March 25, 2005
KISS Grammar Workbooks
Level Two Instructional Material

Identifying Subjects and Finite Verbs

Find the Verb First

     Different people's minds work differently, and some people seem to find it easiest to identify subjects first and then the verb that goes with them. If you are stumped, try that, but it may be easier to identify verbs first. Several methods for identifying verbs have been proposed. Individually, none of them seem to be successful, but each may help.

     The first is the definition of verbs as words that "show action or state of being." The definition is basically true, but it is probably too vague -- what is meant by "show," and by the even vaguer "state of being"? In

She plays baseball.
"plays" shows action, but in 
She made three excellent plays.
it names what she made. The difference is that in the first example, "plays" predicates action, whereas in the second it answers the question "She made what?" But this means that one must understand the concept of predication, and be able to apply it to a particular sentence, before one can use this part of the definition.
     As for "state of being," I never knew what that meant, and still don't. (And I love philosophy.) Fortunately, the verbs that show state of being are limited in number and are almost always used as finite verbs. They, together with some other very commonly used verbs,  should simply be remembered:
is, are, was, were, have, has, had, do, does, did
Note that most of these words are extremely common and you will do yourself a favor by memorizing the small list. 

     Suffixes such as "ing" and "ed" help to identify many words as verbs

    Another simple way to check to see if a word CAN BE a verb is to use it to fill in simple blanks to make acceptable sentences:

She/They ______.
She/They ______ it.
Generally speaking, only words that can function as verbs will make sense in the blanks, but that does not mean that the word functions as a verb in the sentence you are analyzing.
     Another way of telling if a word can function as a verb is to test whether or not it can have number and tense. Grammatically, "number" refers to the difference between one (singular) and more than one (plural):
He walks.     They walk.
Tense refers to the expression of time relationships:
Past: He walked. He was walking. He did walk.
Present: He walks. He is walking. He does walk.
Future: He will walk. He will be walking.
Suppose, for example, that you were attempting to decide if "time" is a verb in the following sentence:
They time the contest.
In this sentence, you could change "time" to "timed" and still have a meaningful sentence. Thus "time" here functions as a verb. But in the sentence "Do you have the time?" "time" does not function as a verb because you cannot sensibly substitute "timed."
     Perhaps a more helpful guideline is that words that can be verbs do not function as verbs when they are directly preceded by "a," "an," or "the," or by possessives (his, their, Mary's):
They made the play.
She opened a can.
It is Mary's can.
The lawyer read the will.
His will was short.


Verb Phrases

     A verb phrase, in the simplest sense, is a group of verbs that work as a unit:

They were working on the road.
They would be working on the road for a long time.
She is going to go to the store.
He ought to read this book.
Bill has to do his homework.
In KISS Level Four, you will learn that verb phrases can be analyzed into smaller pieces, but at Level Two, your primary objective is to identify all the verbs in a phrase as a part of the phrase. Sometimes the words in a phrase are separated from each other:
Would they like to come to supper?
She has often said that.
They do, in this case, have to go to court.


Finding Subjects

     Always work one pattern at a time -- find the verb, find its subject(s), and then find its complement(s). I have seen many students who underline a verb here, another one there, then perhaps a subject from a different pattern somewhere else. Such students never know when they are done, and they almost never do a good job. Work systematically, sentence-by-sentence, one pattern at a time.

     If you find the finite verb first, you can use what they teach in middle and high school to help you find its subject. Unfortunately, most teachers don't give students everything they need. Teachers say, "Find the subject by making a question with 'who' or 'what.'" If the sentence is

Sharon likes hamburgers.
you are supposed to ask the question "Who likes hamburgers?" which will give you the subject -- "Sharon." This works fine for baby sentences, and even for some sophisticated ones. 
     But what happens with:
Some of these concepts are difficult.
We ask the question -- "Who or what are difficult?" And we get the answer -- "concepts." We tell that to the teacher, and we're told that we're wrong. (Thanks a lot.) Actually, this scenario does not happen very often, because most teachers use exercises in grammar books, and the grammar books avoid such sentences in their exercises.
     And there is another problem:
It was the manager who caught the thief.
We ask "Who was the manager?" and we get the correct, if meaningless, "it." We then ask "Who caught the thief?" Obviously it was the manager -- but that's the wrong answer!

     In addition to the "who or what + verb" question, we need two additional rules:

1 If a a verb is outside a prepositional phrase, its subject cannot be inside one. 
In our first example ("Some of these concepts are difficult.") this rule eliminates "concepts" from consideration, and in effect forces you to the only word left, "some," which is the subject. Prepositional phrases between subjects and their verbs are fairly common, so your ability to identify prepositional phrases -- earned at Level One -- will make Level Two easier.
     For practical purposes, if you are working at Level Two, you can ignore anything and everything in prepositional phrases as you look for subjects and verbs. Only one prepositional phrase in two hundred involves subjects and verbs, a percentage so low that it is not worth worrying about until we get to clauses -- where the construction will become clear. (Again, one thing at a time!)
2. The complement of one verb can NEVER function as the subject of another. There are NO exceptions.
This rule, firmly based on our psycholinguistic model of how the human brain processes language,  resolves the second problem. In our example ("It was the manager who caught the thief.") "manager is a predicate noun after "was," so it cannot be the subject of "caught." In most cases, as in this one, you will be left with only one word, usually "who," "which," or "that" which functions as the subject.

A Psycholinguistic Approach to Finding Subjects.

     As suggested at the beginning of this page, the basic sentence pattern is subject / verb / optional complement. We each figured this out for ourselves, as babies, and to this day our brains still expect the same basic pattern. Generally speaking, our brains will take the first noun phrase as the subject of a sentence. As we grew older, however, we mastered a few exceptions. An important one involves words that denote time:

Sunday, we will watch the ball game.
Sunday is my favorite day of the week.
English uses nouns that denote time as adverbs to indicate when the action of the verb will take place. (This is one of the seven additional constructions explored in Level Five.) As a result, readers/hearers have to wait until further into the sentence before deciding whether or not the time-word is the subject. In the first example, as soon as a reader/hearer perceives "we," "we" is taken as the subject, and "Sunday" is processed as an adverb. But in the second example, the "is" after "Sunday" confirms that "Sunday" is the subject of the sentence.
     As you know by now, after Level One, prepositions never function as nouns. As a result, when readers/hearers perceive a preposition at the beginning of a sentence, they expect the object of that preposition before the subject of the sentence:
{In the winter}, they go sledding.
The initial preposition, in this case "in," devours "winter" such that "winter" is not eligible to be the subject of the sentence. So the next thing named, in this case "they," is. We will learn about a few other grammatical constructions that have this effect. But even without a conscious awareness of those constructions, you may be able to use this rule and your knowledge of English to help you identify subjects -- With the exception of nouns that denote time, the brain will take the first "free" noun or pronoun as the subject of a finite verb. [Questions (Whom do you want?) are an exception to this rule.]