The subject of the sentence focuses the readers’ attention because it answers the question “Who?” The writer is telling the reader, “This is what the sentence is about.” Because the subject of the sentence is so important, direct writing requires the writer to choose the subject carefully.
Grammatical and Meaningful Subjects: A sentence has two types of subjects: the grammatical subject and the meaningful subject.
The grammatical subject is the word or phrase in the subject’s position, typically before the main verb. It serves the grammatical role of subject and determines what the main verb will be.
“Veterinarians have discovered a new form of feline leukemia.”
Who (subject) = veterinarians
Did what (main verb) = have discovered
To whom/what (object) = a new form of feline leukemia
“Fourteen members of Congress changed party affiliation during the campaign.”
Who (subject) = fourteen members of Congress
Did what (main verb) = changed
To whom/what (object) = party affiliation
In the examples above, the grammatical subjects are veterinarians and fourteen members of Congress. These are the words before the main verb (i.e., have discovered, changed), and they determine what the main verb will be. They serve the grammatical function of the subject, so they are called the grammatical subject. Every complete sentence has at least one grammatical subject.
When you ask the question, “What are the subject and the main verb,” you identify the grammatical subject.
The concept of a meaningful subject is more complex. The meaningful subject is what the sentence is supposed to be about. To find the meaningful subject, the writer must first ask what action the sentence is describing. Once we understand the main action, we ask who or what is doing that action. We can use a previous example to understand this concept better.
“Veterinarians have discovered a new form of feline leukemia.”
Main action: discovering a new form of feline leukemia
Who or what is doing the main action: veterinarians
Meaningful subject: veterinarians
In this example, the sentence is about veterinarians, making veterinarians the meaningful subject.
In direct writing, the grammatical subject and the meaningful subject are always the same word. After asking “What are the subject and main action of the sentence?” the writer needs to ask “Is the sentence about the subject?” If the answer is yes, then the grammatical subject and the meaningful subject are the same. However, if the answer is no, then the sentence needs to be revised, as seen in the following example.
“There is concern about the new policy among safety officers.”
Grammatical subject: there (the subject of the main verb is)
Main action: being concerned
Who or what is being concerned: safety officers
Meaningful subject: safety officers
In this poorly written sentence, the meaningful subject (safety officers) is not the same as the grammatical subject (there). To revise this sentence, we can use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, leading to the following revision:
“Safety officers are concerned about the new policy.”
In the revised sentence, which exemplifies direct writing, the grammatical and meaningful subjects are the same words. On a side note, in every sentence that uses there as the grammatical subject, the grammatical and meaningful subjects will be different, and the sentence will need to be revised.
Unlike the prior example, some sentences do not indicate who or what is the meaningful subject. The writer will need to consider the context of the sentence to determine the meaningful subject, as in the second sentence below.
“Financial experts spent three weeks examining the company budget. After careful analysis, the conclusion was that the company has sufficient funds for the project.”
Grammatical subject: conclusion
Main action: concluding, reaching a conclusion
Who or what did the concluding: This sentence does not indicate who did the action, but the previous sentence suggests that it was the finance experts.
Meaningful subject: finance experts
In this poorly written sentence, the meaningful subject (finance experts) is not the same as the grammatical subject (conclusion). To revise this sentence, we can use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, leading to the following revision:
“After careful analysis, finance experts concluded that the company has sufficient funds for the project.”
Sometimes, when revising sentences to use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, we have choices about what to make the meaningful subject, and this brings us to the second issues about subjects.
Choosing the Right Meaningful Subject: The readers will focus on whatever word or words you put in the subject position. This means you can change the readers’ attention and the emphasis in the sentence by choosing different meaningful subjects.
The previous example shows how the focus changes depending on the subject.
Original sentence: “After careful analysis, the conclusion was that the company had sufficient funds for the project.
Revised, emphasis on the finance experts: “After careful analysis, finance experts concluded that the company has sufficient funds for the project.”
Revised, emphasis on the company: “Based on a careful analysis by finance experts, the company has sufficient funds for the project.”
Revised, emphasis on the funds: “Based on a careful analysis of the company’s finances, sufficient funds are available for the project.
As seen by these examples, the writer not only uses the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject but also determines what the sentence will be about, whether the finance experts, the company, or the funds, respectively.
This brings us back to the readers’ primary question: “Who did what to whom?” The word you choose as the subject answers “who.” As noted previously, the subject, main verb, and object carry the message of the sentence; the rest is description. Thus, you can change the message of the sentence by using different subjects.
In direct writing, you write what you mean clearly and economically. You can only do this if you choose the right subject, the subject that communicates the point you wish to make.
Subjects that can act: When deciding what the meaningful subject will be, you have three types of nouns from which to choose: creatures, things, and ideas.
- Creatures, which include people, are the natural choice for subjects because they can act.
Example: The committee members convened at10:00 a.m.
- Things (i.e., inanimate objects and places) can do something, but in many cases they are acted upon.
Example: The projector began smoking.
- Ideas (i.e., abstractions and concepts) cannot act. They exist and can be acted upon.
Example: Disagreement with committee decisions is not welcome.
The readers’ question “Who did what to whom?” implies that the subject is able to do something. For this reason, creatures make better subjects than things, and things make better subjects than ideas.
With a subject that can perform an action, and with that action described by the sentence, the sentence will be more interesting to the reader. This gives you the opportunity to keep sharing your information. More importantly, the reader will be able to visualize the subject performing the action, increasing both reader understanding and remembrance.