In a recent post, a rule of thumb has been given to tell subject and predicative apart, which, initially, because of both being in nominative, I thought would impossible. Namely:

"replace the verb with kann betrachtet werden als". If that doesn't kill the meaning, you got the subject. (*)

It seems legit. However, it strikes me that you have to appeal to sense-making, while the syntax should be able to detect the subject by itself, as is, for instance, in the following two sentences:

Gras isst der Hase.

Den Jäger isst der Hase.

In both sentences the noun Hase is the subject. That has nothing whatsoever to do with making sense.

Is there an alternative rule to (*) that is independent of semantics?

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    Note the rule of thumb (which was mine) does not always work - Gertrude Stein's Eine Rose ist eine Rose ist eine Rose, for example, refuses to be solved with it. But I doubt a clear decision on which rose is the subject can be made at all, which is the whole point of this sentence.
    – tofro
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 10:29
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    Also note that syntax alone definitely is not able to detect the subject by itself: "Das Gras isst das Tier. Das Tier isst das Gras". You need to know that grass is not carnivorous to identify the subject.
    – dirkt
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 10:42
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    The quoted rule explicitly referred to sentences of the type Something is something (Gleichsetzungsnominativ). Your sentences are Something eats something. Both the Gleichsetzung through ist and the second nominative are missing (the second noun – Gras and Jäger, respectively – is in the accusative case).
    – Endre Both
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 10:56
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    @Lebenita: No, the subject doesn't have to be the first noun. One expects that because it's the "natural" order, but any order is correct.
    – dirkt
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 11:56
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    @tofro, dirkt: The rule that mandates that Katze is the subject in Katze beißt Hund is not one of grammar, but one of effective communication as evidenced by any number of newspaper headlines (of which this kind of shorthand is typical). I would welcome just one example of a gramatically ambiguous news headline where the first noun is not the subject.
    – Endre Both
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 12:13

1 Answer 1


No, there isn't. Surface syntax deals with things such as concord or word order, and as the previous question pointed out, these indicators are non-conclusive for the Gleichsetzungsnominativ.

To be sure there are additional surface features that can be decisive in individual cases. For instance,

Der Wal ist ein Säugetier.

almost certainly has "Wal" as the subject, since it would be weird to explain an indefinite noun phrase by referring to a definite noun phrase. But such indicators are only sufficient and not necessary, since you can easily make up examples which don't have them.

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