The Real Subject of Your Sentence


I took a writing course about four years ago. By the end of the second session, I was thinking, “Sheeze! I could teach this course.” I learned only one thing. During the second month, I learned the name of a very important concept I had been using unconsciously for years, thereby increasing my ability to write and edit purposefully. 

Grammatical versus Rhetorical Subject 

I learned that sentences can have two types of subjects: Grammatical and Rhetorical. We are all familiar with the first type. Parse this sentence and find the subject: 

“The proofreader looked askance at the period after the quotation mark, wondering if the writer is British.”

 The subject is “proofreader,” right? It is the subject of the main verb “looked,” which mean it has the grammatical function of subject. We call “proofreader” the grammatical subject. Ok, we’re not breaking any new ground here. But now look at this sentence and find the subject: 

“The veterinarian said the dog has fleas.”

 Using my psychic powers, I’m going to guess that you said “veterinarian” is the subject. Ahem…the grammatical subject. Now let’s talk about the ONE thing I learned in the writing course: rhetorical subjects. Look at that sentence again and answer this question: “Who or what is this sentence about?” 

This sentence is NOT about the veterinarian or what the veterinarian said. This sentence is about the dog. Thus, the dog, not the veterinarian, is the real focus of this sentence, which means it is the rhetorical subject. 

Don’t believe me? Ok, let’s approach this differently. To find the grammatical subject, we identify the main verb. To find the rhetorical subject, we identify the main action. What is the main action described by this sentence? Although the main verb is “said,” the main action being described is having fleas. And who or what performs this action? The dog. Thus, the dog is the rhetorical subject. 

Using the Rhetorical Subject as the Grammatical Subject 

“Gee, that’s swell. And that’s useful how?” I’m glad you asked. As a careful, effective, and purposeful writer, you want the grammatical subject to be the same word as the rhetorical subject. When we use the rhetorical subject as the grammatical subject, we get this revision: 

“According to the veterinarian, the dog has fleas.”

 Now what’s the grammatical subject? Dog. And what’s the rhetorical subject? Dog. In this revision, the grammatical and rhetorical subjects are the same. This improves the sentence in four ways:

  1. The sentence clearly states its main idea.
  2. The sentence focuses the readers’ attention on the right subject.
  3. The sentence emphasizes the main action.
  4. The sentence is economical. 

The base sentence of the revised version is now “the dog has fleas,” and “according to the veterinarian” has been pushed into a descriptive phrase where it belongs. 

Another Example of Rhetorical and Grammatical Subjects 

Let’s try another sentence in which the rhetorical and grammatical subjects differ. 

“There is a good reason for this mess.”

 When we parse this sentence, we find the following elements.

  • Grammatical subject: “there” [“There” and all other expletives make crummy subjects.]
  • Main verb: “is” [“Is” and all other state-of-being verbs weaken sentences.]
  • Main action: having a good reason for this mess
  • Rhetorical subject: I, we, you, she, etc. [This sentence doesn’t provide the person or thing who does the main action. In cases such as this, we have to figure it out from the context. Here, we’ll assume that I am the person who has the reason.] 

This sentence is weak. It doesn’t use the rhetorical subject for the grammatical subject—it doesn’t even tell the reader who or what the rhetorical subject is! We’ll apply the same strategy as before to improve it and use the rhetorical subject “I” as the grammatical subject. This gives us the following revision. 

“I have a good reason for this mess.”

What are the grammatical and rhetorical subjects now? In this revised sentence, “I” serves both functions. As a result, this sentence clearly states its main idea, focuses the readers’ attention on the doer of the main action, emphasizes the main action, and provides the idea economically. This sentence has another benefit: it demonstrates confidence, which, in this case, may be important. 

Summary of Everything Above 

  1. The grammatical subject is the subject of the main verb.
  2. The rhetorical subject is the subject of the main action described by the sentence.
  3. Clear, direct, economical sentences use the rhetorical subject as the grammatical subject.
  4. If your grammatical subject and rhetorical subject are not the same, revise. 

Try These on Your Own 

“It appears that I was right.”

“The hospital was where John recovered.”

“Although John loved Mary, she preferred Tom.”

“There was a book I read about the Civil War.”

“Here is where the CEO got fired.”

[One of these is a trick question.]  


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2 Comments

Filed under Editing, Writing

2 responses to “The Real Subject of Your Sentence

  1. This is a somewhat complex idea. Let’s try the first one together.
    “It appears that I was right.”

    First, we figure out the grammatical parts of the sentence.
    1. What’s the subject of this sentence? – “It” Thus, “it” is the grammatical subject.
    2. And what’s the main verb? – “appears”
    Now we figure out what the sentence is discussing.
    3. What is the action being described by the sentence? – being right
    4. And who did that action? – I did, apparently. Thus, I am the rhetorical subject. The sentence is about me being right, not about “it appears.”

    And that is the problem with sentence one. The grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject are not the same.

    Now, here’s what we do. We use the rhetorical subject, “I”, as the grammatical subject, and the main action, being right, as the main verb. This means our sentence can start as “I was right.”

    Look at this new sentence and pick it apart by its grammatical components.
    What’s the subject now? “I” – Thus, “I” is the grammatical subject. We already know that it is the rhetorical subject from before. The grammatical subject and the rhetorical subject are the same word in the sentence. So far so good.

    Now let’s find the main verb. In the new sentence, the main verb (the one that serves the grammatical function of main verb) is now “was,” or “was right.” As we learned above, this is also the main action. We’re doing great so far. The subject has one word for both grammatical and rhetorical subject, and the main verb in the sentence is also the main action being described.

    All that’s left to do is add the description, explanatory information. In this case, all we have to add is “apparently” (or something like that).

    Our final revised sentence is “I was apparently right.”

    Easy, right? This is an advanced, but powerful, strategy for improving writing. When we use this strategy, we get to the point, emphasize the right subject and action, and provide clear, direct information.

    Now that you know the first sentence was not the trick one, can you spot which one is?

  2. Jeanne

    Although preceding is, there is not the grammatical subject of “There is a good reason for this mess.” The subject of the sentence is “a good reason.” (A good reason is there for the mess.)

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