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Just Who is the Subject Here?

June 27, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 27, 2013

An object lesson can be the best and most efficient teacher. So rather than write a long article about a topic—something such as make sure the subjects in your sentences are what you think they are—and make up examples to make my points clear, I could just give you a real-world example. Something such as—

A Chinese woman’s breast implant ruptured after lying on her stomach for four hours playing a game on her phone

From this headline in an online newspaper (the Daily Mail’s Mail Online), you can clearly see the need for checking sentences to make sure that

–  the subject you intended is the one that you actually wrote

–  the actions attributed to the subject can be performed by the subject

–  the sentence makes sense

–  you don’t pull readers from the fiction world with wording that has them laughing at the wrong time, doing a double take, or shaking their heads

While this woman’s implant is apparently clever, perseverant, dexterous, and peripatetic, I rather doubt revealing such information was the intent of the headline.

My simple caution is that when you proofread your manuscripts, check to make sure the subject of every sentence is what you intend it to be and that any action performed by that subject is appropriate and possible for that subject.

Make sure that anything (including  action and description) in the same sentence, or even in the following sentences, that refers to the subject in the first sentence fits the subject, not an implied subject.

You cannot imply that the subject of the sentence is a person (or thing)—and treat it as such—when the true subject is a body part or some aspect of the person. I see this in a lot of manuscripts, this assumption that the person and not the named part or characteristic of that person is a sentence’s subject.

Be diligent to check for sentence meaning when the subject is a body part or personality trait or something you can describe as belonging to a character—Max’s arm, Chandra’s ardor, Sam’s mother’s propensity for zeroing in on trouble. The subjects here are not the people, so any reference back to the subjects would not be to the characters.

This is a simple problem with a simple solution, I realize that. But if you don’t correct such problems in your stories, you could lose your readers. At least lose their respect. And that’s not something you want when you’re trying to attract and please readers, when you’re trying to weave a believable story.

You wouldn’t want to be known as the author who writes about a magical implant that wanders outside the body and plays games for hours. Not when your story is actually about a woman dealing with a health issue.

Now, if you want to write about magic implants, that’s a whole different story.


It was my sole intent here to use the example as an example,
not to tease the reporter for writing it.
I included the name of the publication to give credit where it was due,
not to imply anything about the publication
from which the quote was taken.



Tags:     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

9 Responses to “Just Who is the Subject Here?”

  1. Paula Cappa says:

    Interesting post. So, how would you as an editor rewrite this sentence or advise the writer?

  2. Paula, if I was the publication’s editor, I’d have suggested A Chinese woman’s breast implant ruptured after she lay on her stomach for four hours playing a game on her phone or Breast implant ruptures after woman lays on her stomach for four hours or Woman claims breast implant ruptures after she lay on her stomach for four hours.

    The Daily Mail puts a lot of information in their headlines, so the longer headlines work for them, but the info about playing a game on a phone doesn’t seem relevant to the thrust of the incident, which was the implant rupturing.

    What’s missing is any reference to the woman herself, yet the second half of the sentence implies that she, and not the implant, is the grammatical subject. Including a reference to her as the one lying on her stomach or playing games is crucial for the meaning.

    There are plenty of other ways to word this headline, but to keep the flavor of The Mail’s style, I’d simply change lying to she lay. And I’d point out to the writer the difference in meaning between the two sentences.

    A good question. I should have thought to include options in the article.

  3. Bellakentuky says:

    Newspaper headlines are notorious for creating absurd lines. I guess it sells the news.

  4. Ken Davies says:

    The Daily Mail (or Wail) is excellent source material for a website on the misuse of the English language (with the exception of the Peter Hitchens column in the Mail on Sunday, which is exemplary, despite all the typos).

    • Ken, I’m sorry I missed this when you wrote it.

      Yes, some sites don’t have too much concern for what they actually convey. I think many just want to get their news out. And admittedly the Daily Mail puts out a lot of new content daily and they seem to scoop a lot of other news sources. So they’re doing something right.