What are Simple and Complete Subjects?

As you learn English, especially some of the trickier grammar rules, you may notice that identifying the subject of a sentence is extremely useful. You need to know the subject for subject-verb agreement, for example. If you have a plural subject, you must make sure that you choose a verb that agrees in number. In order to choose correctly, you’ll need to spot the subject.

Other times, pinpointing the subject ensures the proper use of pronouns. When you know the subject of a sentence, you can avoid pronoun-antecedent errors, and you can also make sure that pronouns match their antecedents in number and gender. 

So, being able to find the subject of a sentence is a very handy skill. Typically, the subject is the actor in the sentence.

In this article, we’ll discuss ways to identify the subject of a sentence, give examples, and share useful rules. At the end of the post, we’ve included a quiz so that you can put what you’ve learned into action.

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What Is a Subject?

A subject is a part of speech that can appear in both independent and dependent clauses. When we talk about “the subject of a sentence,” we mean the subject of the main clause, also known as an independent clause. A sentence fragment may contain a subject, but that subject is not the subject of the sentence. 

Most often, the subject of a sentence is a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. It’s the person, place, thing, or idea that acts out the verb in the sentence. 

He kicked the ball. 

In the sentence above, the word “he” is the subject who acts out the verb, “kicked”. 

Most of the time, the subject comes before the verb, but that’s not always true. In questions, the subject appears before the main verb and after the auxiliary or modal verb.

Did Thomas Edison invent the light bulb? 

When searching for the subject of a sentence, it helps to ask yourself this question:

What person, place, thing, or idea is the main focus of the sentence?

Simple Subjects

A simple subject describes the subject of the sentence with all the modifiers removed. Modifiers may include adverbs, adjectives, and articles. 

Take the following sentence:

My favorite dessert is cherry pie. 

In the declarative sentence above, “dessert” is the simple subject. “My” and “favorite” both modify the dessert. Once they’re removed, you’re left with the simple subject: dessert. 

If you flipped the sentence around, you’d have a new subject. 

Cherry pie is my favorite dessert.

Now, “pie” is the simple subject and “dessert” is the object of the sentence. 

Complete Subjects

Unlike a simple subject, a complete subject includes all modifiers. “My favorite dessert” is the complete subject of the sentence “My favorite dessert is cherry pie.” While the simple subject of a sentence is usually a single word, the complete subject is often longer.

Although the complete subject does contain modifiers, a prepositional phrase does not form part of the complete subject. The subject also never appears as part of a prepositional phrase. In a diagram of a sentence, you would mark each prepositional phrase as a separate part of speech, even when it’s located next to the subject of the sentence.  

What Is a Compound Subject?

A compound subject refers to more than one simple subject joined with a conjunction. When two or more singular subjects are joined together with the conjunction “and”, they form a plural subject.

The hyphen and the dash are both punctuation marks. 

On the other hand, if you combine two singular subjects with “or” or “nor”, you would use a singular verb.

The hyphen or the dash is a good choice. 

Depending on the conjunction you use, a compound subject consisting of singular simple subjects can be either singular (with or/nor) or plural (with and). In contrast, two plural simple subjects always combine to make a plural compound subject. If you combine a plural simple subject with a singular simple subject, the resulting compound subject can be either singular or plural, based on word order. In that case, the verb must agree with the simple subject closest to its position. 

The dancers or the flag is coming next. 

The flag or the dancers are coming next

Although it contains two words, a compound noun like “ice cream” or a proper noun like “James Smith” does not qualify as a compound subject. “Ice and cream” would work well as a compound subject because that phrase features more than one word joined by a conjunction. 

Ice, cream, and sugar are combined to make ice cream. 

In the sentence above, the bolded words make up a compound subject that is also plural.

Rules to Remember

  1. In an imperative sentence, the understood subject—you—is not written. For example: (You) Drop your weapon! 
  2. A complete subject does not include prepositions or prepositional phrases. The subject of the sentence, “The skinny dog from around the corner hates cats,” is only “the skinny dog,” not “the skinny dog from around the corner.”
  3. Word order matters. In declarative clauses, the subject always comes before the verb. 
  4. In a passive sentence, the subject is not the actor. Instead, the subject is acted upon by an unnamed person, place, thing, or idea. 

Simple Subject Examples in Context

In each example below, taken from a contemporary news article, we’ve bolded the simple subject of the sentence. Any modifiers are marked with brackets. 

“Specifically, Nagy says they want Fields working on calling plays— truly calling them like he’s giving directions to all the players in the huddle, not simply reading a string of words without any rhythm or reason.”
NBC Chicago, “Bears, Matt Nagy Give Justin Fields Homework Before Training Camp”

“Today, [the vacant] space at 3822 Boston Street may seem like 15,000 unremarkable square-feet, but [Bark Social founders] Jeff Kurtzman [and] Luke Silverman are eager to transform the space into the second iteration of their bar and dog park.” 
The Baltimore Sun, “Dog bar Bark Social set to open second location in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood later this year”

There are several key benefits of the project, including transit improvements, improvements to quality of life because of better access to jobs, schools, shopping and medical facilities.”
Channel 10 KWTX, “Waco: City looking for additional feedback on new bus route”

“[A worrying] spike of coronavirus infections in Europe is being driven by the delta variant, according to global health leaders, even as immunization rates in some countries are on the way up.”
NPR, “Europe Watches With Worry As The Delta Variant Spreads Fast In The U.K. And Lisbon”

“[Pink and yellow fiberglass] insulation pokes out from roofs and rooms torn asunder; [other] homes appear to be totally destroyed and have been reduced to piles of debris.”
NBC News, “Drone video shows aftermath of tornado in Chicago-area suburbs”

Quiz: Simple Subject vs. Complete Subject

In the following examples, ask yourself whether the words marked in bold are a simple, compound, or complete subject. 

  1. The Johnsons live on main street.
  2. The first-year students should report to Principal Wallace. 
  3. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy were all American presidents. 
  4. Did those coins slip under the couch?
  5. The dangerous incidents were reported. 
  6. Incidentally, I didn’t hear the complete sentence. 
  7. Every single noun started with the letter W. 
  8. To me, the answer wasn’t obvious. 
  9. After you learn about the simple subject, can you teach the class about the simple predicate?
  10. There are too many kids on the playground. 

Answer Key: 1) Simple 2) Complete 3) Compound 4) Simple 5) Complete 6) Simple 7) Complete 8) Complete 9) Simple 10) Simple


  1. Subjects – English Grammar Today | Cambridge Dictionary
  2. Compound Subjects and Verb Number | Ask The Editor | Learner’s Dictionary
  3. Identifying Subjects, Verbs, and Prepositions | SUNY Suffolk
  4. Bears, Matt Nagy Give Justin Fields Homework Before Training Camp | NBC Chicago
  5. Dog bar Bark Social set to open second location in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood later this year | Baltimore Sun
  6. Waco: City looking for additional feedback on new bus route | KWTX