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TOEFL Tuesday: The Subject and the Verb, Part 1

This is our first lesson on TOEFL grammar in a TOEFL Tuesday lesson, and it’s a big lesson. One of the most important ideas in English grammar is the relationship between the subject and the verb. This is so important that I can’t explain it all in just one lesson. So this week, I’m going to give just an introduction to the topic of subjects and verbs.



What is the subject?

A simple subject is just a noun, such as “chair,” “man,” “idea,” “happiness,” or a pronoun, such as “it.” Anything that acts can be a subject. It can be more than just one word, though—it can be a whole noun phrase, such as “the man who sits next to me.”

What is the verb?

Similar to the noun, the verb of a sentence can be a just one word, as in “swim,” “say,” “believe,” or just “be.” But it helps to consider whol verb phrases sometimes, just like we consider noun phrases.

Two subjects or two verbs

It’s possible to have more than one subject or verb in a sentence if we use a conjunction like “and.” For example, a sentence might have “hills and mountains” as its subjects or “ate and drank” as its verbs.

Looking at whole phrases

Take a look at this sentence from a TOEFL:

Carbon dioxide in the air reacts with the rainwater.

(I’ve made the subject bold and underlined the verb in the example.)

We can see a pretty simple subject in “carbon dioxide” and a simple verb in “reacts.”  But that gives us very little understanding of the sentence—it only helps us simplify to the most basic information, “carbon dioxide reacts.” But if we really want to understand the whole sentence, it helps to then think about the larger phrases that explain which carbon dioxide (“in the air”) and how it reacts (“with the rain water”). Don’t get stuck looking at only the main subject or main verb if it’s inside a phrase that includes important details.

Example 1

Lower mountains tend to be older, and are often the eroded relics of much higher mountain chains.”

Instead of considering only the word “mountains” as the subject, let’s include the adjective “lower,” too. That tells us which mountains. So the subject is “lower mountains.” That’s our topic; it’s the whole subject phrase. We want to know information from the verb about that topic. And taking apart the verb is more confusing.

There are two main verbs in this sentence, and both are easiest to read as whole phrases. The first verb is “tend to be older.” Yes, the main verb is “tend,” but that tells us no information! The second verb is “are eroded relics.” That gives us enough information about that main verb—we don’t need to include the final information about relics of something. We can simplify it to just the idea of “are eroded relics.”

And there we have our topic, “lower mountains,” and two pieces of information about that topic: they “tend to be older” and they “are eroded relics.”

Example 2

Hills that are referred to as “mountains” and their opposite, mountains called “hills,” are numerous.”

The subject of this sentence is very long. There’s more than one, in fact. So let’s start with the verb, which is simple: “are numerous.” I included the word “numerous” because “are” alone tells us no information. Now we want to know what is numerous: that’s the topic of our sentence, the subject.

First, we have “hills,” with some added information. Second, we have “their opposite.” Those are just the most basic subject words, though. If we want to really understand this sentence, we should separate them by their complete phrases:


  • Hills that are referred to as “mountains”
  • their opposite


I included the “that…” clause in the first noun phrase because it tells us which hills. See this post on relativizers for more information on the importance of “that.”

But when I saw “their opposite,” I understood it meant “the opposite of ‘hills that are referred to as mountains.’” The noun phrase after that, “mountains called ‘hills,’” just gives that same information again, using different words. It is not very important to consider as part of the subject—it only gives a bit more detail.

The main point

Remember that there can be more than one subject and more than one verb in a difficult sentence, and don’t always look for single words. Look for the important phrases that act as the subjects and verbs. Then take apart those sentence using those meaningful pieces.

Next, check out part 2 of this miniseries!

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