Promotion to subject (1)

by Terence MacNamee

Generative grammar has always used the notions of subject and object, which are supposed to be universal – that is, found in every language and culture. There was a sub-field of generative grammar, case-grammar, which went a bit further. It did not focus on the grammatical case of nouns familiar from the classical languages, but rather on “deep” case or semantic case – that is to say, the roles that the persons and things referred to by the nouns play in the sentence. In traditional classical grammar we accounted for that in terms of “agent” and “patient”, or “doer” and “sufferer”. Case grammar expanded this list to take in “the theme”, which often corresponds to the direct object, but sometimes to the subject. In fact, there can be “transformations” of the sentence to let different nouns or roles be more or less prominent in the sentence. This often involves the prominent noun becoming the subject of the sentence. Hence the term “promotion to subject”. The most obvious transformation is “passivization”, where the active verb becomes passive, the “agent” or “doer” is demoted from subject to a subordinate case, and the “patient” or “sufferer” becomes the subject. So “the man saw the boy” becomes “the boy was seen by the man”, where “the boy” is promoted to subject.

On the other hand, one must remark that the capacity to occupy subject position is usually tied to being the focus of interest. We are less likely to say “a car ran over the man” than we are to say “the man was run over by a car”, for the simple reason that the man is our natural focus of attention. There can be other such transformations, however, such as, for example, “bees swarm in the garden”, but also “the garden swarms with bees”. The focus of attention may be on the bees, or it may be on the garden.

Be that as it may, some nouns – or what they refer to – seem inherently more worthy of being subject than others. If we focus on the subject, we can identify with it.

There is another sense of subject and object in connection with language. A subject can mean the person who is talking or doing something. We talk about “the knowing subject” in epistemology, meaning the person who knows something. What this person knows or talks about is the object of discourse. (“Subject” can also be used to refer to something talked about, but it is usually a whole topic, or a realm of discourse, like epistemology itself.)

Of course, if the subject is talking about a person, that person will be the object of discourse. Different kinds of people may be the subject or the object of a discourse. Some people are always subjects, and other people are always objects. For example, in medicine, doctors are always the subjects and patients are always the object. Medical discourse consists of doctors talking about patients and in particular what is wrong with them.