The dependent noun clause, unlike the adjective and adverb clauses, which modify aspects of the sentence (noun and verb, respectively), the noun clause does not modify anything. Rather, it functions as a subject, a direct or indirect object, an object to a preposition, or a complement. In other words, it acts like a noun. It can, as well, act as a subject complement to sentences with linking or state verbs. The clause markers (relative pronouns and adverbs) that are used in noun clauses are often question words (what, how, why, etc.), making them a little tricky to recognize. The key to realizing that you have a noun clause rather than a question is the absence of a question mark (?) as well a standard S then V structure (as opposed to the V then S structure common to questions). Of course a noun clause can be used inside a question—just make sure you recognize the independent clause of the question itself.
Ex: What time is it? – question.
Do you know what time it is? – question with noun clause as object to know. (The noun clause itself is not in a question form.)
I don’t know what time it is. – noun clause as object to know.
What time it is doesn’t matter. We can’t leave until we’ve finished the job. – noun clause as subject.
It is important to keep in mind that some noun clause conjunctions can also act as the subject of the clause, making them “appear” like a question, yet they are not a question:
Ex: I don’t remember who asked me about it. – noun clause as object to remember. Notice that the noun clause is structured similarly to a question. This is because the noun clause conjunction (who) in this case is also the subject of the noun clause.
Who came to your party last night? – question.
I don’t remember who came to your party last night. – noun clause as object to remember.
How to construct a noun clause
As with the other clause types, noun clauses have a particular set of clause markers (relative pronouns as conjunctions). In many cases, the clause marker itself can act as subject to the clause. The pronouns in bold are the only ones that can act as both clause marker and subject of a noun clause. (Notice that some of these conjunctions can also be used with adjective or adverb clauses—make sure you understand the context of the clause to know in which way the conjunction is being used and, therefore, what type of clause it is, or vice versa, recognize the type of clause to understand the function of the conjunction.)
NB: which or whichever may appear as the subject of a noun clause; however the conjunction is always a shortened version of the complete subject when the noun is understood:
Ex: A: Which shirt should I wear to the party?
B: Whichever matches with mine. Mine is green. – in this case, whichever refers to whichever shirt, or whichever one, the shirt or the one being the actual subject.
Ex: What occurred there last week is still a mystery. – subject
You can take whatever you need from the tool shed as long as you return it later. – object to take
I really don’t know how you can eat that stuff. It’s disgusting. – object to know
You can approach the research however you want to; just make sure it’s documented. – complement
Ask Casey who’s coming to the reception. – object to ask
Whoever decides to join the expedition assumes all responsibilities for their personal safety. – subject
The police are still trying to discover whom the pistol belongs to. – object to discover
Whomever the president appoints as deputy will most likely need to transfer to Headquarters. – subject
I can’t decide which book to buy; they both look so interesting. – object to decide
Do you think it would be rude to ask Heather where she got her sweater? – object to ask
I can’t remember when we last saw each other. – object to remember
Daddy, do you know why the sky is blue? – object to know (The question mark is for the question do you know…?)
I don’t care whose car it is. It’s in my spot. – complement to care (care about what?)
They say that strange things happen in this town at night. – object to say
We’ll have the BBQ whether it rains or not. – complement to will have
I can’t tell if she’s telling me the truth. – object to tell
The clause marker that is used to introduce a clause. As such, it can be omitted if the noun clause can be very clearly understood without it. The clause marker what can be the subject of the clause or the object. In either case, it cannot be omitted.
Ex: I didn’t see what happened. – what is both subject and clause marker. The clause acts as object to verb see (notice as well that in this case the clause looks like a question, but it is not a question).
I didn’t see what she did. – In this case, the what acts as object to did.
Jason said (that) he couldn’t make it to the party. – in this case, the clause marker that can be omitted; the function of the noun clause is clear without it. We sometimes leave in the conjunction that to emphasize the noun clause that follows.
Clause Marker functions:
Most of these conjunctions are self-explanatory, meaning that their function is the same as when they are used in other contexts. For example, a noun clause that begins with when will function as a specific time (I remember when coffee cost just 25¢. – I remember a specific time).
|what: thing/situation/etc.||whatever: anything||how: manner|
|however: any way||who: person||whoever: anyone|
|whom: person||whomever: anyone||which: thing (with alternatives/options)|
|whichever: any one/thing||where: place/location||when: time|
|why: reason/cause||whose: possession||that: introductory conjunction|
Let’s look at some of the difficulties associated with noun clause conjunctions.
What or That?
Many non-native English users confuse these two conjunctions regularly. One of the main reasons this happens is that that can be used in adjective clauses as well, and refers to things, while what also refers to things, but only in noun clauses. The difference is that what refers to an unknown thing in a noun clause, while that is used to refer to the noun being modified with the adjective clause. In a noun clause, that is simply used to introduce the rest of the clause, and can often be removed from the sentence. Keep in mind as well that what can be the subject of the noun clause, while that cannot.
Ex: I’m not sure what this thing is used for. – Not sure about the thing’s use (used for what?)
I’m not sure (that) I know how to use this thing. – Not sure about my own knowledge.
It isn’t clear what Janet needed this thing for. – The reason she needed it is not clear, but she did need it (needed for what?)
It isn’t clear (that) Janet needed this thing. – Her need (for the thing) is not clear (she might not have needed it.)
A key to understanding which conjunction to use is to question its function: is it introducing an idea? –that. Or, is it standing in place of an unknown thing?—what.
Last note: Look at the following sentence: I can’t believe that just happened. Do not confuse this for a noun clause. In this example, that is a demonstrative pronoun, not a conjunction.
Who or whom?
These two conjunctions are quite simple to recognize in terms of their functions: who is a subject conjunction, and whom is an object conjunction.
In other words, use who when the clause requires a subject. Use whom when the clause already has a subject and requires an object to the verb (of the same clause) or to the preposition. The same applies to whoever and whomever.
NB: Most native English users do not commonly use whom in everyday speech (or writing). However, in correct, formal, academic writing it is important that you know how to use this conjunction properly. This is especially true for language tests in which the correct use of whom is looked for and scored.
Ex: Whoever told you that this restaurant was very good obviously hadn’t tried it him/herself. (Notice a noun clause object within a noun clause subject—this will be discussed in the section on embedded clauses.)
Subject of sentence: Whoever told you that this restaurant was very good (2 noun clauses:1 sub., 1 obj)
Object of sentence: it (this restaurant)
Subject of noun clause: whoever
Main verb of noun clause: told
Object of noun clause: that this restaurant was very good (subject: this restaurant; verb: was)
Ex: Please ask Tracy whom she gave the file to.
Subject of sentence: you
Main verb of sentence: ask
Direct object of sentence: whom she gave the file to.
Indirect object of sentence: Tracy
Subject of noun clause: she
Main verb of noun clause: gave
Direct object of noun clause: the file
Indirect object of noun clause: (to) whom
Ex: Knowing whom one can trust is one of the most difficult aspects of hiring new employees.
Finding out who wrote Jessie those love letters made Cynthia even angrier.
Whoever finishes early can leave early.
Whomever the teacher allows to leave early must do so quietly; do not disturb the others.
Whatever, wherever, and the others, all have in common the idea of the indefinite noun.
|whatever: anything||whoever: anybody||whomever: anybody|
|However: any way||whichever: any one||wherever: any place|
(Notice the spacing in the bottom three examples. Do not confuse, for example, any way with anyway. The first means an indefinite way, or method, or path, etc. The latter is an adverb that means in any case, despite what came before, regardless, etc.)
Ex: Take whatever you want. – Take anything (that) you want.
However you do it, just make sure it’s done by Friday. – Any way that you do it, just make sure….
I’ll take whichever (one) you don’t need. – I’ll take any one (of those available) that you don’t need.
How do we use noun clauses?
Essentially, a noun clause should be viewed as a noun. Though it has structural requirements, in terms of function it is no different from a simple noun.
As a subject of a sentence:
In the place of the subject, a noun clause acts just as a simple noun subject. As such, it is responsible for the main verb of the sentence.
Ex: Last night’s dinner was delicious.
What we ate for dinner last night was delicious.
The simplest way to recognize a noun clause as subject is to find the tense verbs in the sentence and make sure that each has its own subject. If a verb does not correspond to a simple noun, look for a clause (or phrase) as the subject.
Ex: Whether you succeed or not depends on how much effort you put into it.
Why the professor hasn’t been seen again at the college has students whispering.
What bothers you the most isn’t that he’s rich, but that he’s earned his wealth.
The anticipatory (dummy) subject: Be careful with sentences that begin with it. It is often used in place of a noun clause as the subject because using the noun clause to begin the sentence might seem awkward:
Ex: That some people forget to show their elders a certain level of respect is unfortunate.
It is unfortunate that some people forget to show their elders a certain level of respect.
As a subject complement:
When using a linking verb such as the be verb, we can use a noun clause to give more information about the subject just as we would in independent clauses. Therefore, in the sentence, The man is an enigma., an enigma describes the man. It is the subject complement in that it completes the meaning of what the man is. In the same way, we can use a noun clause to serve the same function, as in, That man is not what you think. In other words, that man is mysterious, or a liar.
Ex: You see that museum over there, Bill? That is where I met your mother.
Jack is what you might call a free spirit.
A: Are you sure that is the right way to do it?
B: Yes, that’s how you do it.
As direct object:
Just as a noun clause can act as subject to the sentence in place of a simple noun, it can also act as the object to the sentence.
Ex: Ask him how I can turn down the light in the background.
Can you please let me know when the next train is due to arrive?
Flight simulators are an affordable way to let pilots understand how they should maneuver in different weather conditions.
When shopping for a new computer, many consumers want whichever manufacturer’s product is cheapest yet delivers the maximum benefit.
As indirect object:
Tell whoever is in charge that the noise level here is unbearable.
Jake will give whoever wants it a ride home.
As object of a preposition:
An object does not necessarily have to attach to a verb. Prepositions may also take an object in order to complete their meaning. For example, the prepositions for and about both need an object to complete their meaning because they function as directional prepositions. In other words, without an object as a target or destination for the preposition, the preposition is meaningless:
Ex: The report is about how managers lose their staff’s attention and therefore their productivity.
This computer software is intuitive, meaning it can be used for whatever projects you need to complete, regardless of department.
Mmmm… this tastes just like how I imagined it would. (In the sentence, Mmmm… this tastes just as I imagined it would, the italicized clause is an adverb clause, not a noun clause.)
Despite what you think of this painting, many collectors are prepared to pay millions of dollars for it.
It is not important who takes care of this; pass it along to whichever department deals with these types of issues.
A noun clause can be used as a complement to complete the meaning of a sentence or part of a sentence.
Ex: I’m not sure why this happened. (noun clause completes not sure… about what?)
Take this flag up to where it can be seen the furthest. (Prepositional phrase as complement answering where? The noun clause acts as object of the preposition to)
You will finish this assignment whether you like it or not.