle that the subject position must always be filled first with a single argument. In German, these are not subjects in the accusative, although there are such things in other languages ​​(so-called quirky subjects , which are discussed below).

The impersonal passive

Apart from certain individual verbs that are constructed subjectless (such as “mich freezes”), there is a mechanism that systematically ensures subjectless sentences in German, namely the impersonal passive. It arises from the fact that in German also intransitive verbs can be put into the passive voice, which means that after the deletion of the underlying agent, no other part of the sentence could move up as a subject. Contrary to the widespread opinion (which can also be found in some specialist books on German grammar) there is no expletive pronoun (filling pronoun) in German at the subject. that is, the "it" in the following sentence does not take the place of a subject:

  • "It was worked hard."

Rather, this “it” is an expletive that occupies the forefront in a verb second sentence ; it serves to maintain the word order of the German statements, even if you don't want to emphasize a unit by putting it in front. The distinguishing feature of this preliminary expletive is that it disappears as soon as any other part of the sentence is put in front and that it cannot appear in a subordinate clause (which is introduced with a conjunction):

  • " It was worked hard all the time."
  • " The whole time was worked hard." / " There was worked hard all the time, etc."
  • NOT: * " It was worked hard all the time ."
  • NOT: * "... because it was worked hard."

On the other hand, compare the real subject required by the verb - "it" e.g. B. with weather verbs, which can also be placed inside the sentence:

  • "Is it still raining ?" / "... because it is still raining."

Just as with subjectless sentences, the preceding “it” can be used with subject-containing sentences, the subject then stands behind the verb. In the following example, “everyone” or “all” is clearly the subject because it determines the congruence with the verb form:

  • "Everyone got the same share."
  • "Everyone got the same share."

A minimal contrast to German can be found in Dutch: Here an expletive pronoun can actually appear in the impersonal passive voice, which occupies the position of the subject. This pronoun, in Dutch "he," is not required of the verb as such, but of the impersonal construction in which it is placed:

Elk  uur      dat „er“ gewerkt   kon worden, werd „er“  ook  effectief   gewerkt.
„Jede Stunde, die -- gearbeitet werden kann, wird --  auch tatsächlich gearbeitet.“

Exactly such an expletive subject cannot be posited in German.

Exceptions to the classic criteria for subjects

Since several criteria were used to define the subject category, there are cases where individual criteria do not apply, but there are so many other subject characteristics that one has to speak of subjects as a whole that merely represent less typical manifestations.

Subjects that do not trigger congruence

Although sentences can undoubtedly have the function of a subject, the verb does not congruence with them in the same way as with nouns as subject; d. That is, the congruence form is always set to 3rd person singular, because this represents the unmarked form , but features of the subject sentence are irrelevant. Compare the examples:

  • "Anna's refusal and Fritz's apology annoy me."
  • "That Anna doesn't come and that Fritz apologizes like this annoys me." (Not: annoy me )

Subjects that are not in the nominative

Two types of cases are possible here: Firstly, a subject can belong to a category that cannot be marked with a case at all. This case is represented by the already mentioned subordinate clauses in the subject position. Secondly, subjects appear in other cases in certain constructions, although this possibility may not be available in German. The best known example is probably the AcI ( Accusativus cum infinitivo ). However, the examples of German of this form are ambiguous:

  • "I saw him leave the house."

The meaning of the pronoun “him” should be a supplement to the verb “leave”, a paraphrase would be: “I saw [how he left the house].” In the German sentence structure, however, the verbs in the above example become a compound predicate formed, so from a syntactic point of view "him" is to be understood as an object to the predicate "... saw abandoned" (for details see the article coherent construction ).

In Latin, on the other hand, there are cases that clearly show a subject in the accusative:

Oportet      eum  venire
Gehört-sich  ihn  zu-kommen.   = „Es gehört sich, dass er kommt.“

The verb oportet (it belongs) is not a transitive verb and an accusative in this sentence cannot be an object. Rather, the accusative eum (him) must be understood as the subject of the infinitive venire (to come). This is a case where the subject does not disappear from the infinitive (which was given as a criterion for subjectivity in German), but where only the nominative is not available.

Dative / accusative subjects in Icelandic

In Icelandic there are constructions that look superficially similar to German impersonal verbs of the type "mich freezes". In contrast to German, however, such accusative or dative forms have grammatical properties of subjects there (even if they never control the congruence form of the verb). For example, they can bind reflexive pronouns:

Hana          vantar  peningana      sina
Sie(Akkusativ) fehlt Geld(Akkusativ) ihr(Reflexiv)
„Sie braucht Geld“ (Wörtlich etwa: „Ihr fehlt sich's Geld“)

Furthermore, dative subjects can be omitted in the infinitive, as in the verb "leiðast" (to be bored), which, as already explained, can only be nominative in German:

Stelpunum           leiddist  í skólanum
Den-Mädchen (Dativ) langweilte in der-Schule
„Die Mädchen langweilten sich in der Schule“
Stelpurnar              vonast til að [--] leiðast    ekki  í skólanum
Die-Mädchen(Nominativ)  hoffen für zu      langweilen nicht in der-Schule
„Die Mädchen hoffen, [--] sich in der Schule nicht zu langweilen“

Subsequent clauses are also possible, where a clause in the first part of the sentence in the nominative is left out in the second part, although a dative is used here (since this nominative and the expected dative are treated as parallel, it is shown that the Dative like the nominative is used as a subject):

Stelpurnar       fóru  í skólann   en   þeim        leiddist    þar.
Die-Mädchen(Nom) gingen zur Schule aber ihnen(Dativ) langweilte dort
Stelpurnar       fóru   í skólann   en  [--] leiddist  þar.
Die-Mädchen(Nom) gingen zur Schule aber      langweilte dort
„Die Mädchen gingen zur Schule aber [sie] langweilten sich dort.“

Such constructions are impossible in German, compare the following sentences, which try to use the form "he dreaded it" in the same way:

  • * He touched the corpse without [-] dreading it.
  • * He touched the corpse but [-] did not dread it.

Subjects who are not hierarchically the highest complement of the verb

According to an analysis common in German linguistics, the freedom of word order within the German sentence can be explained as a combination of two facts: On the one hand, different verbs are required to have different sequences in which the cases appear in their additions; on the other hand, there are also conversion rules (so-called scrambling ) that are based on the various basic sequences. Such a change can be recognized by the fact that contrast effects appear in the interpretation, "even if the intonation does not change." In all of the following examples, the emphasis should always be on the word directly before the verb, which represents the normal sentence accent in German (here marked by capitalization). The idea of ​​the following test is that this accent before the verb can no longer be interpreted as the neutral sentence stress if the neutral word sequence is no longer present:

… weil Kirchengemeinden FLÜCHTlingen halfen
(Nominativ < Dativ: neutral = Grundwortstellung)
… weil Flüchtlingen KIRCHENgemeinden halfen
(Dativ < Nominativ: nur kontrastiv möglich)

In the second sentence, “parishes” must be interpreted in a contrasting manner (parishes, as opposed to other people), whereas in the first sentence no such effect occurs, this is a neutral statement that fits into any context and as an answer to the question "What's going on anyway?" It is concluded that the first variant shows the basic word order. As expected, the nominative is hierarchically higher than the dative.

According to this criterion, it follows that the nominative addition of some verbs in German is hierarchically lower than the accompanying dative or accusative, because this is the neutral sequence, and the otherwise normal sequence “nominative before dative / accusative” leads to contrast effects in these verbs . Compare the example of the verb "fallen", which also has nominative and dative additions, with the verb "help":

… weil Formeln MatheMAtikern gefallen
(Nominativ < Dativ: kontrastiv, „Mathematikern im Gegensatz zu anderen Leuten“)
… weil Mathematikern FORmeln gefallen
(Dativ < Nominativ: neutral)
… weil Formeln MatheMAtiker interessieren
(Nominativ < Akkusativ: kontrastiv)
… weil Mathematiker FORmeln interessieren
(Akkusativ < Nominativ: neutral  (= Grundwortstellung))

In a similar way it can be observed that in German passive sentences the passive subject can retain the lower hierarchical position of the direct object to which it corresponds analogously:

… dass  man     Kindern   MÄRchen erzählt
… dass          Kindern   MÄRchen erzählt werden.    (neutral: Grundwortstellung)
… dass Märchen  KINdern           erzählt werden.    („Kinder“ nur kontrastiv deutbar)

In all of the examples, the hierarchically lower nominatives are still subjects in the sense that they control the congruence with the verb (see above: “tells” congruent with the singular subject “man”, the predicate “tells” are "congruent with the plural subject" fairy tales ").

See also


  • Gisela Brunner: “Who or what do you know? Problems in grammar lessons “In Karl Detering u. a. (eds) :. Files from the 16th linguistic colloquium, Volume 1. Tübingen: Niemeyer (= LA119), 1982. pp. 136–146
  • Matthew Dryer (1997): Are grammatical relations universal? In Joan Bybee, John Haiman & Sandra A. Thompson (eds.): Essays on language function and language type. Amsterdam: John Benjamin. pp. 115-43.
  • DUDEN grammar of contemporary German, ed. u. edit by Günther Drosdowski. 5th edition 1995, Mannheim: Dudenverlag
  • Peter Eisenberg : Outline of the German grammar . Volume 2: The Sentence. Metzler, Stuttgart et al. 1999, ISBN 3-476-01642-0
  • Hubert Haider (2006): “Midfield Phenomena”. In M. Everaert & H. van Riemsdijk (eds.): The Blackwell Companion to Syntax , Oxford: Blackwell, Vol. 3, pp. 204-274.
  • Höskuldur Thráinsson (2007): The Syntax of Icelandic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Edward Keenan (1976): Towards a universal definition of 'subject'. In: Charles N. Li & Sandra Thompson (eds): Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press. pp. 303-33
  • Karin Pittner & Judith Berman: German Syntax. A work book , Tübingen, Narr, 4th edition, 2010
  • Marga Reis: "Subject questions in school grammar". Der Deutschunterricht, 38-2 (1986), pp. 64-84
  • Sternefeld, Wolfgang (2006): Syntax. A morphologically motivated generative description of the German Tübingen: Stauffenburg
  • Robert Van Valin (2001): Introduction to Syntax . Cambridge University Press

Individual evidence

  1. See Brunner 1982.
  2. Example from Reis 1986, p. 69.
  3. ^ Edward Keenan: Towards a universal definition of 'subject'. In: Charles N. Li, Sandra Thompson (Eds.): Subject and Topic. Academic Press. New York 1976, pp. 303-333
  4. See e.g. B. Van Valin (2001), chapter 2.
  5. For this meaning of sentence object see Pittner & Berman (2010), isb. P. 142ff.
  6. cited in Eisenberg 1999, p. 274.
  7. Examples from Reis 1986: 68.
  8. z. BEHentschel & H.Weydt (2003) Handbuch der Deutschen Grammatik , Berlin, de Gruyter, p. 130.
  9. ↑ On this in detail Sternefeld (2006), pp. 345–349, or Pittner & Berman (2010), pp. 126–132.
  10. For this German-Dutch contrast, see e.g. B. Haider (2006), pp. 226f.
  11. after Reis (1986: 77)
  12. All examples and analyzes from Höskuldur Thráinsson (2007, pp. 163–167).
  13. To this end in detail z. B. Haider (2006), on which this section is based