Grammar Lesson of the Day: subject

Grammar Lesson: Subject


Most of my college students cannot identify the subject of a sentence. They’re bright kids, but they’ve never been taught it. Italians are bright people, too, but try explaining to one what a shortstop is. Madonna mia!


The only ones who can identify the subject are kids who have studied Latin or Greek, or kids who were taught at home (and there’s a lot of overlap). You have to know what the subject is in Latin and Greek, because the form of the noun and its modifiers depends upon it: these are languages inflected for case. German is inflected, too, and Anglo Saxon used to be, but schools have abandoned German, and it’s absurd to suppose that kids are going to learn Old English when they don’t even know the New variety.


The rest are under the impression that the subject comes sort of at the beginning. So they flounder about, searching for some important-looking word near the start of a sentence. If the sentence is at all sophisticated – if it’s trickier than See Spot Run – they will pick the wrong thing. But even if they happen upon the right thing, it doesn’t signify; they still don’t really know what they’re looking for.


I divide the world into two groups: those who can diagram the first sentence in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and those who can’t:


Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, heavenly Muse …


The sentence actually continues for quite a while, but that’s enough for now. To find the subject, you have to find the main clause, the one that isn’t subordinated to any other. You have to find the verb in that clause. When you have the verb, you have the subject: the agent of the verb, if the verb is active, or the sufferer of the verb, if the verb is passive. It has nothing to do with position. It has to do with function and meaning.

When I ask my students to find the subject in Milton’s sentence above, most of them say, disobedience. That’s glaringly wrong, since disobedience is the object of the preposition of; it doesn’t even govern a verb, then. Others will say “fruit.” Same problem. Still others will say Tree. Same problem, still an object of a preposition. Some daring souls will say Man. That at least is a subject, because the Man is the agent of the verb restore. But it’s not the subject of the sentence, because it isn’t in the main clause. It’s in a subordinate clause, beginning with the subordinating conjunction, till. We can’t say “till one greater Man restore us,” because the subordinate clause doesn’t make sense by itself. It can’t stand alone. No, the subject of the sentence is right there at the bottom: the understood you: Sing (you), Heavenly Muse. That clause can stand alone. The word Muse is in apposition with the understood pronoun. If a student says, “Muse,” I’ll take it.


When is the time to teach children the grammar of their language? Early, man, early. First come song and memory, then right away comes grammar. It is complete imbecility to suppose that grammar can be absorbed, a leetle bit here and a leetle bit there, over the course of six or seven years in school. Would you teach carpentry that way? One week in third grade for hammering a nail, and then nothing for five months, until you get a lesson on setting the nail in, and a year later you advance to drilling a pilot hole?


People who believe that grammar can be taught in such a happenstance way do not know grammar. They believe that it is a small grab-bag of rules governing usage: lie and lay, don’t say ain’t, and suchlike. It isn’t. It is the coherent study of the system by which a language expresses meaning. It is a whole, and must be taught as a whole. You can say all you want, “Well, we cover participles in the sixth grade!” Garbage. None of the students will remember it a week later, because it is happenstance; it is like saying that your students eventually will see the whole of Leonardo’s Last Supper, because you’re going to show them a piece on the lower left now, and a piece on the upper right later, and you’ll get around to all the pieces in good time. When they are ready to learn grammar, teach them it. Later you can teach it as a whole again, with greater subtlety – perhaps when you are teaching it in Latin. Avast, ye instructional swabs!

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