On the subject of whodunnit

Posted by on October 06, 2014

© STOCKBYTEA typical English sentence consists, as a minimum, of a subject followed by a verb:

They left.

If there’s an object, it comes after the verb:

They left town.

Other elements can be added in various positions:

They left town.
They all left town.
They all left town yesterday.
Apparently they all left town yesterday.

Is a subject an absolutely essential component of a sentence, though? Well, one answer is that, in conversation, ellipsis of a subject is common when there is an obvious reference to a previously-mentioned subject:

“What did you do last night?” “(I) Just went round to the pub.”
“Where’s Joan?” “(I) Don’t know. (She) Might have missed her train.”

But what can you do, when speaking or writing, in cases where:
– the subject is unknown, or even unknowable?
– the subject is unimportant, or irrelevant?
– it’s obvious who the subject is?
– the subject could be anyone?
– you prefer, for pragmatic reasons, not to identify the subject?

In such cases, the need to include a subject in a sentence would appear to be an obstacle to efficient and accurate expression. But there are various ways of overcoming this obstacle…

1. Use the subject they to mean the authorities, the government, your employers, whoever is responsible for decisions and actions in a particular domain, etc.:

They put the bus fares up again last month.
They’ve been talking about raising the retirement age.
They really ought to do something about the state of the roads round here.

2. Use the subject you to mean me, you or anyone else:

You can never be sure what lies ahead.
When you go out on these hills, you’ve got to be properly equipped.
You can’t trust these people, can you?

3. In formal contexts, you can use the subject one in the same way:

One can never be sure what lies ahead.
One must bring one’s own talents to every single task.
From the top of a nearby hill, one can see five counties.

4. Use we as an all-inclusive subject:

We’re seeing pubs close at an alarming rate.
We can look forward to some better weather by the weekend.
We may therefore conclude that the resources currently available are unlikely to be sufficient.

5. Use someone or somebody as a subject:

Someone must have taken it by mistake.
Somebody phoned while you were out.

6. Use there’s / there are:

There’s a lot of drug dealing round here.
There were a number of arrests.
There have been various attempts to solve this problem.

7. Use the passive without an agent, so that what is logically the object of the verb becomes the grammatical subject:

The fire had been fully extinguished by yesterday morning.
A 32-year-old-man was remanded in custody.
Patients are being urged to cancel appointments if they cannot attend.
Joe got promoted last year.
These rocks were formed in the Carboniferous era.

8. It’s even possible for the indirect object to become the subject of a passive sentence:

Henryk Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905.
I was given this book on my retirement.

9. Use an infinitive construction:

It’s getting harder and harder to find loose tea in the shops.
It took several hours to deal with the incident.
These new procedures should make it easier to give people the help they need.

10. Change the verb into a noun:

The nationalisation of the railways took place in 1948.
An investigation has begun into the death of a man with mental health problems.

11. With some verbs, you can use the logical object of the verb as the grammatical subject without using the passive:

The glass cracked. (Something or someone cracked the glass.)
This drawer doesn’t open easily. (It isn’t easy to open this drawer.)

12. Use the have something done construction:

I had my pocket picked the other day.
I’m having the roof repaired.

NB The second of these two examples, unlike the first(!), describes something which is happening at my instigation.

We use these options when it would be impossible or unnecessary to put the spotlight on any particular actor or actors, but also to deliberately shield actors from attention – even if everyone knows who they are! Consider the differences between these pairs of utterances:

Your proposal has not been accepted.
I/We have not accepted your proposal.

One of your wine glasses broke while I was doing the washing up.
I broke one of your wine glasses while I was doing the washing up.

Unfortunately, further cuts will need to be made next year.
Unfortunately, we will need to make further cuts next year.

There have been mistakes.
I/We have made mistakes.

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Comments (2)
  • What an incredibly useful analysis, Jonathan. I love that last one (“There have been mistakes”). A popular variant on this – much used by politicians – is “Mistakes have been made”, sometimes followed by “and lessons will be learned”. Talk about evading responsibility! I wonder if another category we could add to your list is the pseudo-cleft sentence, as in: The England team needs a new manager –> What the England team needs is a new manager.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 7th October, 2014
  • Thanks, Michael. I think pseudo-clefting does something a bit different, actually, and I hope to say something about it in a future post.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 7th October, 2014
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