In addition to nouns and pronouns, other constructions can work as subjects. These are words, phrases, or clauses that perform the same job as a noun. (A phrase is any series of two or more words that is less than a clause. A phrase might have a subject-type word or a word from the verb category, but not both.)

Let’s look at a few examples of the main types of noun substitutes. In each case, a phrase does the same job a one-word noun could do.

1. Infinitive Verb Phrases

An infinitive verb phrase is any verb preceded by the word to. Examples are to walk, to sing, to dream. Look at this sentence:

To decide is to take a risk.

Here, the verb phrase to decide works like a noun and acts as the subject of the sentence. You can make a rough equivalent of this sentence by using a conventional noun as the subject:

A decision is always a risk.

2. Gerund Phrases

A gerund is a verb that ends in -ing and works as a noun. A gerund phrase is simply a gerund plus other words attached to it. Here’s an example:

Planning an overseas trip takes a tremendous effort.

You can see that the subject here is roughly equivalent to the noun subject in the sentence:

A plan for an overseas trip takes a tremendous effort to create.

3. Prepositional Phrases

Most prepositions are direction or relationship words such as at, behind, inside, and toward. A prepositional phrase is a preposition plus the noun or pronoun that follows it. Prepositional phrases can also work as subjects:

Before breakfast is a good time for a walk.

Under the boardwalk was the place to be.

4. Clauses

Infinitive verb phrases, gerund phrases, and prepositional phrases are common constructions that can do the job of a noun. Therefore, they can be subjects of clauses. (They can also be objects of verbs.) But these are not the only noun substitutes, just the most common ones. Other constructions can act as nouns. For example, a whole clause can act as a subject within a larger clause:

What really gripes me is wilted brown lettuce in a high-priced salad.

Can you see how the subject in this sentence is similar to the noun phrase My complaint or My pet peeve?

You don’t have to be too concerned about the names of these constructions. But it is important to remember:

1. what the job of the subject is (to present a topic for the predicate to make a statement about by showing the subject’s action or condition), and

2. that nouns, pronouns, or a variety of other substitutes acting as nouns can do that job.

Exercise 1.4

Find the subject of each sentence. Draw a line under the subject and write s above it. (It will help to find the verb first.) All the subjects here are drawn from the noun substitute category.

1. To work hard today is to believe in tomorrow.

2. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.

3. Tracking students into so-called ability groups often creates great damage of both an intellectual and an emotional nature.

4. Outside that crazy office is where she wanted to be.

5. What a racist or sexist joke reveals about its teller is quite astonishing.