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Simple and Complex Subjects and Subject-Verb Agreement

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Simple and Complex Subjects

The Simple Subject

The simple subject is the main word or words that refers to the grammatical subject of the sentence (i.e., the person, place, thing, or idea that does or is something). It's the “core” or main part of the subject, and the verb agrees with.

Notice the simple subjects in the sentences below (higlighted in bold):

  • Family is important in our lives. (simple subject: family)
  • Learning takes a great deal of commitment. (simple subject: learning)
  • Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity. (simple subject: Albert Einstein)
  • Belgium became a country in 1830. (simple subject: Belgium)

The Complex Subject

Articles, adjectives, phrasal verbs, and even embedded clauses can be added to the simple subject. The resulting construction is called a complex subject.

You can always break a complex subject down to a simple subject, which is ultimately what the subject agrees with.

Notice how you can add information to a simple subject and make it a complex subject in the following sentence groups.

Example 1:

  • Family is important in our lives. (Simple subject: family)
  • A strong family is important in our lives. (Simple subject: family. Complex subject: A strong family.)
  • A strong family working together is important in our lives. (Simple subject: family. Complex subject: A strong family working together.)

Example 2:

  • Learning takes a great deal of commitment. (Simple subject: learning.)
  • Learning a new language takes a great deal of commitment. (Simple subject: learning. Complex subject: Learning a new language. )
  • The online learning taking place in schools today takes a great deal of commitment. (Simple subject: learning. Complex subject: The online learning taking place in schools today. )

Identifying Singular and Plural Simple Subjects

A plural subject refers to more than one person, place, thing, or idea. A singular subject refers to only one.

To identify whether the verb must agree with a singular or plural subject, you must identify the simple subject. This commonly leads to grammatical errors because we lose track of the subject of the sentence and end up making the verb agree with the noun that is closest to the verb.

For example, in a sentence sentence below, you may be tempted to make the verb agree with “expenses” (or even “Americans”). When you find the actual simple subject in the sentence, you realize it is a singular subject (“the number” ).

The number of Americans who cannot afford medical expenses has increased in the last two decades.

These “troublesome subjects” can be problemmatic, especially in formal English. They are covered in separate lessons. (See “Related Lessons” below. )

Related Lessons

Subject-verb agreement with fractions and percentages

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