Sentence Subjects: Looking Past Nouns and Strict Verb Agreement

Posted on Wednesday, November 15, 2017, at 12:58 am

Sentence subjects are typically obvious in English grammar. Many are nouns, and they take corresponding plural or singular verbs.

How then do we identify and explain the parts of speech in the following sentences?

1. Buying houses and flipping them has been netting him a small fortune.
2. To be alone is to find true knowledge of oneself.
3. My mentor and friend has retired after 30 years of loyal service.
4. Who had removed the page from the file was creating much debate.

Other grammatical elements beyond nouns can serve as sentence subjects. They also can bend the rules of subject-verb agreement.

Sentence 1 leads with Buying houses and flipping them, both gerund phrases, verbs functioning as nouns and taking direct objects.

You’ll also note the sentence verb, has been netting, is singular. If the sentence has a compound gerund subject (buying and flipping), the verb should be plural, right? In this case, the two gerunds combine as one unit and therefore command a singular verb.

Another sentence including similar information could be written as Buying houses and flipping them have been netting (plural verb) him a small fortune. Both the plural and the singular treatments are grammatically acceptable according to the writer’s intent.

In sentence 2, the subject is an infinitive phrase, the word to plus the present form of a verb, also called the infinitive stem. The subject, To be alone, is followed by the linking verb is and then by another infinitive phrase as the subject complement (to find true knowledge of oneself).

Sentence 3 includes what appears to be another compound subject, mentor and friend, and yet the verb is singular. This is because one person was two things—a mentor and a friend—to the writer, creating one unit with plural components and a singular verb. Here too we have acceptable grammatical style determined by context and meaning.

In the last sentence, the subject is an entire relative clause, Who had removed the page from the file. In this example, one clause serves as a singular unit and corresponds with a singular verb, was creating. Other relative pronouns that can lead clausal sentence subjects include whom, whose, whoever, which, whichever, what, whatever, and that.


Whose shoes were on the front porch perplexes the investigators.
What songs the band will play remains unknown even to those close to the group.

We see that sentence subjects can extend well beyond nouns, and subject-verb agreement can sometimes adjust based on whether the writer wishes to group or separate compound items. This understanding adds to our grammatical toolbox and further enhances our expressive versatility. 


Pop Quiz

Identify either the type of subject or the correct verb in the following sentences:

1) To run for local office (gerund phrase / infinitive phrase) has always been his ambition.

2) That they are gifted guitarists (relative clause / gerund phrase) is obvious.

3) Hunting and fishing (is / are) my favorite (way / ways) to spend a day off.

4) Reading three books a week (infinitive phrase / gerund phrase) keeps her intellectually sharp.


Pop Quiz Answers

1) To run for local office (gerund phrase / infinitive phrase) has always been his ambition.

2) That they are gifted guitarists (relative clause / gerund phrase) is obvious.

3) Hunting and fishing (is / are) my favorite (way / ways) to spend a day off.
Both the singular (is / way) and the plural (are / ways) would be grammatically accurate according to the writer’s intent.

4) Reading three books a week (infinitive phrase / gerund phrase) keeps her intellectually sharp.

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