Grammar and Punctuation The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Finding Nouns, Verbs, and Subjects


  • A noun is a word or set of words for a person, place, thing, or idea. A noun of more than one word (tennis court, gas station) is called a compound noun.

There are common nouns and proper nouns. Common nouns are words for a general class of people, places, things, and ideas (man, city, award, honesty). They are not capitalized. Proper nouns are always capitalized. They name specific people, places, and things (Joe, Chicago, Academy Award).

  • A verb is a word or set of words that shows action (runs, is going, has been painting); feeling (loves, envies); or state of being (am, are, is, have been, was, seem).


We will use the standard of underlining subjects once and verbs twice.

He ran around the block.
like my friend.
They seem friendly.

State-of-being verbs are called linking verbs. They include all forms of the verb to be (be, being, been, am, is, are, was, were), plus such words as look, feel, appear, act, go, followed by an adjective. (See Adjectives and Adverbs)

You look happy.
We feel fine.
He went ballistic.

Verbs often consist of more than one word. For instance, had been breaking down is a four-word verb. It has a two-word main verb, breaking down (also called a phrasal verb), and two helping verbs (had and been). Helping verbs are so named because they help clarify the intended meaning.

Many verbs can function as helping verbs, including is, shall, must, do, has, can, keep, get, start, help, etc.

You will sometimes hear the word participle, which is the form of a verb used with helping verbs to make verb tenses or is used to form adjectives. For instance, breaking and broken are the present and past participles, respectively, of the verb break. A broken dish is an example of a phrase containing a participle as an adjective (see Adjectives and Adverbs).

Verbs often take direct objects, which receive the action of the verb carried out by the subject.

I like cake. (cake receives the action, like, done by the subject, I)
She lifts weights. (weights receives the action, lifts, done by the subject, She)

Verbs may also take indirect objects, which receive the direct object. You can spot an indirect object if it makes sense to place to or for in front of it.

I gave Joe the cake. (The indirect object, Joe, receives the direct object, cake, given by the subject, I. Note that you could also say I gave the cake to Joe.)
She did me a favor. (The indirect object, me, is affected by the direct object, favor, done by the subject, She. Note that you could also say She did a favor for me.)

Sometimes verbs require prepositions to complete a sentence. A noun affected by a preposition is called simply the object of a preposition.

Stop talking about them. (The object of the preposition about is them.)
I saw someone inside the house. (The object of the preposition inside is the house.)

Gerund is another verb-related term we'll mention only briefly. Gerunds are also called verbal nouns, because they are formed when verbs have -ing added to them and are used as nouns.

Walking is great exercise. (The –ing word, the gerund, is the subject of the sentence.)

  • A subject is the noun, pronoun, or set of words that performs the verb.

The woman hurried.
Woman is the subject.
She was late.
She is the subject.
The Shape of Water won an Academy Award.
The Shape of Water is the subject.

Rule 1. To find the subject and verb, always find the verb first. Then ask who or what performed the verb.

The jet engine passed inspection.
Passed is the verb. Who or what passed? The engine, so engine is the subject. (If you included the word jet as the subject, lightning will not strike you. But technically, jet is an adjective here and is part of what is known as the complete subject.)
From the ceiling hung the chandelier.
The verb is hung. Now, if you think ceiling is the subject, slow down. Ask who or what hung. The answer is the chandelier, not the ceiling. Therefore, chandelier is the subject.

Rule 2. Sentences can have more than one subject and more than one verb.

I like cake, and he likes ice cream. (Two subjects and two verbs)
He and I like cake. (
Two subjects and one verb)
She lifts weights and jogs daily. (
One subject and two verbs)

Rule 3. If a verb follows to, it is called an infinitive, and it is not the main verb. You will find the main verb either before or after the infinitive.

He is trying to leave.
To leave
is an infinitive; the main verb is trying.
To leave was his wish.
The main verb is was.


One of the most stubborn superstitions in English is that it is wrong to insert a word between the to and the verb in an infinitive. This is called a split infinitive (to gladly pay, to not go). There is no English scholar alive who will say a split infinitive is technically wrong. However, split infinitives tend to be clumsy and unnecessary. Experienced writers do not use them without good reason.

Rule 4. Any request or command, such as Stop! or Walk quickly, has the understood subject you, because if we ask who is to stop or walk quickly, the answer must be "you."

(You) Please bring me some coffee.
is the verb. Who will do the bringing? The subject you is understood.