What is a noun clause?
A noun clause is a type of dependent clause that is able to function grammatically like a noun in a sentence. As such, it serves to name a person, place, or thing.
Forming Noun Clauses
Noun clauses most commonly begin with the words that, how, if, and the “wh-” words—what, whatever, where, wherever, when, whenever, why, which, whichever, who, whom, whoever, whomever, whether, and whatever.
Like all clauses, a noun clause contains a subject (sometimes represented by one of the words above) and a predicate (a verb and any additional information attached to it).
Below we’ll look at some examples of various noun clauses performing the different functions of a noun:
The subject performs, occupies, or controls the action of the verb:
- “Wherever we decide to go is fine with me.” (Wherever we decide to go is the subject of the linking verb is.)
- “Which option is best remains to be seen.” (Which option is best is the subject of the verb remains.)
- “Whoever wants to go should sign up with their supervisor.” (Whoever wants to go is the subject of the phrasal verb sign up.)
- “That you act so frivolously with money shows you aren’t ready to lead this company.” (That you act so frivolously with money is the subject of the verb shows.)
Remember that intransitive verbs do not take direct and indirect objects, so you will only find noun clauses used as the objects of transitive verbs.
A direct object is a person or thing that directly receives the action of the verb:
- “I will enjoy whatever we decide to do.” (Whatever we decide to do is the direct object of the verb enjoy.)
- “We’ve decided to go wherever the wind takes us.” (Wherever the wind takes us is the direct object of the verb go.)
- “I want to see what is available before I make a purchase.” (what is available is the direct object of the verb see.)
- “At this point, we’ll take whatever we can get.” (Whatever we can get is the direct object of the verb take.)
An indirect object is a person (or sometimes thing) that receives the direct object via the action of the verb. For example:
- “I’ll send whoever is responsible a strongly worded letter.” (Whoever is responsible is the indirect object of the verb send, and a strongly worded letter is the direct object.)
- “Just pay whomever you hire $100, as we agreed.” (Whomever you hire is the indirect object of the verb pay, and $100 is the direct object.)
- “I will give whatever you propose my full support.” (Whatever you propose is the indirect object of the verb give, and my full support is the direct object.)
Predicate nouns are a subset of a larger category known as subject complements (including predicate pronouns and predicative adjectives), which rename or re-identify the subject after a linking verb (usually a form of the verb be). For example:
- “Japan is where I want to go most.” (Where I want to go most is the predicate noun of the linking verb is, renaming the subject Japan.)
- “The thing I wish for most is that people would all just get along.” (That people would all just get along is the predicate noun of the linking verb is, renaming the subject the thing I wish for most.)
- “Politicians are who create the laws.” (Who create the laws is the predicate noun of the linking verb are, renaming the subject politicians.)
Objects of prepositions
A preposition is followed by its object to create a prepositional phrase, which can function as an adverb or an adjective in a sentence. For example:
- “This is the man to whom I owe my life.” (Whom I owe my life is the object of the preposition to, acting as an adjective to describe the noun man.)
- “I ran into a few people from where I used to live.” (Where I used to live is the object of the preposition from, acting as an adjective to describe the noun people.)
- “They were angry because of what they found out.” (What they found out is the object of the compound preposition because of, acting as an adverb to describe the adjective angry.)
- “She can study with whomever she likes.” (Whomever she likes is the object of the preposition with, acting as an adverb to modify the verb study.)
An adjective complement is a clause or phrase that completes the meaning of a predicative adjective. For example:
- “We were curious why they decided to leave.” (Why they decided to leave is the complement of the adjective curious.)
- “I’m thrilled that you are coming to visit!” (That you are coming to visit is the complement of the adjective thrilled.)
- “It’s so wonderful what he did for those orphans.” (What he did for those orphans is the complement of the adjective wonderful.)
- “They’re unsure whether this is the right decision.” (Whether this is the right decision is the complement of the adjective unsure.)
Multiple noun clauses
Because of their various roles, a sentence can have multiple noun clauses functioning in different ways. Take the following sentence, for example:
- “What I decide will determine who gets the promotion.”
Here, the noun clause what I decide is acting as the subject of the sentence, while the clause who gets the promotion is acting as the direct object of the verb determine.
Here’s another example:
- “What they want to know is why you think this is acceptable.”
What they want to know is a noun clause acting as the subject, and why you think this is acceptable is a predicate noun that renames the subject.
Replacing a noun clause with a pronoun
A noun clause can always be replaced by a single pronoun (such as you, he, she, it, they, there, etc.), the same way a normal noun would. If you are uncertain whether a part of a sentence is functioning as a noun clause, try replacing it with a pronoun; if the sentence is still grammatically complete, then the part you replaced is a noun clause. (The only exception to this rule is when a noun clause is used as an adjective complement, since a pronoun cannot function this way.)
Let’s try replacing some of the examples we used above with pronouns:
- “Whoever wants to go should sign up with their supervisor.”
- “They should sign up with their supervisor.”
- “I want to see what is available before I make a purchase.”
- “I want to see it before I make a purchase.”
- “Just pay whomever you hire $100, as we agreed.”
- “Just pay her $100, as we agreed.”
- “The thing I wish for most is that people would all just get along.”
- “The thing I wish for most is this.”
- “She can study with whomever she likes.”
- “She can study with you.”
- “What they want to know is why you think this is acceptable.”
- “That is it.”
In each of these examples, the new sentence is still grammatically complete (even if it seems to be lacking information), proving that a noun clause was used in each case.
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