What are subject and object phrase functions?

This is the first of three chapters about Subjects and Objects. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.   

– Review the concept of phrase functions in English sentences

– Compare subject and object phrase functions in brief

– Include examples of each feature to help guide the reader

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Chapter 1

In this short reader on subject and object phrase functions, we take a detailed look at two of the most common and useful elements of a sentence. Focussing on these elements from an academic-English (EAP) perspective, we first introduce the concept of a phrase function in Chapter 1 before moving onto exploring subjects and objects more specifically in Chapters 2 and 3, focussing on their form, distribution and various grammar rules. After reading about this topic in Chapters 1-3, don’t forget to unlock, download and complete our related worksheets to check your progress and understanding.

What do we mean by a ‘phrase function’?

Every sentence in English can be divided into a limited number of phrases that possess specific functions. These functions range from expressing the doer or receiver of an action in a sentence to depicting its time, place or manner. Thankfully for students, there are only five such phrase functions (or clause functions) that have to be learned. These are known as subjects, predicates, objects, adverbials and complements::

In this reader, we focus specifically on subjects and objects only. While these two phrases may function quite differently within a sentence, we deal with subjects and objects  together here because they are quite similar in form and distribution. For more information about the three other functions – predicates, complements and adverbials – please visit our other short readers on these topics.

How can I identify a sentence subject?

A sentence is made up of one or more clauses, each of which must possess at least two phrase functions to be grammatical. These two functions are subjects (built mostly from noun phrases) and predicates (verb phrases). Generally speaking, the subject is the doer of the action of the verb. It is also commonly the person or thing that the sentence is about, as the four below examples show:

In declarative sentences (i.e.,  most sentences in English – see our related reader on sentence functions), a subject is easy to identify because it is the noun phrase that comes directly before the main verb:

In interrogative (questioning) sentence types however, the subject of a sentence is instead placed after the main verb or between the auxiliary verb and the main verb:

And, in imperative (commanding) sentences, there is no explicit subject at all added to the clause. Instead, the subject of the expression is assumed and not stated:

How are objects different to subjects?

Like subjects, objects are also most often composed of noun phrases. However, where subjects come before verbs and are the doer of the action of a verb, objects usually come after the predicate and are the receiver of that action. Such differing distribution can be seen in the underlined aspects of our previous examples:

In fact, subjects and objects are so similar that they can often be swapped with each other with no change to a sentence’s grammar (only a change in meaning):

Clearly, however, this is not always possible due to logic and meaning errors (such as how an ‘exam’ cannot fail a ‘student’ in the below example).

If you’re confused as to which is which, one useful way of telling subjects and objects apart is to look at any pronouns which have been used. The subject pronoun ‘I’ for example is written as ‘me’ when it’s in object position, just as how ‘she’ becomes ‘her’ when placed after the verb:

Good work on finishing our first chapter in this short reader on subjects and objects. To learn about subjects in more detail and explore how to use them in academic contexts, continue reading with Chapter 2.

1 of 3 Chapters Completed


Once you’ve completed all three chapters in this short reader about Subjects and Objects, you might then wish to download our Chapter Worksheets to check your progress or print for your students. These professional PDF worksheets can be easily accessed for only a few Academic Marks.

Chapter 1 explores the topic: What are subject and object phrase functions? Our Chapter 1 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

Chapter 2 explores the topic: How are subject NPs useful for academic English? Our Chapter 2 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

Chapter 3 explores the topic: Do essays use direct, indirect and oblique objects? Our Chapter 3 Worksheet (containing guidance, activities and answer keys) can be accessed here at the click of a button. 

To save yourself 2 Marks, click on the button below to gain unlimited access to all of our Subjects and Objects Chapter Worksheets. This All-in-1 Pack includes every chapter, activity and answer key related to this topic in one handy and professional PDF.

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Spring 2022