Thinking about the various parts of a sentence might bring you back to your school days. And like many topics covered in school, you might not have thought about the subject or object of a sentence in a while. When you’re learning a new language in particular, you realize how much you take for granted in your mother tongue. You don’t need to consciously register the parts of a sentence to use them, you just use them.
To start, we’ll give a basic definition.
- The subject is the noun or pronoun modifying the verb. Usually, it’s the entity “performing” the action.
- The object is the noun or pronoun usually being affected by the actions of the subject.
If it were that simple, however, we wouldn’t have written a whole article. Here, we dive a little deeper into subjects and objects.
The Subject Of A Sentence
At its simplest, the subject of the sentence is the noun phrase or pronoun that is performing the action described by the verb in the sentence. By definition, every sentence has a subject and a verb, and they’re usually right next to each other.
- The man walked.
- Martha loves Sheila.
- The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
- I looked all over for the remote.
While it would be nice if this were the case for every sentence, there are some cases where the subject is not in the obvious spot. The most common cases are in questions. If you’re not sure how to locate the subject, try looking at how you would answer a question. The subject of a question and an answer is the same. For example, when you ask “How is your brother?” you might answer “My brother is doing well.”
- Where is the dog?
- How far is the walk?
- Would you like a slice of pizza?
Another exception is sentences that start with “here” and “there.” In those cases, the subject comes after the verb.
- Here is the bill.
- There is the exit.
- Here are your receipts.
Another way to know which part of the sentence is the subject is to see which noun changes the conjugation of the verb. While English has fewer conjugations than many other languages, the verb will reflect whether the subject is singular or plural.
As one last note on subjects, it’s worth mentioning passive voice. These are sentences like “The children are loved by their mother.” In this case, the mother is the one performing the action so, despite coming at the end of the sentence, “the mother” is the subject. It’s also possible for the passive voice to exclude the subject all together — “The children were loved” — which is rare in English.
The Object Of A Sentence
The object is usually the person, place or thing that’s being acted upon by the subject’s verb. As you might guess, the easiest way to find the object in a simple sentence is to look for the noun or pronoun that follows the verb. While every sentence needs a subject and a verb, a sentence doesn’t necessarily need an object (for example, “He ran.”). Unlike subjects, objects are generally split into two broad groups.
The direct object is, as the name implies, the thing that the action of the sentence is directly acting upon. In most cases, they’ll appear right after the verb (except in the passive voice).
- John hated math class.
- The scientists launched the rocket.
- She saw the full moon.
- The television show was watched by everyone.
To find the direct object, you can flip the sentence as a question with “what?” or “who?” as in “What did John hate?” or “What did the scientists launch?”
Another kind of noun or pronoun that might come after the verb is an indirect object. These are the nouns that are the beneficiaries of the action, but the verb is not acting directly on them. Often — but not always — they follow a preposition like “to” or “for.” While direct objects answer questions like “what” or “who,” indirect objects answer things like “to what?” or “for whom?”
- Mary told her secret to a friend.
- Taylor threw the ball to Dylan.
- Izzy made pottery for his brother.
- Jane got Ida a gift.
In this last example, the indirect object is not where you might expect it. In cases like these, you have to ask “Is the verb directly or indirectly affecting the noun?” In this case, Jane did not “get” Ida, she got a gift for Ida.
Direct And Indirect Objects In Questions
As with subjects, questions also shuffle around the expected position of an object in a sentence. If you follow the same tricks as before, you can still find them without much trouble.
- Who gave her the keys? [“her” is the indirect object, “the keys” is the direct object]
- Which gift did you get her? [“you” is the subject, “gift” is the direct object and “her” is the indirect object]
Subject And Object Pronouns
For the most part, it doesn’t matter if a noun is a subject or object in English; it stays the same. This is very different in some other languages, like German, where a noun’s case changes depending on what role it plays in the sentence. The one exception is with pronouns, which do change depending on whether they’re the subject or the object.
|First Person Singular
|First Person Plural
|Second Person Singular
|Third Person Singular
|he, she, it, they
|him, her, it, them
|Third Person Plural
Simple, Complex And Compound Sentences
All of the examples we’ve provided so far are simple sentences. That means they each have only one subject and one verb, which is considered a single “clause.” As you probably already know, though, sentences can be much longer. Here’s a break down of the main kinds of sentences:
- Simple — As mentioned, a simple sentence has one subject and one verb, though it can also have a direct object or indirect object. So “He walked” and “He bought a new car with cash” are both technically simple sentences.
- Compound — A compound sentence is a sentence made of two or more independent clauses, usually joined by “and.” The key to a compound sentence (versus a complex sentence) is that you could split it into multiple sentence without changing the meaning. For example, “He cleaned the floors and she walked the dog.” can become “He cleaned the floors. She watched the dog.” without the meaning changing at all.
- Complex — A complex sentence also has more than one clause, but one of them is dependent. A dependent clause is preceded by a word like “because,” “if,” “before” or a number of others. For example, “He went to the movies because she was busy.” has the independent clause “He went to the movies” and the dependent clause “because she was busy.” If you separated this into two sentences — “He went to the movies. She was busy.” — the meaning changes, because the connection between the two isn’t clear.
Subjects, Objects And Word Order
Before we let you go, we want to briefly talk about word order. While sentences can be endlessly complex, word order is defined by three elements: subjects, objects and verbs. English has an SVO word order, meaning that the subject is followed by the object which is followed by the object.
When you’re learning a new language, that isn’t necessarily the case. The most common word order is subject-object-verb — used by Hindi, Hungarian, Japanese and more — and many others use verb-subject-object or verb-object subject. (It’s rare, though not unheard of, for a language to start sentences with the object.) If you’re about to start a new language, it’ll give you a leg up just to look up the word order.
Fortunately, no matter what word order a language uses, subjects and objects are still performing the same function. Just because a subject isn’t where you expect it to be doesn’t mean it’s something else entirely. You can still ask the same questions no matter what language the sentence is in — what is performing the action? what is the action being done to? to what or for what is the action being done? — and they’ll help you identify what’s what.