Subject or object?

Sometimes, in order to correctly translate a sentence into French, it helps to know whether something is the subject or object of the verb. (Parts of a sentence can of course be something other than the subject or object of the verb, but we'll concentrate on the difference between these two here.) Some cases where the distinction is important include:

  • deciding what to make the verb agree with (its ending agrees with the subject);
  • deciding between the relative pronouns qui and que.

1. Informal definition

Informally, it's usual to say that:

  • the subject is the "person/thing doing the action";
  • the object is the "person/thing receiving or affected by the action".

These informal descriptions work fairly well in many simple cases, such as:

the postman bit the dog
the criminal burnt the evidence
which evidence did the criminal burn?
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With a bit of thinking, these criteria can even work in simple cases such as the last, where the subject and object appear "the other way round" in the sentence. However, they're less good in some other cases, such as:

I never predicted his actions
the house burnt to the ground
the temperature is affected by the people in the room
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For various specific reasons, these are all examples of sentences in which it seems more difficult to "visualise the action" of the sentence in terms of a clear "doer" and "recipient" of the action, and when forced to do so, we may well get things "the wrong way round"2. For these and various other sentences, it helps to have a more formal definition of subject and object, or at least a few more hints for distinguishing between them.

2. More formal definition

A more formal definition is to say that:

  • the subject is the element that agrees with the verb;
  • the object is the element that is not the subject but which becomes the subject of the passive1.

For example, in the sentences:

the house was burning to the ground
the houses were burning to the ground
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the choice of verb (was vs were) depends on the house(s), so we say that the house(s) is the subject. Notice how we changed from burnt to was/were burning so that we could tell the difference.

The notion of the object becoming the subject in the passive is straightforward in cases such as the postman was bitten by the dog. It's a little bit more complex with certain verbs such as burn, where what appears as the subject actually remains the subject in the passive (as in "the house was burnt to the ground"). To get round cases such as this, we introduce the arbitrary criterion that the object is not the subject3.

3. Tips for distinguishing between subject and object

Given the above, here are some tips for distinguishing between subject and object:

If you change from singular to plural, does the verb change?

For this test, you need to transform the verb to use either a continuous form or a simple present tense (i.e. a form that changes depending on singular/plural). Then:

If changing a phrase from singular to plural changes the verb, then it is generally the subject.

For example, in the sentence:

the people in the room affect the temperature
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we might expect "the people" to be the object or "people affected by" the action of the heat. To test this, we use our singular/plural change. First, we check that we're using either a continuous (is/are ...ing) form or a simple present. In this case, we have a simple present so we're OK. Then, we change temperature from singular to plural (to make the sentence sound a bit better, we also omit the):

the people in the room affect temperatures
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But in this case, changing temperature to temperatures doesn't change the verb ("affect" is still OK). So the temperature isn't the subject. Next we try changing the people to a singular:

the person in the room affects the temperatures
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In this case, changing people to person also means we have to change the verb from affect to affects for the sentence to be grammatical. So the people (or the person) is the subject4.

I, he, she, we, they are usually subjects

When they stand on their own, these pronouns are always subjects. So:

  • if you have one of these in the sentence, it is almost certainly the subject;
  • if you can replace a noun phrase in your sentence with one of these pronouns (and get the same meaning), then that noun phrase was probably the subject.

There are a couple of main problems with this test:

  • It doesn't work for cases where these pronouns are sometimes used as a coordinated object, as in:

    He asked David and I for help
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    (Prescriptively, this construction is sometimes considered a hypercorrection, but it's becoming increasingly common and acceptable.)

  • English has some constructions where a non-subject pronoun is essentially the subject of a verb, for example:

    Them being here is a pain.
    I'm not happy with him doing it.
    I wished for them to have more luck.
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    So just because a pronoun isn't one of these, doesn't mean it's not the subject.

In a relative clause, can you omit that/who etc?

In a relative clause (basically a "sentence inside a sentence" that describes "the thing/person you're talking about"), then if that, who, which etc cannot be omitted, then it is generally the subject. For example:

1(a) This is the patient that was cured yesterday.
(b) This is the patient was cured yesterday.
2(a) This is the patient that Mary cured yesterday.
(b) This is the patient Mary cured yesterday.
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In 1(a), the word that can't be omitted (compare 1(b)). So that (and, depending on your analysis, the patient) is the subject if the sentence. On the other hand, in 2(a), we can omit that, indicating that it is not the subject5.

Notice that this test doesn't work in non-restrictive relatives, in other words, where the relative clause is preceded by a pause (and often a comma in writing), because in such cases, then either the relative pronoun (who, which etc) or that is usually required whether subject or object.


1. A slightly different definition of object is to say that the object is the element, other than the subject, that the verb "selects" or "requires". For example, in the sentence On Mondays, Daniel eats chips on the sofa, a wide variety of sentences could have the phrases on Mondays or on the sofa, but chips in some sense "depends on" the verb eats (for example, it fulfils criteria required by that verb, notably needing to represent something "edible"). With either of the definitions presented here, it's not so clear which of the underlined phrases we would class as "objects" and which not in the following examples: Daniel put the jug on the table; Mary gave Jane the book; Douglas bet John five pounds on the horse.
2. An interesting example is Dabrowska (2006), "Individual differences in language attainment: Comprehension of passive sentences by native and non-native English speakers" Language Sciences 28:604-615. Dabrowska found that when presented with an implausible passive sentence (e.g. the teacher was tested by the student), less formally educated native speakers tended to base their judgement of subject/object on 'visualising the action', and were hence liable to interpret the subject as object and vice versa.
3. From a theoretical point of view, things are really not so clear-cut. But in practical terms of deciding on how to translate a sentence into French, it is generally a sufficient definition!
4. Depending exactly on how you analyse the sentence, you may strictly say that the subject is the whole phrase the people in the room.
5. I believe there are actually some dialects of English where the relative pronoun or that can be omitted in sentences such as 1(a). Clearly, the test won't work in such dialects.

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