English Grammar

Noun Clauses

by Eugene R. Moutoux

1. A noun clause is a clause that functions as a noun. Noun clauses are used as subjects, predicate nominatives, direct objects, objects of prepositions, adverbial objectives, and appositives. They may be introduced by the expletives that, whether, and if (in the sense of whether); by the interrogative pronouns who, whom, whose, which, and what; by the interrogative adjectives which and what; and by the interrogative adverbs how, when, where, and why. Some noun clauses have no special introductory word or words.

* * * * *

2. Letís look first at noun clauses introduced by the expletive that (whether expressed or unexpressed). Examples:

- He knew that he had forgotten something. The noun clause that he had forgotten something functions as a direct object. The same sentence can be expressed without that: He knew he had forgotten something.

- That they scored so few points is a source of great embarrassment to the team, which prides itself on its potent offense. The noun clause that they scored so few points is the subject of the sentence.

- Why doesnít it bother the teacher that most of her students are talking? The noun clause that most of her students are talking serves as an appositive. It is in apposition with the subject it.

- The answer is that she encourages group work at certain times of the day. The noun clause that she encourages group work at certain times of the day is a predicate nominative.

- Iím sorry that we canít wait that long. The noun clause that we canít wait that long functions as an adverbial objective. It modifies the predicate adjective sorry. The same sentence can be expressed with an understood that: Iím sorry we canít wait that long.

* * * * *

3. Many noun clauses are introduced by the expletives whether and if. Here are several examples:

- Whether we succeed or not often depends on how much effort we are willing to expend. Whether we succeed or not is the subject of the sentence. Whether or not is a phrasal expletive.

- Can you tell me if the Kramers live on this street? If the Kramers live on this street is a direct object. If as an introductory expletive can sometimes be used instead of whether.

= The big question was whether it was going to rain. The noun clause whether it was going to rain functions as a predicate nominative. Whether is an expletive.

- The two brothers disagree about whether the Pope is infallible. Whether the Pope is infallible, a noun clause, is used here as the object of the preposition about.

* * * * *

4. Noun clauses can be introduced by interrogative pronouns, interrogative adjectives, and interrogative adverbs. Examples:

- Who was required to attend the meeting had never been clarified. The noun clause who was required to attend the meeting acts as the subject of the sentence. Who is an interrogative pronoun.

- They asked what they could do to help and what tools were available. The noun clauses form a compound direct object. The first what is an interrogative pronoun, the second an interrogative adjective.

- We are puzzled about why we have to stay. The noun clause why we have to stay is the object of the preposition about. Why is an interrogative adverb.

- It is amazing how long she can remain under water. The noun clause how long she can remain under water is an appositive. It is in apposition with the subject of the sentence, it. How is an interrogative adverb.

* * * * *

5. Whatís wrong with the following sentence: Disease is when the body malfunctions? When-clauses can be noun clauses, as they are in He asked when the boys were leaving and in When terrorists will strike next is unknown; however, a when-clause is unsatisfactory as the definition of a noun. A better (although assailable) definition would be Disease is a malfunctioning of the body.

Because-clauses are also used occasionally as noun clauses, as in Because they had been sick was their answer to the question why they had arrived late; however, a because-clause is never an acceptable predicate in a sentence that begins The reason is (was). As an example consider the sentence The reason for their tardiness was because they had stopped along the way for breakfast. Because means "for the reason that." The above sentence therefore means The reason for their tardiness was for the reason that. . . , which makes no sense.

* * * * *

6. Like their relative pronoun counterparts, the interrogative pronoun who is used for subjects and predicate nominatives, while the interrogative pronoun whom is used for objects (direct objects and objects of prepositions). Letís look at some sentences in which who and whom are used in noun clauses:

- I wonder who they going to the play with.

- Why didnít you tell them who you saw there?

- May I ask whom you want to be?

- She was well informed about whom had been reassigned.

According to a strict application of the rules of grammar, each who in the above sentences needs to be changed to whom; unequivocally, each whom should be who. So changed, the sentences read as follows:

- I wonder whom are they going to the play with. The interrogative pronoun whom is the object of the preposition with.

- Why didnít you tell them whom you saw there? The interrogative pronoun whom is the direct object of the verb saw.

- May I ask who you want to be? The interrogative pronoun who is not the direct object of ask but a predicate nominative in the noun clause who you want to be).

- She was well informed about who had been reassigned. The interrogative pronoun who is not the object of the preposition about but the subject of its object (the noun clause who had been reassigned).

- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

Sentence Diagrams, main page
German-Latin-English, my home page
English Grammar