11 The synthetic grammar of English – assessing the conventional wisdom with subjects and predicates

Ideally, in any classification system, there needs to be:

  1. absolute clarity as to what falls within the domain of a particular class or category and what does not;
  2. no overlap between classes, so that nothing can readily fall within two or more classes;
  3. no equivalence of terminology between distinct but related classification systems;
  4. a super-ordinate classification of structural types when classes in a classification system only occur in one or another structural type (okay, yes, I agree, that’s pretty opaque but it will be clarified by exemplification below);
  5. transparency in the terminology used for individual classes, to facilitate the achievement of needs (i) and (ii) above;
  6. completeness of coverage, so that no item within the area of study hovers potentially unclassifiable in that it does not fit readily within any of the classification classes;
  7. no ‘overlumping’, where two or more distinct entities are included together within one category;
  8. no ‘oversplitting’, where two entities of marginal difference are unnecessarily separated from each other;
  9. a coherent explanatory value for each class or category within the system.

Let’s call these, above, criteria for determining the descriptive effectiveness of a system model. Of course, in the real world of people and things, the process of classifying can be so subjective that there can be little agreement in the classifying: one person’s perception of something as, say, ‘provocative’ can be matched by another person’s perception of the same as ‘reasonable’. Likewise, in the field of gardening, where ‘weeds’ can be defined as ‘plants with no use’ (in terms of their beauty, or food value or perfume), one person’s perception of a particular plant as a ‘weed’ can be matched by another’s perception of the same plant as a precious member of the garden.

As for language, however, the classification systems for the components of sentences should be able to achieve pretty close to ideal levels of, at least, clarity, discreteness, transparency and completeness. This is because, with a language, there has to be an almost total group-agreed perception of classes, even if this is significantly unconscious, for effective communication to be achieved. If the classification system is not achieving high levels of transparency, discreteness and clarity then, almost certainly, the classification system is ‘sloppy’ and not the language itself in its grammatical workings. So, how do conventional approaches to analysing and describing the synthetic grammar of English fare in terms of this kind of assessment? The short answer is: okay in parts, but not very well – overall.

One proviso, though, to perhaps bear in mind is that, when describing a synthetic system, it will inevitably be the case that each category, or functional item, in the system will be defined to some degree by its relationship to other classes or categories in the system.

Subject and predicate

The notions of the subject and the predicate, within linguistics, derive from the philosophical ideas of Plato and Aristotle in the area of categorising the things we can experience in the world. Aristotle drew a distinction between hupokeimenon (what we call a subject) and katêgouroumenon (what we call a predicate). In these terms,

  • a subject is what a statement is about and
  • a predicate is what is said about a subject in a statement.

So, for example, in these sentences, the subject is in red and the predicate is in green:

A) The professor’s machine is quite old.

B) It’s a thinking machine.

But, grammarians of distant yore made, I think, a big mistake in taking Aristotle’s essentially philosophical binary idea and extending it to cover all declarative sentences in a given language, such as English. What they did was decide that sentences such as these also have a subject and a predicate in much the same terms as in A and B above:

C) He created the machine some years ago.

D) He calls it the Ratiocinator 1 – or R1, for short.

E) He is planning a new machine.

The problem with this is that the predicate in each of C, D and E doesn’t actually tell us anything much about the subject. Also, C, D and E aren’t really just about the subject, they are just as much about the machine. We can show this more clearly with these examples:

F) He broke the vase. (This tells us extremely little about He. Who is he? The dog? The cat? A human? And, it tells us more about the vase [within the so-called predicate] than it does about He.)

G) The train pushed the passenger carriage up the hill. (This tells us as much about the passenger carriage as it does about the train. We know very little about the train from this: is it an old or a new train? Is it a steam train or an electric one? We don’t know.)

Overall, the problem here is that two distinctly different types of sentence have been conflated together by this inappropriate over-application of the binary contrast between subject and predicate. Criterion vii, above, has been flouted: sentences A and B are examples of one type of sentence and sentences C to G are examples of a second type; the classical binary contrast, between subject and predicate, ‘overlumps’ them together as not usefully distinguishable. But, they are usefully distinguishable; positing two distinctly different sentence types is a way to fulfill criterion iv, above, of having a super-ordinate classification system that avoids entities of different types being classed as identical. At some stage (assuming I don’t run out of energy, time, money and enthusiasm), I will seek to show that this awareness of distinct sentence types is the only way in which to describe certain semantic effects achieved in the language, very reliably albeit largely unconsciously, through the interplay between the synthetic and the analytic grammar systems.

Am I making an unnecessary fuss?

It could be said that I am making too much of a ‘song and dance’ about this. After all, it might be said, there is not much necessary difference between these two sentence types in terms of their analytic grammar, as shown in these examples:

type 1: It’s a thinking machine.

type 2: He is planning a new machine.

In the type 1 sentence, there is a pronoun (It), a verb (’s) and a noun phrase composed of a determiner (a), an adjectival progressive (thinking) and a noun (machine). Seemingly almost exactly similarly, in the type 2 sentence, we have a pronoun (He), a verb part (is planning) and a noun phrase composed of a determiner (a), an adjective (new) and a noun (machine). However, though there can be little difference or no difference in the analytic grammar, there is a significant difference in the way the sentences function semantically within their synthetic structure as I have sought to indicate above.

But, there is something else to say here now. Type 1 sentences have, of course, an analytic-grammar option that is denied to type 2 sentences, as shown here:

type 1: It’s quite old.

type 2: He is planning quite old.

Because, in a type 1 sentence, the so-called predicate refers back to the subject, we can use an adjective or an adjective phrase (e.g. quite old) immediately after the verb. As we can see directly above, this option is not possible in a type 2 sentence.

An aside on dependency grammar and valency grammar

Two approaches to grammar description, dependency grammar and valency grammar, are very similar in the focus they give to the verb part of a sentence. In these grammar models, the verb part alone is called the predicate; what come before and after the verb part are called arguments. So, the subject is one argument of the verb. The object is another argument of the verb (or, now, predicate, within this system model). If we put the arguments in red in a type 2 sentence then, within this system, we break a sentence down thus:

type 2: He created the machine.

But, in a type 1 sentence, what comes after the verb (conventionally called a complement) is not an argument but, instead is part of the verb/predicate, thus:

type 1: The machine is old.

Valency grammar is quite fun as it compares verbs to chemical elements and shows the bonding capacities of the verb (its valency). A verb that just has a subject is monovalent:

type 2: He smiled.

A verb that has a subject and an object is bivalent:

type 2: He is turning the dials on the machine.

… and so on.

But, I would say that both these theories of grammar are unsatisfactory in their explanatory value. Neither explicitly registers the two key types of sentence structure: type 1 and type 2, as described above. Also, dependency grammar largely conflates subjects and objects as just arguments and, so, not usefully distinct which, in fact, they are. It could be said, to be fair, that these grammars do implicitly recognise the different sentence types by evicting the objects in a type 2 sentence from the predicate but not the complements in a type 1 sentence from the predicate. But, there is a further problem here, in that it is descriptively useful/essential to be able to distinguish between the complement in a type 1 sentence and the verb and not just have them lumped, rather traditionally, together in a predicate. In short, neither of these approaches solves the problems described above in relation to more traditional approaches to the predicate.


The idea of describing individual sentences as either type 1 or type 2 sentences does seem rather opaque and, thus, falls foul of criterion v, above, which extols the virtue of transparency. I’ve been toying with the idea of calling type 1 sentences ‘Being sentences’, as they do always describe states, or almost always. Also, I’ve been toying with the idea of calling type 2 sentences ‘Doing sentences’, as they do, generally, describe actions or events. But, there is a problem here, in that type 2 sentences do also describe states, as in:

type 2: He has a number of properties. OR This dish contains gluten.

and type 1 sentences occasionally describe actions or behaviours, as in:

type 1: He is being silly.

I need another more grammatically focused method of nomenclature here for basic sentence types, as it can be descriptively dangerous/ill-advised to step too quickly into semantics when seeking to design new approaches to grammar description.

‘Ditch’ the notion of the predicate, and keep that of the subject?

For the reasons given above, the predicate needs to be removed as a notion from within the grammar, because it hides important contrasts rather than makes them plain.

Interestingly, the notion of subject is now conventionally described in a rather different way from how Aristotle defined it. Its definition has shifted to accommodate its having a functional role in type 2 sentences, as well as in type 1 ones.

A subject is nowadays often described not only as what the sentence is about (as in type 1 sentences) but also as the ‘doer’ of an action (as in type 2 sentences describing actions). However, that extended notion of the subject doesn’t cover its use as the ‘enactor’ of a state, as in:

type 2: The machine is quite ancient.

Thus, the term subject runs the risk, through its generally accepted definition, of breaking criterion vi (completeness of coverage).

As a term, ‘subject’ also fails a bit in terms of criterion v (transparency); but, it kind of needs to perhaps, as it needs to cover both the idea of being essentially the ‘enactor’ of an action, event or a state in type 2 sentences and the ‘enactor’ of a state, or a role or of behaviour in type 1 sentences. These two roles of enactor of an action and enactor of a state are so significantly different, in their core, that the term to cover both needs to be fairly non-specific perhaps. It could be said that we need two terms, not one, for ‘subjects’ in these two differing contexts, but I think that we would then be being pushed too far by semantics into creating a difference that the grammar in itself does not justify and that that would, therefore, be a case of breaking criterion viii (no ‘over-splitting’). A key thing about all subjects is that they almost always determine the ‘number’ of the present-tense verb in the third person, whether it’s singular or plural (e.g. likes versus like or knows versus know), and whether it’s first person, second person or third person in the case of forms of be (am, are, is). By the by, this general grammatical role of the subject in determining the ‘number’ of the present-tense verb rather denies the rationale behind giving a super-ordinate value to the verb, as is done in dependency and valency grammars.

Anyway, as for the term ‘subject’, it’s probably as well not to try and redesign everything in one fell swoop when reviewing and re-creating system models. And, in the case of the ‘subject’, it is in a nice direct antithesis with the term ‘object’. So, in this moment, I feel in two minds about jettisoning the term subject from the syntactic lexicon.

David Lott


  1. Re “being” and “doing” sentences – I was reminded of Firbas by your ideas – are they the same as Firbas´s notion (Functional Sentence Perspective) of communicative dynamism (dynamic semantic functions) and especially Presentation Scale and Quality Scale (Firbas, FSP, p.66-68)?

    I liked your idea that the predicate does not tell us anything about the subject, though one can argue if this is true since we then know that “He was doing something (breaking the case)”, so we know something about him as well as something about the vase (which is now broken).

    But to bring Firbas to the fold once again – in his priciple of linear dynamism he says that the most important information is at the end of a sentence, unless it it brought the the unnatural position at the beginning of the sentence, where it becomes marked and therefore more noticeable. This is also reflected in his use of the words “bearer” for the “subject” and “quality” for the “predicate” or “complement” therefore:

    He (bearer of quality) is (ascriber of quality) planning (quality) a new machine (specification).

    I am not 100% sure my analysis is correct in the sense of FSP. It seems, that maybe for your use the concept of “quality” is better for the object/complement rather than the predicate, but have a look if these are at all in line with your thinking or actually opposed to it.

    • I think that what I have been focusing on here is distinct from Jan Firbas’s core concerns within the context of FSP. I feel fairly confident in that assertion partly because of something Firbas himself says in a very interesting summary paper entitled ‘On the Concept of Communicative Dynamism in the theory of Functional Sentence Perspective’ (published in 1971); he discusses degrees of congruence and states that these may exist “between the functions of a linguistic element on … three … levels, i.e. the semantic, the grammatical and the FSP level”. That statement of a tripartite distinction clearly indicates that, for Firbas, FSP falls outside the scope of grammar whereas my focus, thus far here, has been on grammar, and on synthetic grammar in particular. Of course, the question arises of, if FSP falls outside the scope of grammar, what does it fall within, or is it entirely within its own scope? My sense is that it falls within the scope of discourse more than anything. Let’s unpack that a bit, and sorry that the FSP part of what I say here is already known to you, as is obvious from your comment, but I feel the need to ‘think-write’ my own way through the issues.

      Simplifying what Firbas says somewhat, his two key interests are “communicative dynamism” and the “theme-rheme” contrast seeing, as he does, the latter as un-dissimilar from so-called ‘topic-comment’ structure theories. Looking first at communicative dynamism, he describes this as what “pushes the communication forward” (ibid.). He also asserts that there are degrees of communicative dynamism (which he ‘acronyms’ to CD) and that the degree of CD can vary between the individual elements of a sentence.

      So, for example, in the sentence He was cross, Firbas says that He has the lowest CD, cross has the highest level of CD and was has an intermediate level of CD; elsewhere, he defines this intermediate level of CD as “transition”, adding that concept to the the theme-rheme contrast. What he then says indicates that cross has the highest CD because it is readily conceived of as ‘new’ information. Theme and rheme, in Firbas’s linguistic cosmos, are directly related to a ‘given/new’ contrast, where the theme is given/known information and rheme is new/unknown information. It is tempting at this point to say that the theme generally comes early in the sentence and the rheme later. However, Firbas (ibid.) says that, though Halliday takes that position, he himself does not. What generates the sense of varying degrees of CD and, by extension of a theme and a rheme, for Firbas, seems to be sourced independently from the order of items within a sentence. Another related issue that Firbas touches on is that of the relative importance of different elements within a sentence, but importance seems, once again, to be in direct correlation with ‘newness’ as far as I can judge from what he says on this. The same could be said in relation to his ideas about context-independence and context-dependence, where the two seem, to me at least, to relate directly to the contextually ‘new’ and to the contextually ‘given’, respectively.

      In my review, here to date, of synthetic grammar models of English, I am not assigning different levels of CD or importance to individual elements within the sentence but, in the context of grammar, simply seeing each element as of equal importance functionally. I am simply interested in the functional structures one can perceive in different sentences and in seeking to determine what universals, or near universals, and what non-universals one can see in operation within the grammar. My focus is on a more basic, more purely grammatical, level than Firbas’s core ideas about the FSP level, I feel.

      I have seen it suggested that FSP is overall more relevant to more integrative languages such as Czech or German and less so to more distributive languages such as English. I think I would agree with that proposition, though Firbas clearly (and consistently with himself) would appear not to; in the paper mentioned above, he instances cases of varying CD within sentences of the same semantic content expressed in English, German and Czech. He notes and exemplifies word order variation possibilities in the German and Czech sentence examples but does not seem to see these as significant particularly, when analysing the CD ‘wave’ in each sentence. If we take a non-Firbasian stance on FSP (seeing it as a system where theme and rheme are operating in a direct relationship with sentence position), FSP can be seen as a useful system suggesting word positions within sentences within integrative languages, where intra-sentence functions (of subject, object etc.) are expressed morphemically and where, as a consequence, there is a considerable – grammatically advantaged and facilitated – freedom of word order. In short, if you can put the words in variant order in terms of the rules of the grammar, then it helps to have a coherent system that suggests ways in which one can order them to work most effectively with the context rather than just having to make random choices on word order or be guided, rather dully, by forces of habit.
      In fact, given-new features determining/suggesting word order choices can be seen operating in a distributive language such as English in those areas of the grammar where variant word orders are grammatically possible across sentence variations expressing largely the same semantic content, as shown here, where the ‘rheme’ is in bold:
      Who did he give the letter to? ~ He gave it to John.
      What did he give John? ~ He gave him a letter.
      When did he give John the letter? ~ He gave it him last week.

      By contrast, where the function-indicating systems of English don’t allow word-order variation, then the scope for sentence-position indication of CD-ness is not available, as shown here:
      We need a doctor. ~ John‘s a doctor.
      The guests want a curry. Can anyone cook Indian? ~ John does a fab curry.

      Here, the mega-talented John is the rheme, but the function-indicating system of English dictates that he has to go in sentence-initial position.

      There is something else here that I want to touch on: for Jan Firbas, CD is of primary importance in analysing the relationship between grammar and discourse (putting it in my terms) but, I think, in my own approach to language-systems awareness, I see a number of other issues at play. First off, I don’t readily see what Firbas describes as communicative dynamism as actually so. I see it as communicative addition – what adds to the dynamism of language is something else. In communicative addition, the issue is what new information is added to the shared pool of information – that is addition. Dynamism, for me, is energy. A key way to add energy, in my view, within English at least, it to move the position of so-called adverbials away from their late-sentence default position. Firbas does not seem to see it like this, rather the reverse. He (ibid.) refers to these two sentence options:
      A) “In order to see him, he went Prague.”
      B) “He went to Prague in order to see him.”
      Firbas says that the “adverbial expression” (as he describes it) in order to see him has less CD when it is in sentence-initial position than when it is in sentence-final position. I am not sure if Firbas sees a universal of some sort here as shown by this example, but, in my linguistic ‘firmament’, I would question that putting adverbial expressions in non-default sentence-initial positions reduces their dynamism, actually rather the reverse. Journalists, for example, frequently put adverbial expressions in sentence-initial position as a way to spice up, energise, ‘vim up’ their text – i.e. to give it greater dynamism. I think the reason that the sentence-initial adverbial expression in sentence A feels a bit lacklustre is because we are very unlikely to put that particular adverbial expression in a sentence-initial position because of another thing that happens in between the semantics and the grammar of English. In English, temporal sequence does seem to play a role in determining the sentence position of adverbials. English like things to be in past-to-present-to-future order. We would tend to put in order to see him late in the sentence because the act of seeing him came after the act of going to Prague, within the plain-thinking world of English. By contrast, but to attempt to confirm my point here, look at this:
      C) Feeling unwell, he stopped talking and sat down.
      D) ?? He stopped talking and sat down feeling unwell.
      I think, in English, we would be very unlikely to come out with sentence D, because it breaks English’s temporal-sequence preference as I perceive it; his experience was almost certainly that he, first, started feeling unwell and, then, stopped talking, and English prefers these topics in that order. As I say, within English at least, and within the interplay between grammar and semantics and grammar and discourse, there is a lot more at play than simply communicative dynamism/addition, in my view.

      Okay, so, so far here, I have been kind of getting my bearings in relation to Firbas’s approach overall, but, moving on to what Jan Firbas says about “dynamic semantic function” on pages 66 to 69 in his book ‘Functional sentence perspective in written and spoken communication’ (published in 1992), I think some of my interest is similar to what Firbas discusses, yes. I think I would encapsulate this particular interest area as the study of the semantic potential/force of the individual functional components of a sentence. But, having said that, I would say there are a lot of differences between what I am trying to do and what Firbas proposes in his 1992 book. My own feeling is that there is huge scope for tweaking the conventional terminology of subject, object etc. to create a more effective way of describing the relationship between functional structures and basic semantics. Whereas, Firbas seems to feel the need to throw out the baby with the bathwater with his brand-new, much more elaborate, logician’s even, approach with terms such as Setting, Presentation, Phenomenon, Bearer, Quality etc. In this regard, he draws a distinction between “two sets of dynamic functions:
      Set(ting), Pr(esentation of Phenomenon), Ph(enomenon presented);
      Set(ting), B(earer of Quality), Q(uality), Sp(ecification) and F(urther Specification).” (p 66)
      Now, for me, these are fascinating ideas but I feel I would find them hard to teach to anybody and, for me, that is a key determiner of what works as a system of functional structure modelling and what does not. I am interested in the pedagogic value of explanations in this area, and I think these dynamic functions are too elaborate and too abstract a set of semantic ideas to be readily explained to a non-specialist for their use. But, there is something else here: the two sets of dynamic functions, as explained by Firbas, are related by him to two different, what I would call, type 2 sentences, the first said to be operating on a ‘Presentation Scale’ and the second on a ‘Quality Scale’. My approach is different in that I don’t see a need for two different approaches to explaining the semantic-function relationship within type 2 sentences. My own feeling is that this is a degree of elaboration of the issues that is not necessitated by the sentence data. And there’s something yet else: Firbas looks at, on page 68 (ibid.), what I am currently calling here, type 1 sentences as being on the Quality scale, and as variants of the Quality scale sentences he perceives as existing within type 2 sentences, though he does add the notion here of “ascribing a quality (AofQ)” for the verb within what I call here type 1 sentences. But, I think that approach undermines the fundamental and overarching difference, as I see it, between type 1 and type 2 sentences.

      Sorry, I have gone on a bit, but I have felt the need to get better engaged with Firbas’s linguistic firmament for some time, and I am grateful for your prompting me to do so, even though I have now gone through this process rather wordily.

      Referring back now to your comment on my saying “the predicate does not tell us anything about the subject” in type 2 sentences, I apologise if you inferred that from what I was saying. I didn’t mean to say that. I meant to say that the predicate, so-called, in type 2 sentences does not tell us much about the subject generally but, yes, it does say something about the subject in the terms that it tells us what the subject did, for example. But also, of course, the ‘predicate’ generally tells us about the object as well, for example. However, I am moving towards a point where I won’t be dealing with the function-related semantics of type 1 and 2 sentences in terms of generation of information types but more in terms of the different flow of information within each type of sentence. I feel that that will be a clearer and more effective way to handle that particular contrast.

  2. Thank you for your explanation. In fact, I have found your record and explanation of FSP very useful since it has been a long time since I read it last time and even then I know I fully understood it only for certain time and then lost the grasp of it again. I do like your question of what does FSP fall within. I suppose discourse seems a good choice – only discourse deals more with the pragmatic aspect of language, if I am not mistaken and I am not sure how much FSP is concerned with this – maybe its notion of natural CD is related, I don´t know.

    Do you believe that in language it is possible to stay only within the area of grammar? Or is the semantic level actually inevitably influencing the grammar? I will hope to read a post on your philosophical view of language in the future 🙂

    I completely agree with your notion of communicative dynamism and energy and the fact that positioning the words in the less dynamic places does not mean to decrease the energy of the sentence – I suppose it is the markedness of such positions that rather adds to the increase in energy/dynamism.

    I find your description of English as functioning in the manner of past-present-future really useful for learning and teaching purposes, thank you! 🙂 Could we get more on this too, please?

    Re finding FSP useful in teaching English – one question during my MA exam in teaching English was just about this – how can I practically use FSP in teaching practice? My answer was – that is what I would like to know! As far as I can remember, I did not get a satisfactory (or even satisficing?) reply to this – maybe they have been asking this question for years hoping that one bright graduate might come up with a useful answer. 🙂 (though I must say I have found FSP useful in my learning process and understanding deeper levels of language, so I would not say that it is entirely wrong)

    • I confess I’m not quite sure what pragmatics is. I slightly wonder if it got subsumed into discourse analysis when that ‘took off’ as a field of study, particularly in the 1980s. I need to look into it, in the fullness.
      I think semantics and grammar are, inevitably, inextricably linked not only at the analytic level but also at the synthetic level. I was, once, quite open to the idea that the synthetic grammar operated independently from meaning, as some have suggested over time, but, now, I don’t subscribe to that view. The force of the results of my own enquiry and attempts at language-system modelling have led me to think quite the reverse. I’d like to try and write about that, here, as a topic in itself in due course, yes. Thank you for the prompt.
      Yes, it would be interesting to explore the rôle of semantic regularities in determining word order choices when these are possible within the constraints of the grammar. As a whole, this seems a complex area with lots of different forces at play, but it would be good to delve into it and see what one can find, yes, and not be intimated by its possible complexity into analytic silence.
      I feel sure that FSP is not ‘entirely wrong’ but, rather, there is here, overall, more a case of horses for courses, in that FSP may well tick certain boxes but not others, to mix my metaphors.

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