How to Identify Subject in Dependent Clauses? [2 Methods]

A dependent clause is a group of words that contains both subject and verb. Unlike an independent clause though, it doesn’t form a complete idea and hence can’t stand on its own as a sentence. Therefore, you’ll find them as part of independent clauses, almost always beginning with a marker word such as what, where, when, which, that, and because. For example, the underlined parts in these sentences are dependent clauses.

What you do is of no interest to me.

Employees who have been asked to leave should be, as far as possible, assisted in finding the next job.

I resist buying unless I’ve cash surplus to pay.

Note: Dependent clauses have been underlined throughout the post.

Since clause structure in dependent clauses isn’t as intuitive as in independent clauses, identifying subjects in complex sentences, which contain at least one dependent clause, can be challenging. Sometimes, the marker word itself is the subject and sometimes a regular noun or pronoun is. For example, you and I are the subject of the dependent clause in the first and the third sentence, respectively, but who is the subject in the second.

We’ll get into the thick of things with the assumption that we’ve already identified the dependent clause in a sentence, but we don’t know whether it’s a noun, relative, or adverb clause. (If we knew the clause type, it’ll be easier to identify the subject. We’ll deal with this aspect as well toward the end of this post.) Our task is to identify the subject of the so-identified dependent clause.

Note: Wherever we refer subject of a clause, we mean subject of a dependent clause.

Method 1: Is the marker word followed by noun or pronoun?

The simplest way to identify the subject of a clause is to see if the marker word is followed by a noun or pronoun. If it is, then the noun or pronoun is the subject. If it is not, then the marker word itself is the subject. Let’s take the same examples again.

What you do is of no interest to me.

Employees who have been asked to leave should be, as far as possible, assisted in finding the next job.

I resist buying unless I’ve cash surplus to pay.

In the first sentence, what is followed by a pronoun you, and hence you is the subject of the clause. In the second, who isn’t followed by a noun or pronoun, and hence who itself is the subject of the clause. In the third, unless is followed by a pronoun I, and hence I is the subject of the clause.

I’ve tried this method with hundreds of dependent clauses, and it holds almost always. We’ll come to the few exceptions later. Let’s first apply the above method to few more examples, which contain all three types of dependent clauses.

Examples: Identifying subject using Method 1

Note: Comments that go with examples have been enclosed in square brackets.

1. I tried my best to not let my organization know that I’m searching for another job. [Comment: that is followed by pronoun I, implying that subject is I.]

2. What is unique about this product is that it auto-optimizes your vehicle’s fuel consumption. [In the first clause, what is not followed by a noun or pronoun, implying that subject is what. In the second clause, that is followed by pronoun it, implying that subject is it.]

3. Do you know how YouTube makes money? [how is followed by noun YouTube, implying that subject is YouTube.]

4. You shouldn’t get under the illusion that your friend values you more than his family members. [that is followed by noun phrase your friend, implying that subject is your friend.]

5. Sometimes, we come across an issue which looks an open-and-shut case, and we jump to conclusion. [which is not followed by a noun or pronoun, implying that subject is which.]

6. I’ll vote for Mr. Davis, whom I consider energetic and level-headed. [whom is followed by pronoun I, implying that subject is I.]

7. When you receive feedback from your colleagues or team leader, you should focus on the feedback and not the person who gave the feedback. [When is followed by pronoun you, implying that subject is you.]

8. Don’t empty the water jar until the rain arrives. [until is followed by noun phrase the rain, implying that subject is the rain.]

The special case where marker word is left out

Sometimes, marker words can be dropped, a case in point being relative pronouns. In such cases, the subject of the clause will obviously not be the marker word. Examples:

Scientists believe Covid is going to stay with us for at least few years. [Marker word that has been left out. Covid is the subject of the clause.]

Don’t ask questions people can’t or don’t want to answer. [Marker word which has been left out. people is the subject of the clause.]

Method 2: Convert the clause into a statement

We’re used to identifying subject, verb, object, and other elements in plain sentences (or declarative sentences or statements), but not so in dependent clauses. So, if we can convert a clause into a statement, we can identify its subject far easily.

How does this method work?

Reduce the dependent clause into a statement. The subject of the statement then will be the subject of the dependent clause. Example:

What you do is of no interest to me.

On converting the clause into a statement, you get.

What you do? –> I do swimming. [We’ve straightened a knotty clause.]

In the statement, I is the subject, but I is just a replacement for you. In other words, you is the subject of the clause.

This method also makes it easier to identify other elements in the clause. For example, swimming is the object in the statement, implying that what (swimming is a replacement for what) is the object of the clause.

Alternatively, you can write the statement as You do what, but using what this way isn’t intuitive to many.

Let’s take more examples.

Examples: Identifying subject using Method 2

1. Employees who have been asked to leave should be, as far as possible, assisted in finding the next job.

Statement: Employees have been asked to leave.

Employees is the subject, but Employees is a replacement for who. Hence, who is the subject of the clause.

2. Nobody told me whom can I trust here.

Statement: I can trust Tom here. You can plug in words such as Tom to make a sensible statement.

I is the subject, and it’s not a replacement for anything. Hence, I is the subject of the clause.

In the next three examples, that has been used in three different ways. Unlike question words such as what, who, and whom, you can convert that clause into a statement pretty much as it is.

3. That he hasn’t yet turned up is surprising.

Statement: He hasn’t yet turned up.

He is the subject, and it’s not a replacement for anything. Hence, He is the subject of the clause.

4. You shouldn’t get under the illusion that your friend values you more than his family members.

Statement: Your friend values you more than his family members.

Your friend is the subject, and it’s not a replacement for anything. Hence, Your friend is the subject of the clause.

5. The laptop that was gifted to me by my grandfather stopped working yesterday.

Statement: The laptop was gifted to me by my grandfather.

The laptop is the subject, and it’s not a replacement for anything. Hence, The laptop is the subject of the clause.

If you can identify adverb clauses, you don’t need this method at all. A marker word is never the subject of an adverb clause, and what follows the marker word is a statement, whose subject can be easily identified. And if you can’t identify adverb clauses, just remember that you can take whatever follows a non-question marker word (question marker words are what, who, whom, whose, how, etc.) as the statement. It’ll serve your purpose in almost all cases.

The sixth is an example of adverb clause.

6. I resist buying unless I’ve cash surplus to pay.

Statement: I’ve cash surplus to pay.

I is the subject, and it’s not a replacement for anything. Hence, I is the subject of the clause.

The second method is far more fundamental than the first and, unlike the first, has no exceptions. But this method isn’t as quick and formulaic. You may limit the use of this method to straighten really knotty dependent clauses in order to confirm (or deny) a subject identified through the first method. We’ll see few examples of such confirmation (or denial) in the next section.

Exceptions to the first method

After playing with several dependent clauses, I’ve seen these two exceptions to the first method: first, marker word acting as a determiner; second, inversion of clause. If you’re aware of any other, let me know.

1. Marker words acting as determiner

Few marker words such as what, which, whose, and that can function as determiner in a clause. A determiner is word that specifies a noun and comes immediately before it. Examples: that book, what movie, which college, and whose cat. In these sentences, for example, the marker words are also functioning as determiners.

The problem is what technology we’ve deployed. [what comes before the noun technology and specifies it by referring to a particular technology]

I’m not interested in knowing which movie you watched.

Which book is better can’t be decided by professional reviewers alone.

I use a computer whose storage capacity is a meagre 32 GB.

For the sake of comparison, you can have a look at the clauses starting with what, which, whose, and that we covered earlier in the post. None of the marker words in those clauses is a determiner.

Determiners are inextricably attached to their nouns like adjectives are to their nouns. (Determiners are, in fact, also called interrogative adjectives.) So, the marker word alone can’t be the subject; the entire unit of ‘determiner + noun’ will be, much like Lazy Tom is the subject in Lazy Tom got out of bed at 9 AM.

Let’s unearth subjects in the above sentences.

1. The problem is what technology we’ve deployed.

The marker word what is followed by the noun technology. If we go by the first method we saw earlier, then technology should be the subject of the clause. But it isn’t. Because what is a determiner, we’ve to treat what technology as a single unit and then apply the rule.

Is there a noun or pronoun after what technology? Yes. Since what technology is followed by pronoun we, the subject is we.

Alternatively, we can apply the second method and straighten the clause into a statement.

We’ve deployed XYZ technology.

We, the subject of the statement, is the subject of the clause. Note that what technology is, in fact, the object of the clause (XYZ is a replacement for what). The determiner and its noun are together but in object position.

2. I’m not interested in knowing which movie you watched.

Since which is a determiner, we’ve to treat which movie as one unit while determining the subject. The unit is followed by the pronoun you, and hence you is the subject of the clause.

Alternatively, if we straighten the clause into a statement, we get:

I watched Skyfall.

I and Skyfall are the subject and object, respectively, in the above statement, implying that you (I is a replacement for you) and which movie (Skyfall is a replacement for which movie) are the subject and object, respectively, of the clause.

3. Which book is better can’t be decided by professional reviewers alone.

Here, Which book is not followed by a noun or pronoun, implying that subject is Which book.

Alternatively, if we straighten the clause into a statement, we get:

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is better.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is the subject in the above statement, implying that Which book (Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is a replacement for Which book) is the subject of the clause.

4. I use a computer whose storage capacity is a meagre 32 GB.

Here, whose storage capacity is not followed by a noun or pronoun, implying that subject is whose storage capacity.

Alternatively, if we straighten the clause into a statement, we get:

The computer’s storage capacity is a meagre 32 GB.

The computer’s storage capacity is the subject in the above statement, implying that whose storage capacity (The computer’s storage capacity is a replacement for whose storage capacity) is the subject of the clause.

You’ll find that some websites, in such sentences, erroneously mention the subject as whose.

So, when you see a marker word functioning as a determiner, remember to treat ‘determiner + marker word’ as a single unit. You can also confirm your answer through the second method.

Since the second exception – which is next in line – is quite uncommon, most of the field is covered by the first method and its nuanced application in case of marker words functioning as determiners.

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2. Inversion of clause

Can you tell the subject in this clause?

I don’t know what are those called.

If you apply the first method you learnt, the marker word what is not followed by a noun or pronoun, and hence what is the subject of the clause.

But if you straighten the clause into a statement, you get:

Those are called robots.

Those, and not what, is the subject of the clause.

Why the first method didn’t work?

The first method didn’t work because this clause is an inverted clause. If you notice all the examples gone by, the clauses have a particular word pattern: subject comes before the verb. That’s the normal word order in both dependent and independent clauses. However, this word order can occasionally be inverted. Example:

I don’t know what are those called. [Inverted word order]

I don’t know what those are called. [Normal word order]

If you apply the first method to the non-inverted clause, you’ll get the correct result, those. Such inverted clauses though are uncommon and maybe limited mostly to marker words what and whose in noun clauses. One way to suspect an inverted dependent clause is presence of a noun or pronoun after the verb., and in such case try the second method. More examples of inverted clauses:

1. I don’t know whose is this cat.

The first method would predict whose to be the subject. Let’s apply the second method. On straightening the clause into a statement, you get:

This cat is mine.

This cat is the subject of the clause.

2. I don’t know whose cat is this.

The first method would predict whose cat to be the subject. Remember, whose is a determiner here and therefore we’ve to consider whose cat as a unit.

Let’s apply the second method. On straightening the clause into a statement, you get:

This is my cat.

This is the subject of the clause. Just an aside: in the statement, my cat is the subject complement, implying that whose cat is the subject complement in the clause.

3. Nobody told me whom can I trust here.

We dealt with this sentence earlier. Subject of the clause is I.

If you’ve already identified the clause as noun, relative, or adverb

So far, we identified the subject in a dependent clause without knowing if the clause is noun, relative, or adverb clause. But if you’ve already identified the clause, you can remember few patterns that will help you spot subject in relative and adverb clauses more easily.

In relative clauses, the marker words when, where, why, and whom will never be the subject of the clause. If you see them in a relative clause, go straight for a noun or pronoun as the subject. Second, who will always be the subject of the clause. If you see who in a relative clause, don’t bother to look for a noun or pronoun as the subject. Third, whose, as we saw earlier, will always appear as one of the two constituents of the subject, the other being its noun.

In adverb clauses, no marker word will ever be the subject of the clause. The marker word will almost always be followed by a statement-like sentence, in which you can identify the subject like you do in statements.

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Anil Yadav

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