Focus on Noun Clause as Subordination

The blog has been examining English sentence types, with the most recent focus on complex sentences. Complex sentences, formed by subordinating one idea (or sentence) to another, are useful for showing the various kinds of relationship that exist among ideas. We considered the adverb clause and the adjective clause, two ways to form complex sentences. This post looks at the third (and last) type of subordinate clause—the noun clause.

Just as adverb clauses and adjective clauses do the work of their single word counterparts—adverbs and adjectives, noun clauses do the work that single nouns do. As Blumenthal says, because we use noun clauses so naturally we may not notice them and how they replace the way nouns are used in sentences. Nouns are used as subjects, subject complements, objects of prepositions, direct objects, indirect objects, and as appositives. In all but the last two constructions, the noun (and thus noun clause) is essential to the sentence and cannot be left out. Let’s look at some examples.

Noun clauses as subjects

His remark puzzled us.

In this sentence, the noun remark is the subject of the verb puzzled. We can replace this single noun with a noun clause:

What he said puzzled us.

What he said is a clause with a subject (he) and verb (said) and is subordinate because it cannot stand alone. It also does the same job as the noun remark in simple sentence, which makes it a noun clause. Though we can omit an adverb or adjective clause from a sentence, there is still a grammatically complete sentence remaining. However, we cannot leave out a subject or a noun clause used as a sentence.

His (remark) puzzled us.

(What he said) puzzled us.

Noun clauses as subject compliments

Subject compliments are also essential to the meaning of a sentence and cannot be left out. As a review, subject compliments complete the meaning of linking verbs. Here is an example:

This is my recipe for fudge.

Here the noun recipe completes the meaning of the linking verb is. A noun clause can be used its place as it is in the sentence below:

This is how I make fudge.

And neither can be omitted from the sentence without making them incomplete.

This is my (recipe) for fudge.

This is (how I make fudge).

Noun clauses as objects of a preposition

Noun clauses can also be used to replace a single noun used as objects of a preposition. Here are examples of both:

We were still ten miles from our destination.

We were still ten miles from where we were going.

In the first sentence, the noun destination is the object of the preposition from, just as the noun clause where we were going in the second sentence is the object of the preposition from. Again, like the other uses of nouns discussed above, objects of prepositions are essential and cannot be left out.

We were still ten miles from our (destination).

We were still ten miles from (where we were going).

Noun clauses as the direct objects

Another essential noun in a sentence is the direct object, which is a sentence pattern formed by transitive verbs. These verbs are not complete without an object:

We raise vegetables.

In this sentence, the noun vegetables is the direct object of the verb raise. We can replace the single word direct object with a noun clause:

We raise whatever we need.

Both are necessary to complete the verb:

We raise (vegetables).

We raise (whatever we need).

For a U2 fans, a fund example of a noun clause functioning as a direct object is the song title, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Noun clauses an indirect objects

An indirect object precedes the direct object and shows to whom (or to what) or for whom (or for what) something is done. For example, in the sentence below, the noun finder shows to whom something is done.

She will pay the finder a reward.

Here, the subject (she) will pay a reward, the direct object to the finder. The noun finder can be replaced by a noun clause, as it is in the following sentence:

She will pay whoever finds the dog a reward.

The noun clause whoever finds the dog is used in place of the single noun finder. Unlike the previous four instances, however, indirect objects are one instance that the noun is not essential to the sentence and if removed both sentences would remain complete:

She will pay (the finder) a reward.

She will pay (whoever finds the dog) a reward.

Noun clauses as appositives

Appositives are grammatical elements that are often used by most of us, but not always easily articulated. An appositive is a word, phrase, or clause that supports another word, phrase, or clause by describing or modifying the other word, phrase, or clause. This grammatical function is most often performed by nouns and noun phrases, but can also be performed by noun clauses. (Though nouns, they are often likened to adjectives because they provide more details about nouns or pronouns, some say appositives offer an “equivalent” to the noun or pronoun.)

Here is an example of a noun used as an appositive:

The problem, a depression, seems to be quite serious.

The appositive, a depression, supports the word problem, but can easily be replaced by a noun clause performing the same function:

The problem that economics is getting worse seems to be quite serious.

Appositives are also second instance in which they are sentence parts that are not essential and can be removed without changing the meaning:

The problem, (a depression), seems to be quite serious.

The problem (that economics is getting worse) seems to be quite serious.

Appositive clause vs relative (adjective) clause

Because appositives appear to function as adjectives, it is useful to compare appositive (noun) clauses with relative (adjective) clauses. The comparison begins with the previous example of a noun clause as an appositive:

The problem that economics is getting worse seems to be quite serious.

As similar sentence using a relative (adjective) clause would be the following:

The problem that now arises seems to be quite serious.

In the first sentence, the noun clause appositive that economics is getting worse is an equivalent of the subject problem. In the second sentence, the adjective clause that now arises describes the subject problem, it answers What kind? of the noun.

Noun clause signals

As you can see in the examples, noun clauses are signaled by words such as what, how, where, whatever, whoever, and that. Other signals include the words when, where, which, who, and why. You may notice that some of these words also signal adverb and adjective clauses, so it’s important to recognize the function of the clause to know which subordinate clause you are using.

Noun clauses are one of three subordinate clauses used to create complex sentences which help make your meaning and the relationship between your ideas clearer. Having a variety of ways for creative expression, whether in fiction or nonfiction, is important for a writer’s toolkit.

(Resource for examples: English 3200)

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