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What Is a Compound Subject?

When a sentence has more than one person performing an action, such as "John and Mary went shopping," there is a compound subject.
Compound subjects differ from single subjects, which have only one person performing an action, such as "A child ate pizza."
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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2014
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The term "compound subject" is used to refer to a type of sentence structure in which more than one person or thing is performing an action. The subject of a sentence is the "doer" of the sentence, or the person or thing who is acting. The word "compound" refers to something that is made up of more than one part. A compound subject is therefore more than one person or thing combined to perform an action. When using such a structure, the verb conjugation may change as a result of the presence of more than one actor or doer.

Here is an example of a sentence with a single subject:

John went to the store.

In this sentence, the subject is John; the verb is went. There is only one person or thing doing the action; in this case, that single person is John. In order to form a compound subject, another person or thing needs to be acting in conjunction with John. Here is an example of a sentence that features a compound subject:

John and Mary went to the store together.

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In this sentence, there are two actors or doers--John and Mary. Together, they went. Went, in this case, is the verb, or action. Both subjects are performing the same action, which means, therefore, both subjects are assigned to the same verb. Notice, too, that the two subjects are joined by a conjunction, which in this case is the word "and." Other conjunctions can be used to change the meaning of that sentence. For example:

John or Mary went to the store.

Notice that the use of the conjunction "or" changes the meaning of the sentence, though both subjects are still assigned to the same verb.

It is possible to have two subjects in a sentence without creating a compound subject. This sentence, for example, features two distinct subjects, but also two distinct verbs:

John went to the store, but Mary stayed home.

This is a compound sentence, but there is no compound subject here. In the first part of the sentence, the subject is John; he went, which is the verb. In the second part of the sentence, the subject is Mary. She stayed, which is the verb. If two subjects exist in a sentence but there is more than one identifiable verb — one verb for each subject — then the sentence may not have a compound subject but instead may be a compound sentence.

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JackWhack
Post 4

I always found compound subjects to be a little puzzling. I had trouble determining if two words connected by “and” were actually a compound subject or a group intended to act as one subject.

If the subject was made up of two names, then that was fairly easy to discern. However, if it contained two items acting as one thing, it got a bit more complicated.

For example, in the sentence, “Mashed potatoes and gravy is a popular side item at our restaurant,” you have two words in the subject, but they are grouped together as one item. However, if the sentence read, “Mashed potatoes and gravy are delicious together,” then you would need to use “are” instead of “is,” because they have suddenly been ungrouped.

shell4life
Post 3

@orangey03 – I think that often, trouble with compound sentences arises from the vernacular. I live in the South, and though teachers do teach students to use “were” when they have a compound subject, you often hear people in the neighborhood using “was” when speaking.

I can't tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “We was going to the store,” or something similar. “We was” and “they was” are always used around here, simply because they have been passed down through generations of improper grammar.

So, some kids never catch on because of the double standard. They are expected to hear one thing and do another, and it is confusing.

orangey03
Post 2

@wavy58 – It baffles me how many adults still do not know what form of verb to use with a compound subject. I cannot tell you how annoying it is to hear a news reporter on television saying that two people “was” going to town.

You would think that proper use of grammar would be required of television reporters. I often wonder if anyone points out these mistakes to them later, or if they simply slide by unnoticed by the boss.

I can understand kids in school struggling with compound subjects, because they have not had ample opportunities to structure sentences yet. I cannot understand how professionals can make this mistake on a nightly basis, like they do at my local television station.

wavy58
Post 1

English was my favorite subject in school. When we advanced to learning about compound subjects, I was intrigued at such a young age by how parts of a sentence inevitably affected other parts.

Some of my classmates could not grasp this concept, and this puzzled me. However, these kids were the ones who had a much better understanding of math and science than I did, so it all balanced out.

The lesson on compound subjects was one of the most basic, but it was also one that has stuck with me throughout the years. If you have more than one subject, it affects whether your verb will be singular or plural and whether you will use “was” or “were.” After I first learned this, I would have to pause and ponder which to use, but now, it comes as naturally as speaking.

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