Noun Clauses

In this lesson we’re going to talk about some of the ways that noun clauses can be used in sentences. A noun clause is a group of words that has the same uses in a sentence as a noun. As such, a noun clause can function as either the subject or the object of a sentence:


What she wrote [subject] is [verb] true.


“What she wrote” is the subject of the verb “is.”


I [subject] know [verb] what she wrote [object].


“What she wrote” is the object of the verb “know.”


Noun Clauses beginning with a Question Word

Within a noun clause itself, the subject always precedes the verb. This is true even when a noun clause begins with a question word, such as where, what, when, how, who, whom, whose, what, which, and whether.


Sometimes the word order is the same in a question and a noun clause that answers that question. In the following examples, who is the subject of both the question and the answer:


Who works there?

I don’t know who works there.


Who is at the door?

I don’t know who is at the door.


In other situations, the subject of the question and the answer are different:


Who are those women?

I don’t know who those women are.


In the question, those women is the subject. Because it is the subject, it must be placed before the verb are in the noun clause that answers the question.


Noun Clauses Beginning with “Whether” or “If”

When a yes/no question is changed to a noun clause, whether or if is used to introduce the clause Whether is more common in formal writing, but both words are used regularly when speaking:


Will he come?

I wonder whether he will come.

I wonder if he will come.


Does she need help?

I don’t know whether she needs help.

I don’t know if she needs help.

Or not is sometimes included with whether/if to help reinforce the yes/no nature of the noun clause. Note that or not can immediately follow whether but not if:


I wonder whether or not she needs help.

I wonder whether she needs help or not.

I wonder if she needs help or not.


Question Words Followed by Infinitives

Question words in noun clauses can be followed by infinitives. The following examples all have the same meaning. The infinitive is equivalent to saying either should or can/could:


Joe doesn’t know what he should do.

Joe doesn’t know what to do.


Ellen can’t decide whether she should go to the concert or stay home.

Ellen can’t decide whether to go to the concert or (to) stay home.


Please tell me how I can get to the Sandy Springs MARTA station.

Please tell me how to get to the Sandy Springs MARTA station.


Noun Clauses Beginning with “That”

Certain verbs are commonly followed by a noun clause beginning with that (verb + that-clause). The that is commonly omitted from the noun clause (as in the second example below) in speech and informal writing. It is usually included in formal writing (as in the first example):


Angie thinks that Ellen will come.

Angie thinks Ellen will come.


Person + be +adjective + that-clause.

That-clauses commonly follow certain adjectives, such as worried, when the subject refers to a person or persons:


Suzy is worried (that) Jim has not called.


It + be + adjective + that-clause

That-clauses also commonly follow adjectives that begin with it + be:


It is clear (that) Marie loves her new car

It’s obvious (that) Marie loves her new car.


Although uncommon, it is possible to use a that-clause as the subject of a sentence. In this case, that cannot be omitted:


That Marie loves her new car is undeniable.


While this is technically correct, it can sound stiff and unnatural to native English speakers. It is far more common to begin a sentence with a that-clause in the subject position with the fact that or to introduce it with it is a fact that:


That fact (that) Marie loves her new car is undeniable.

It is a fact (that) Marie loves her new car.