Noun Clause: The Definitive Guide

You would’ve spoken or heard sentences like these.

He can do whatever he wants.

I don’t know what you mean by that.

Why he never talked again will remain a mystery.

If you’ve, then you’ve already had a date with noun clause. It’s one of the three dependent clauses, the other two being relative clause and adverb clause.

Noun clause is one of the three dependent clauses. You may learn about the other two and how to identify the three dependent clauses here:

What is a noun clause?

Also called nominal clause, a noun clause is a dependent clause that can take the place of a noun in a sentence. Put simply, it can do whatever a noun (or pronoun) can. If you remember, a dependent clause contains a subject and a verb of its own, but it can’t stand as a sentence. Example:

What you do is of no interest to me. [Noun clause as subject]

What’s the subject of this sentence?

Is it you that is of no interest to me? Or is it What you do that is of no interest to me?

What you do, clearly. So, What you do is the subject of the sentence, and it’s a clause because it contains subject (you) and verb (do) of its own. Moreover, the clause is a noun clause because it functions like a noun: the clause is the subject in the sentence. And what’s the verb of the sentence or the main clause? Is.

Another example:

The police finally found who was behind the crime. [Noun clause as direct object]

The police found what. They found who was behind the crime. Hence, who was behind the crime is the direct object of the sentence, and it’s a clause because it contains subject (who) and verb (was) of its own. Moreover, it’s a noun clause because it functions like a noun: the clause is the direct object in the sentence. The sentence or the main clause has The police as the subject, found as the verb, and who was behind the crime as direct object.

Noun clauses, like nouns, don’t modify anything; adjective and adverb clauses do. They occupy different slots of a noun (subject, object, subject complement, etc.) in a sentence. Many more slot-wise examples of noun clauses are further down in the post.

If you take out the noun clause from a sentence, the sentence will collapse because you’ve taken out a subject or an object. The same isn’t true of adverb and relative clauses. You can take them out, and the sentence will still exist. To give an analogy, if a sentence is a car, noun clause is the engine and the other two clauses are dispensable items such as trunk, roof, backseat, and backdoors.

In grammar, the same clause may sometimes be known by a different name, depending on the context of its use. Some grammar books use the term complement clause instead of noun clause, focusing on its role as completer of meaning of words and phrases – and not as noun filling in different slots such as subject, object, etc.

Learn about complement clause:

Constituents of a noun clause

Certain marker (or trigger) words start a noun clause

In the above examples, the two noun clauses what you do and who was behind the crime start with what and who, respectively. There are only few words like these that can start a noun clause. (If you remember, relative clause and adverb clause too start with their own marker words.)

The most common marker words that begin a noun clause are that, how, if, what, when, where, why, who, whom, whose, whether, and which. Among these, that and what are most common. Note that but for that, all other are question words. That’s why noun clauses are also termed as embedded questions.

Less common marker words are whoever, whomever, whatever, wherever, whenever, whichever, and however.

Of the noun clauses starting with above marker words, noun clauses starting with what and noun clauses starting with that have been dealt in greater detail elsewhere.

A noun clause is a dependent clause with its own subject and verb

Like all clauses, a noun clause too has its own subject and verb. In noun clause though, much like a relative clause, some marker words (who, what, which, whoever, whatever, and whichever) can also be the subject of the clause. In the following sentences, for example, marker words what and which are subject as well as not the subject of the clause.

I don’t know what he is up to. [he is subject and is is verb of the clause.]

I don’t know what transpired in the meeting. [what is subject and transpired is verb of the clause.]

I’m not sure which movie is better. [movie is subject and is is verb of the clause.]

I’m not sure which is better. [which is subject and is is verb of the clause.]

If you noticed, when the marker word is the subject of the clause, it is not followed by a noun or pronoun. And when the marker word is not the subject of the clause, it is followed by a noun or pronoun, which acts as the subject. This largely holds, with few exceptions.

Get better at identifying subject and verb in dependent clauses:

This is not a noun clause though

Does this sentence contain a noun clause?

I know when to ask questions.

The underlined part looks like a noun clause, but it isn’t. Why? That’s because it’s not even a clause; it’s a phrase. It doesn’t contain a tense (or finite) verb: to ask is not a verb; it’s an infinitive. This though is a noun clause.

I know when I should ask questions.

But this isn’t.

I know the right moment when I should ask questions.

It’s a relative, and not noun, clause because the clause is describing a noun phrase right moment. The three dependent clauses – noun, relative, and adverb – have quite a few common marker words, which can confuse people about which is which.

Here is a list of marker words common to two or more dependent clauses:

Marker words common to two or more dependent clauses

To use the above image, cite the link in the button (click to copy):

https://lemongrad.com/how-to-identify-noun-relative-and-adverb-clause/

Dropping of marker words and reduction of noun clause

The marker word can sometimes be dropped to make the sentence concise. Even a word saved matters. Another tool to bring conciseness is reduction of noun clause to a phrase. Let’s touch upon both briefly.

Dropping of marker words

Of all the marker words we looked at, that can sometimes be dropped – but is understood to exist – to make the sentence concise.

Studies show (that) human productivity drops off significantly after 5-6 hours of intense mental work. [that, shown in brackets, can be dropped.]

Scientists believe (that) Covid is going to stay with us for at least few years.

The marker word that is most commonly dropped when the noun clause is object of the verb, like in the above two sentences. Learn more:

Reduction of noun clause

When we drop that, the remainder is still a noun clause. But when we reduce a noun clause, the result is a phrase. Examples:

Vaccine manufacturers claim that they will roll out a vaccine by year end. [Noun clause]

Vaccine manufacturers claim to roll out a vaccine by year end. [Reduced noun clause]

The suspect admitted that he stole jewelry from the shop. [Noun clause]

The suspect admitted stealing jewelry from the shop. [Reduced noun clause]

A noun clause though can be reduced only under certain conditions. Learn more:

Interrogative sentences vs. declarative sentences starting with noun clause

Almost all marker words resemble question words that begin interrogative sentences. Hence, some confuse sentences starting with noun clauses for questions. Relative clauses too have marker words that resemble question words, but they never start a sentence like marker words in noun clauses do, and hence they’re much less confused for questions.

But a sentence starting with a noun clause isn’t a question. That’s why you won’t find a question mark at the end of a sentence even when a noun-clause marker word such as what or how starts a sentence. Here is a simple way to see if a sentence is a declarative sentence starting with a noun clause or an interrogative sentence.

In a declarative sentence starting with a noun clause, subject of the clause usually comes before the verb. In an interrogative sentence starting with noun-clause marker word, subject of the sentence usually comes after an auxiliary verb.

How I survived the ordeal can’t be described in words. [Noun clause in a declarative sentence: Subject of the noun clause, I, comes before the verb survived.]

How did you survive the ordeal? [Interrogative sentence: Subject of the sentence, you, comes after the auxiliary verb did.]

What you did was beyond our wildest expectations. [Declarative sentence starting with a noun clause]

What did you do? [Interrogative sentence]

When megalodon went extinct is hotly debated. [Declarative sentence starting with a noun clause]

When did megalodon go extinct? [Interrogative sentence]

However, this may not always happen. In these sentences, for example, the noun clause and the question are exactly the same.

Who is behind the mischief is known to all.

Who is behind the crime?

What transpired in the meeting is a secret.

What transpired in the meeting?

A more fundamental way is to try replacing the question part with a noun or pronoun. If you can replace a part of the sentence, and the sentence still makes sense, you’ve a declarative sentence containing a noun clause. (This works because a noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence and hence can be replaced by a noun or pronoun.) If you try this test with the above sentences, you can replace the question part in the declarative sentences successfully with, say, He and Nothing.

He is known to all.

Nothing is a secret.

But you’ll struggle to do the same with questions.

How to join a noun clause to an independent clause?

Noun clause is a dependent clause, and it needs the lifeline of an independent clause to survive. Unlike adverb and relative clauses, the other two dependent clauses in English language, noun clauses aren’t attached to independent clauses. They’re embedded in sentences. In other words, they fill in slots of a noun in sentences, functioning exactly like a noun.

Because a noun clause simply takes the place of a noun or pronoun, it doesn’t require any additional punctuation – comma or dash – as is the case with other two dependent clauses. If a noun or pronoun in its place doesn’t require a comma, a noun clause too won’t.

Whether he lied under oath, should be investigated impartially. [Incorrect punctuation]

The above sentence won’t require a comma because a noun or pronoun in its place won’t require a comma.

It should be investigated impartially. [Correct punctuation]

Since a noun clause essentially functions as a noun, it can take all the positions in a sentence that a noun takes. Here are examples of noun clauses categorized under different positions it can take in a sentence.

Examples of noun clause

Here are examples of noun clause by the positions they hold in a sentence. Out of these, you’ll find noun clause most frequently in the object (of verb) position followed by subject and object (of preposition) positions. You can apply the test (replacing the clause with a pronoun) to check if it’s a noun clause or not. Also, take a note of the marker words starting the noun clause; you’ll find them in the list we saw earlier.

1. Subject

Whatever he says goes. [Noun clause Whatever he says (and not he) is the subject and goes is the verb of the main clause. The clause has its own subject and verb: he and says, respectively.]

What you did was beyond our wildest expectations.

Whether he lied under oath should be investigated impartially.

Whoever wins the election will have to take immediate steps to boost employment.

How I survived the ordeal can’t be described in words.

2. Direct object of verb

A noun clause can be the object of a transitive verb. As an object, it almost always follows the verb.

I doubt if he’ll come for the meeting. [Noun clause if he’ll come for the meeting is the direct object and doubt is the verb of the main clause. The clause has its own subject and verb: he and will come, respectively.]

Let’s find out what’s new on the menu.

I don’t know when megalodon went extinct.

Do you know how YouTube makes money?

Studies show that human productivity drops off significantly after 5-6 hours of intense mental work.

I would like to believe that things will improve from hereon. [There is something different about this example. The noun clause is not the object of the main verb would like. It’s the object of non-finite verb to believe, an infinitive. Even a non-finite verb can take an object if it’s transitive.]

When asked in the interview how you can make difference in your role, stay clear of the topic of AI. [Again, the noun clause is the object of non-finite verb asked, a participle.]

Today’s op-ed explains why country’s manufacturing is in such deep trouble.

T-shape expertise helps you to get a holistic picture and know where your work fits in.

3. Indirect object of verb

Noun clause appearing as indirect object of a verb is rare.

We will give what you proposed due consideration. [due consideration is direct object; what you proposed is indirect object.]

I showed whomsoever cared my collection of paintings.

The receptionist gave whomsoever came to the desk a name badge and a folder.

4. Object of preposition

Note: Preposition whose object is the noun clause has been highlighted.

Britain’s competition regulator launched an investigation into whether Google and Amazon have taken enough steps to prevent fake reviews.

The child threw tantrums at whomsoever he ran into.

Here’s a look at where you can book your slot for vaccination and what you can do for an early booking.

Investors would come in droves for whoever shows growth and potential profit.

The start-up will get a premium valuation from a strategic investor compared to what it’ll get from a financial investor.

We should refrain from speculating and jumping to conclusion on why someone behaved in certain way.

The investigators looked into who was responsible for the accident.

5. Subject complement

A subject complement, also called predicate nominative, follows the linking verb and tells more about the subject.

The answer isn’t what you think.

Our problem is whom we trust.

6. Object complement

The noun clause here completes the meaning of direct object. This use of noun clause though is rare.

We nicknamed John what some may think to be offensive. [The noun clause gives further meaning to the direct object John.]

You can call the pet whatever you want.

Mega Millions announced the winner whoever had the lucky lottery number.

The manager named the issue that our sales strategy is average.

7. Adjective complement

In this role, the noun clause completes the meaning of an adjective, almost always following the adjective it complements. The adjectives that are complemented by such clause follow linking verbs.

It seems true that friendship is like money, easier made than kept.

It is amazing that no one was hurt in the accident.

I’m not sure if he’ll join us for dinner.

8. Noun complement or Appositive

In this role, the noun clause completes the meaning of a noun, almost always following the noun it complements. This clause works with only few nouns, mainly reporting nouns such as idea, fact, comment, remark, statement, claim, argument, assumption, proof, possibility, and response. Only that can introduce a noun clause that complements a noun.

There is possibility that the elections may be postponed because of the pandemic. [The noun clause completes the meaning of noun possibility]

Earlier astronomers put forth the idea that earth was the centre of universe.

There is hope that the pandemic will assume a much milder form in future.

The politician’s claim that the elections were not fair proved false.

Examples of multiple noun clauses in the same sentence

The recent audit has pointed out that our problem isn’t lack of technology; the problem is what technology we’ve deployed. [Object of verb/ Subject complement]

That you’ve only 40 percent attendance shows that you’re not interested in the course. [Subject/ Object of verb]

Tell me who’s your friend, and I’ll tell you who you are. [Object of verb/ Object of verb]

What is unique about this product is that it auto-optimizes your vehicle’s fuel consumption. [Subject/ Subject complement]

The main point in the above three examples is that both the things being compared are clearly mentioned and that each of them satisfies the definition of a metaphor. [Subject complement/ Subject complement]

I feel that I can do whatever I want. [Object of verb/ Object of verb]

How noun clauses help your writing?

1. They make your writing tightly linked

Besides being yet another tool to add variety to your writing, noun clauses make your writing tightly linked. Consider these two sentences:

What will happen to the project? This is not my concern.

The pronoun this in the second sentence is referring to the entire preceding sentence, making for a loose connection between the two sentences. The reader will have to momentarily pause to establish this link. Contrast the above sentences with this:

What will happen to the project is not my concern.

The noun clause makes for a tighter connection between the two, making for a smoother reading. The two loose sentences we saw can come in any form though, and they can still be made tightly connected. For example, they could have been:

Anything can happen to the project. This is not my concern.

2. They express complex information more concisely

A noun clause helps you include complex information concisely in a sentence. Expressing the same meaning without noun clauses may require more than one sentence or make the single sentence unnecessarily lengthy.

The process through which they do it depends on the software they use. [Without a noun clause, the sentence is lengthier and awkward.]

How they do it depends on what software they use. [Two noun clauses express the same meaning concisely and tightly.]

Because noun clauses can pack in complex information compactly, they’re commonly used in professional writing. This sentence, for example, contains two noun clauses, packing in quite hefty information:

The standard put forward by McMaster for what is not only legal but also appropriate means that basically anything the president might share is appropriate, simply by virtue of it coming from the president. Washington Post

3. They help you avoid common mistakes like these

Appreciation of an entire clause acting as subject in a sentence helps you avoid the common error of inserting a comma after a noun clause in subject position. The error happens because some aren’t used to seeing long string of words as subject and erroneously think that they need to take a pause. Example:

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. [Comma not required]

Same applies to object and other positions.

Exercises on noun clause

Identify the noun clause in each sentence. Some may not have any and some may have more than one.

Exercise 1

1. The government is willing to do whatever it takes to beat the virus.

2. The constitution limits the powers of the government to do what they want.

3. The debate over which car to buy has dragged on for a week now.

4. The organization is undecided on whether to grow or whether to save resources for rainy days.

5. At Princeton University, Dan is where he belongs and probably where he wants to be.

Answers to Exercise 1

1. The government is willing to do whatever it takes to beat the virus. [Noun clause is the object of verb.]

2. The constitution limits the powers of the government to do what they want. [Noun clause is the object of verb.]

3. The debate over which car to buy has dragged on for a week now. [Noun clause is the object of preposition.]

4. Not a noun clause because whether to grow and whether to save resources for rainy days both are not even clauses. Why? They don’t have a finite verb: to grow and to save are infinitives.

5. At Princeton University, Dan is where he belongs and probably where he wants to be. [Two noun clauses. Both are subject complements.]

Exercise 2

1. I am undecided about whom to vote in the coming election.

2. Whether a start-up survives often comes down to finding product-market fit and a distribution channel to market its product.

3. What kind of restaurant would you like to dine at.

4. Do you know how to fix a slow laptop?

5. The policeman signaled to stop the car, came close, and asked where we came from and where were we going.

Answers to Exercise 2

1. Not a noun clause because whom to vote in the coming election doesn’t have a finite verb: to vote is an infinitive.

2. Whether a start-up survives often comes down to finding product-market fit and a distribution channel to market its product. [Noun clause is the subject.]

3. What kind of restaurant is not a noun clause as it doesn’t have a finite verb. The sentence is in fact a plain question or interrogative sentence and would require a question mark.

4. Not a noun clause because how to fix a slow laptop is not even a clause. Why? It doesn’t have a finite verb: to fix is an infinitive.

5. The policeman signaled to stop the car, came close, and asked where we came from and where were we going. [Two noun clauses. Both are objects of the verb.]

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