Null-subject language

In linguistic typology, a null-subject language is a language whose grammar permits an independent clause to lack an explicit subject; such a clause is then said to have a null subject.

Typically, null-subject languages express person, number, and/or gender agreement with the referent on the verb, rendering a subject noun phrase redundant. In the principles and parameters framework, the null subject is controlled by the pro-drop parameter, which is either on or off for a particular language.

For example, in Italian the subject "she" can be either explicit or implicit:

Maria non vuole mangiare. lit. Maria not wants [to-]eat, "Maria does not want to eat".
Non vuole mangiare. lit. Subject not wants [to-]eat, "[(S)he] does not want to eat."

The subject "(s)he" of the second sentence is only implied in Italian. English and French, on the other hand, require an explicit subject in this sentence.

Of the thousands of languages in the world, a considerable number are null-subject languages, from a wide diversity of unrelated language families. They include Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Berber, Catalan, Chinese, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Polish, Serbian and other Slavic languages, Spanish, Tamil and Turkic languages, as well as most languages related to these, and many others still. In fact it is rather non-pro-drop that is an areal feature of Standard Average European including French, German, and English.[1]


In the framework of government and binding theory of syntax, the term null subject refers to an empty category. The empty category in question is thought to behave like an ordinary pronoun with respect to anaphoric reference and other grammatical behavior. Hence it is most commonly referred to as "pro".

This phenomenon is similar, but not identical, to that of pro-drop languages, which may omit pronouns, including subject pronouns, but also object pronouns. While all pro-drop languages are null-subject languages, not all null-subject languages are pro-drop.

In null-subject languages that have verb inflection in which the verb inflects for person, the grammatical person of the subject is reflected by the inflection of the verb and likewise for number and gender.


The following examples come from Portuguese:

As the examples illustrate, in many null-subject languages, personal pronouns exist and can be used for emphasis but are dropped whenever they can be inferred from the context. Some sentences do not allow a subject in any form while, in other cases an explicit subject without particular emphasis, would sound awkward or unnatural.

Most Bantu languages are null-subject. For example, in Ganda, 'I'm going home' could be translated as Ŋŋenze ewange or as Nze ŋŋenze ewange, where nze means 'I'.


Latin text: Veni, vidi, vici.
Literal translation: (I) came, (I) saw, (I) conquered.
Idiomatic translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Latin text: Cogito ergo sum.
Literal translation: (I) think, therefore (I) am.
Idiomatic translation: I think, therefore I am.


Tamil script: முடிந்துவிட்டது
Transliteration: muṭintuviṭṭatu
Literal Translation: ended
Actual Translation: It has come to an end.


Hebrew is considered a partially null-subject language, as demonstrated by the following example:

Hebrew text: עזור לאחרים, יעזרו לך
Transliteration: azor l'aherim, ya'azru lkha
Literal translation: help others, will-help you
Idiomatic translation: you help others, they will help you.

Subjects can usually be omitted only when the verb is conjugated for grammatical person, as in the third-person plural in the example above.


Arabic is considered a null-subject language, as demonstrated by the following example:

Arabic text: ساعد غيرك، يساعدك
Transliteration: sā‘id ghayrak, yusā‘iduk
Literal translation: help other, he helps you.
Idiomatic translation: You help another, he helps you.


Japanese and several other null-subject languages are topic-prominent languages; some of these languages require an expressed topic in order for sentences to make sense. In Japanese, for example, it is possible to start a sentence with a topic marked by the particle wa, and in subsequent sentences leave the topic unstated, as it is understood to remain the same, until another one is either explicitly or implicitly introduced. For example, in the second sentence below, the subject ("we") is not expressed again but left implicit:

Japanese text わたしたち もの した。 あとはん べた。
Transliteration Watashitachi wa kaimono o shita. Ato de gohan o tabeta.
Literal translation We (TOPIC) shopping (OBJ) did. After (COMPL) dinner (OBJ) ate.
Idiomatic translation "We went shopping. Afterwards, we ate dinner."

In other cases, the topic can be changed without being explicitly stated, as in the following example, where the topic changes implicitly from "today" to "I".

Japanese text 今日きょう ゲームの はつばい なんだ けど、 おうか どうか まよっている。
Transliteration Kyō wa gēmu no hatsubaibi na n da kedo, kaō ka ka Mayotte iru.
Literal translation Today (TOPIC) game (GEN) release date is but, whether to buy or not confused.
Idiomatic translation "The game comes out today, but (I) can't decide whether or not to buy (it)."


In Spanish, as with Latin and most Romance languages, the subject is encoded in the verb conjugation. Pronoun use is not obligatory.

In Spanish, for the most part one may choose whether to use the subject or not. Generally if a subject is provided, it is either for clarity or for emphasis. Sentences with a null subject are used more frequently than sentences with a subject. In some cases, it is even necessary to skip the subject to create a grammatically correct sentence.


In Catalan, as in Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, etc., the subject is also encoded in the verb conjugation. Pronoun use is not obligatory.

In Catalan, one may choose whether to use the subject or not. If used in an inclined tone, it may be seen as an added emphasis; however, in colloquial speaking, usage of a pronoun is optional. Even so, sentences with a null subject are used more frequently than sentences with a subject. In some cases, it is even necessary to skip the subject to create a grammatically correct sentence.


In Emilian (a Gallo-Italic language) at least one pronoun (of two) is mandatory.


Most varieties of Chinese tend to be non-null-subject. However, in certain circumstances, most Chinese varieties would remove the subjects, thus forming null-subject sentences. One of the instances where the subject would be removed is when the subject is known. Below is an example in Mandarin:

Chinese text 1 ()(ma) :() (yào) (wàng)(le) (diū) ()(ji) Literal translation 1 Mother : Not want forget LE(perfect aspect) throw rubbish .
Chinese text 2 (mèi)(mei) : (zhī)(dào) (la)
Literal translation 2 Younger sister: (I)know (PARTICLE).
Idiomatic translation Mother : "Do not (you) forget to take out the rubbish." Younger sister : "(I) know it"

The above example clearly shows that a speaker could omit the subject if the doer of the verb is known. In a Chinese imperative sentence, like the first text, the subject is also left out.


Дойдох, видях, победих ("Veni, vidi, vici").
Literal translation: came, saw, conquered.
Idiomatic translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.


Дојдов, видов, победив ("Veni, vidi, vici").
Literal translation: came, saw, conquered.
Idiomatic translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.


Geldim, gördüm, yendim ("Veni, vidi, vici").
Literal translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Ben geldim, ben gördüm, ben yendim
Idiomatic translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.


Пришёл, увидел, победил ("Veni, vidi, vici").
Literal translation: came, saw, conquered.
Idiomatic translation: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Impersonal constructions

Main article: Impersonal verb

In some cases (impersonal constructions), a proposition has no referent at all. Pro-drop languages deal naturally with these, whereas many non-pro-drop languages such as English and French have to fill in the syntactic gap by inserting a dummy pronoun. "*Rains" is not a correct sentence; a dummy "it" has to be added: "It rains", French "Il pleut". In most Romance languages, however, "Rains" can be a sentence: Spanish "Llueve", Italian "Piove", Catalan "Plou", Portuguese "Chove", Romanian "Plouă", etc. Uralic and Slavic languages also show this trait: Finnish "Sataa", Hungarian "Esik"; Polish "Pada".

There are constructed languages that are not pro-drop but do not require this syntactic gap to be filled. For example, in Esperanto, "He made the cake" would translate as Li faris la kukon (never *Faris la kukon), but It rained yesterday would be Pluvis hieraŭ (not *Ĝi pluvis hieraŭ).

Null subjects in non-null-subject languages

Other languages (sometimes called non-null-subject languages) require each sentence to include a subject: this is the case for most Germanic languages, such as English and German, as well as many other languages (French, though a Romance language, also requires a subject because of heavy Germanic influences). In some cases, colloquial expressions, particularly in English, less so in German, and occasionally in French, allow for the omission of the subject in the same way that languages such as Spanish and Russian allow using "correct" grammar:

"Bumped into George this morning." (I)
"Agreed to have a snifter to catch up on old times." (We)
"Told me what the two of you had been up to." (He)
"Went down to Brighton for the weekend?" (You)

The imperative form

Even in such non-null-subject languages as English, it is standard for clauses in the imperative mood to lack explicit subjects; for example:

"Take a break—you're working too hard."
"Shut up!"
"Don't listen to him!"

An explicit declaration of the pronoun in English in the imperative mood is possible, usually for emphasis but not necessary:

"You stay away!"
"Don't you listen to him!"

French and German offer less flexibility with regards to null subjects. In French, it is neither grammatically correct nor possible to include the subject within the imperative form (the vous in the expression taisez-vous would stem from the fact that se taire, to be silent is a reflexive verb and is thus the object).

In German, the informal form du may be added to the imperative in a colloquial manner for emphasis (Mach du das, you do it). The formal imperative requires the addition of the subject Sie (as in Machen Sie das) because the formal, addressee-specific imperative form of a verb is morphologically identical to the infinitive, which when used by itself belongs in final position and indicates a "neutral" or addressee-nonspecific imperative (e.g., "Bitte nicht stören" ["Please do not disturb"]).

Pro-drop in infants

Research shows that until around three years old, children often omit subjects. For example:

Auxiliary languages

Many international auxiliary languages, while not officially pro-drop, permit pronoun omission with some regularity.


In Interlingua, pronoun omission is most common with the pronoun il, which means "it" when referring to part of a sentence or to nothing in particular. Examples of this word include

Il pluvia.
It's raining.
Il es ver que ille arriva deman.
It is true that he arrives tomorrow.

Il tends to be omitted whenever the contraction "it's" can be used in English. Thus, il may be omitted from the second sentence above: "Es ver que ille arriva deman". In addition, subject pronouns are sometimes omitted when they can be inferred from a previous sentence:

Illa audiva un crito. Curreva al porta. Aperiva lo.
She heard a cry. Ran to the door. Opened it.


Similarly, Esperanto sometimes exhibits pronoun deletion in casual use. This deletion is normally limited to subject pronouns, especially where the pronoun has been used just previously:

Ĉu vi vidas lin? Venas nun.
QUESTION-PARTICLE you see him? Comes now.
Do you see him? He is coming now.

In "official" use, however, Esperanto admits of null-subject sentences in two cases only:

Contrary to the Interlingua example above, and as in English, a repeated subject can normally be omitted only within a single sentence:

Ŝi aŭdis krion. Ŝi kuris al la pordo. Ŝi malfermis ĝin.
She heard a shout. She ran to the door. She opened it.
Ŝi aŭdis krion, kuris al la pordo kaj malfermis ĝin.
She heard a shout, ran to the door and opened it.


  1. Martin Haspelmath, The European linguistic area: Standard Average European, in Martin Haspelmath, et al., Language Typology and Language Universals, vol. 2, 2001, pp. 1492-1510


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