GRAMMATICAL CLASSIFICATION OF THE SUBJECT
From the point of view of its grammatical value the subject may be either notional or formal. The notional subject denotes or (if expressed by a pronoun) points out a person or a non-person.
The formal subject neither denotes nor points out any person or non-person and is only a structural element of the sentence filling the position of the subject. Thus a formal subject functions only as a position-filler. In English there are two such position-fillers: it and there.
The notional subject it
The subject it may be notional and formal. When it is a notional subject the pronoun it has the following meanings:
- it may stand for a definite thing or some abstract idea – the personal it:
The door was opened. It was opened by Jack.
It this is a liberty, it isn’t going to mean a thing.
- it points out some person or thing expressed by a predicative noun, or it refers to the thought contained in a preceding statement, thus having a demonstrative meaning – the demonstrative it:
It is John. It was a large house.
Dick came home late, it provoked his father.
The formal subject it
The formal subject expressed by it is found in two patterns of sentences: those with impersonal it and those with introductory it.
The formal subject it is impersonal when it is used in sentences describing various states of nature, things in general, characteristics of the environment, or denoting time, distance, other measurements.
It’s spring. It’s cold today.
It’s still too hot to start. It seems that he was frank.
Sentences with impersonal it are usually rendered in Russian by means of impersonal (subjectless) sentences.
The formal subject it is introductory (anticipatory) if it introduces thenotional subject expressed by an infinitive, a gerund, an infinitive/gerundial phrase, a predicative complex, or a clause. The sentence thus contains two subjects: the formal (introductory) subject it and the notional subject, which follows the predicate.
It’s impossible to deny this. It was no good coming there again.
It would be wonderful for you to stay with us.
It was lucky that she agreed to undertake the job.
Sentences with introductory it can be transformed into sentences with the notional subject in its usual position before the predicate.
It was impossible to deny this ——> To deny this was impossible.
The difference between the two structural types lies in that the pattern with the introductory subject accentuates the idea expressed by the notional subject, whereas the pattern without it accentuates the idea expressed in the predicate.
Sentences with introductory it must be distinguished from certain patterns of sentences with impersonal it:
a) sentences with the predicate expressed by the verbs to seem, to appear, to happen, to turn out followed by a clause, as in It seemed that he didn’t know the place.
In these sentences describing a certain state of affairs it is impersonal, not introductory and the clause is a predicative one. So it cannot fill the position of the subject:
It seemed that he did not know the place —/—> That he did not know the place seemed. (Transformation is impossible)
b) sentences with predicative adjectives preceded by too and followed by an infinitive as in It was too late to start.
Here it is used in sentences describing time, etc. and is therefore impersonal. The infinitive is an adverbial of consequence, not the subject, and so cannot be placed before the predicate:
It was too late to start —/—> To start was too late.
c) sentences with the predicative expressed by the noun time followed by an infinitive, as in It was high time to take their departure.
In such sentences it is also impersonal, the infinitives being attributes to the noun time. These sentences cannot therefore undergo the transformation which is possible in the case of sentences with introductory it:
It was time to take their departure ―/→ To take their departure was time.
Note. Besides the impersonal and anticipatory it some linguists also distinguish emphatic itas the type of formal subject. The emphatic it is used for emphasis:
It was Winifred who went up to him.
The formal subjectthere
Sentences with a notional subject introduced by there express the existence or coming into existence of a person or non-person denoted by the subject. Such sentences may be called existential sentences or sentences of presentation. They are employed where the subject presents some new idea or the most important piece of information.
The notional subject introduced by there is expressed:
1. By any noun or by a noun phrase denoting an inseparable unit or an indefinite amount of something.
There was silence for a moment. There was a needle and thread in her fingers.
There were a lot of people in the street.
As the notional subject usually introduces a new idea, the noun expressing it is generally used with the indefinite article.
2. By pronouns:
Is there anybody there?
There was something wrong about the whole situation.
There was nobody in. There was nothingto do.
c) universal (only some of them):
There were all of them on the bank. There were both of them present.
The pronouns of these three classes are the most frequent in existential sentences. The ones that follow are very seldom used:
There was the other to be asked.
There is this which is to be settled.
3. By a gerund or a gerundial phrase:
There was no talking that evening.
4. By a clause:
First, there is what we might call a pattern.
The predicate in such sentences is generally a simple verbal predicate expressed by the verbs to be, to appear, to live, to come, to go, or some other similar verbs.
At last far off there appeared a tiny spot. Once upon a time there lived a king.
Then there came a lightning.