The Forms and Functions of Noun Clauses in English

By Heather Marie Kosur

Noun clauses are subordinate or dependent clauses that perform eight main functions in English grammar. Noun clauses may be finite or nonfinite depending on the form of the verb in the clause. The following article defines the two forms and eight functions of noun clauses in the English language.

English Noun Clauses

Noun clauses are subordinate or dependent clauses that are formed by a subordinating conjunction followed by a clause. The English subordinating conjunctions that introduce noun clauses are that (which can be omitted in certain cases), if, whether, wh- words, wh-ever words, and sometimes for. Noun clauses may be either finite or nonfinite in form.

Noun clauses perform many of the same functions as nouns and noun phrases. Functions prototypically performed by nouns and noun phrases are called nominal functions. The eight functions of nouns clauses are:

  1. Subject
  2. Subject complement
  3. Direct object
  4. Object complement
  5. Indirect object
  6. Prepositional complement
  7. Adjective phrase complement
  8. Noun phrase complement

The following sections discuss the two grammatical forms and eight grammatical functions of noun clauses and include examples to illustrate use.

Finite

The first grammatical form of noun clauses in English grammar is the finite noun clause. Finite noun clauses contain conjugated verb phrases. Conjugated verb phrases in English show person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural), and tense (present, past). The following italicized clauses are examples of finite noun clauses:

  • My favorite musician is whoever sings this song.
  • Whatever you decide is fine with me.
  • His parents are fuming about how he crashed their new car.

The finite, or conjugated, verbs in the noun clauses are sings (first person singular present), decide (second person singular/plural present), and crashed (third person singular past).

Nonfinite

The second grammatical form of noun clauses in English grammar is the nonfinite noun clause. Nonfinite noun clauses lack conjugated verbs. Nonfinite verbs in English include base forms (verb), infinitives (to + verb), and present participles (verb-ing). The following italicized clauses are examples of nonfinite noun clauses:

  • The teacher wants you to finish your homework.
  • My mom listened to me singing the song.
  • I demand that the child eat his vegetables.*

The nonfinite, or unconjugated, verbs in the noun clauses are to finish (infinitive), singing (present participle), and eat (base). Notice also that the object pronouns function as the subject of the nonfinite noun clause when the verb is an infinitive or present participle.

*Some grammars also consider the form of the noun clause in sentences like I demand that the child eat his vegetables a finite noun clause with a verb conjugated into the subjunctive mood.

As Subjects

Nouns clauses first function as grammatical subjects. Subjects are words, phrases, and clauses that perform the action of or act upon the verb. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of subjects:

  • That his daughter stole his car surprises me.
  • For you to not finish school now would be foolish.
  • What you said made the crowd angry.

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as subjects.

As Subject Complements

Nouns clauses secondly function as subject complements. Subject complements are words, phrases, and clauses that follow copular verbs and describe the grammatical subject. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of subject complements:

  • The reason you failed the test was that you did not study the eight grammatical forms.
  • The thief will be whoever has blue ink on their hands.
  • That noise is the dog crying in his crate.

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as subject complements.

As Direct Objects

Nouns clauses thirdly function as direct objects. Direct objects are words, phrases, and clauses that follow and receive the action of transitive verbs. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of direct objects:

  • Some teachers had been wondering if they chose the right career.
  • I would hate for you to get sick.
  • My son eats whatever we put on his plate.

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as direct objects.

As Object Complements

Nouns clauses fourthly function as object complements. Object complements are words, phrases, and clauses that directly follow and describe the direct object. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of object complements:

  • The judges have declared the winner whoever entered the double chocolate fudge cake.
  • You may call my husband whatever you wish.
  • The assessment committee announced the problem "us refusing to try new procedures."

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as object complements although nonfinite noun clauses perform the function infrequently.

As Indirect Objects

Nouns clauses fifthly function as indirect objects. Indirect objects are words, phrases, and clauses that indicate to or for whom or what the action of a transitive verb is performed. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of indirect objects:

  • The family court judge will give what the children want some consideration.
  • Have you given how you want to decorate the office any thought?
  • My classmates gave me singing the school song a gold star.

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as direct objects although nonfinite noun clauses again perform the function infrequently.

Prepositional Complements

Nouns clauses function as prepositional complements. Prepositional complements are words, phrases, and clauses that directly follow a preposition and complete the meaning of a prepositional phrase. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of prepositional complements:

  • The students are thinking about what they just learned in class.
  • His wife listened to him singing in the shower.
  • My puppy begged for me to give him a treat.

Both finite and nonfinite noun clauses can function as prepositional complements.

Adjective Phrase Complements

Nouns clauses seventhly function as adjective phrase complements. Adjective phrase complements are words, phrases, and clauses that complete the meaning of an adjective. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of adjective phrase complements:

  • Most English teachers would be happy that you are furthering your study of grammar.
  • My supervisor is worried that the roof will leak again.
  • I am sad that my husband is ill.

Only finite noun clauses can function as adjective phrase complements.

Noun Phrase Complements

Noun clauses function as noun phrase complements. Noun phrase complements are words, phrases, and clauses that complete the meaning of a noun. The following italicized noun clauses are examples of noun phrase complements:

  • The claim that the earth is flat was once widely believed.
  • My problem is the fact that you are always late for work.
  • Our hope that peace will be achieved is possible.

Only finite noun clauses that begin with the subordinating conjunction that can function as noun phrase complements.

Practice Exercise

Identify the noun clauses in the following sentences. Also identify the grammatical form and grammatical function of the noun clause.

Sentences

  1. My mom had wanted me to organize her photographs.
  2. What that patron complained about is of little importance.
  3. The committee will give that the students want longer library hours some thought.
  4. The child is sad that she cannot have another cookie.
  5. For the neighbors to sell their house would be a mistake.
  6. His grandparents laughed at him sliding down the muddy hill.
  7. You may invite whoever you want to the party.
  8. All that commotion was the neighbors cleaning out their garage.
  9. I would hate for that man to miss his bus.
  10. The puppy was surprised that the cat bit his nose.

Answers

  1. My mom had wanted me to organize her photographs. nonfinite – direct object
  2. What that patron complained about is of little importance. finite – subject
  3. The committee will give that the students want longer library hours some thought. finite – indirect object
  4. The child is sad that she cannot have another cookie. finite – adjective phrase complement
  5. For the neighbors to sell their house would be a mistake. nonfinite – subject
  6. His grandparents laughed at him sliding down the muddy hill. nonfinite – prepositional complement
  7. You may invite whoever you want to the party. finite – direct object
  8. All that commotion was the neighbors cleaning out their garage. nonfinite – subject complement
  9. I would hate for that man to miss his bus. nonfinite – direct object
  10. The puppy was surprised that the cat bit his nose. finite – adjective phrase complement

Printable Noun Clause Download

For a printable download of the basic patterns for forming noun clauses from questions, please see Basic Patterns for Forming Noun Clauses From Questions.