Noun Clause: What It Is and How to Identify It

Most people are comfortable with the idea of a noun, but they may not feel so confident when it comes to the noun clause. A noun clause is a group of words acting together as a noun. These clauses are always dependent clauses. That is, they do not form a complete sentence. Take a look at some sample sentences containing noun clauses to understand their purpose and function.

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What Is a Noun Clause?

A noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence. It follows a linking or copular verb to describe or modify the subject of the sentence. Unlike noun phrases, noun clauses contain both a subject and a verb.

Noun clause examples include:

  • Do you know what time it is?
  • Tom can invite whomever he chooses.
  • I don’t understand what you’re talking about.
  • Whether Roman accepts the job or not is his business.

The bolded noun clauses are dependent clauses. Unlike independent clauses, they can’t stand alone as full sentences. Noun clauses function to add more details to a sentence. If you’re not sure whether a clause is a noun clause, try replacing it with other nouns or pronouns.

For example:

  • Do you know it?
  • Tom can invite her.
  • I don’t understand him.
  • It is his business.

If you can successfully replace the clause with a pronoun, you’ve found a noun clause. However, these sentences are much less interesting and detailed than the original versions. Noun clauses are important when making a sentence understandable.

How to Spot a Noun Clause

Because noun clauses can appear almost anywhere in a sentence, they can be tricky to spot. One of the easiest ways to spot a noun clause is to look for these words:

  • how
  • that
  • what
  • whatever
  • when
  • where
  • whether
  • which
  • whichever
  • who
  • whoever
  • whom
  • whomever
  • why

While these words can be found in clauses other than noun clauses, noun clauses almost always start with one of these words. They’re another clue to finding a noun clause in a sentence.

Types of Noun Clauses

Now that you know how to spot a noun clause, learn how to determine its function within the sentence. Take a look at some of the most common roles of noun clauses.

Subject of a Sentence

A noun clause can act as the subject of a sentence. The noun clause itself performs the action in the sentence.

For example:

  • What Alicia said made her friends cry.
  • What Megan wrote surprised her family.
  • How the boy behaved was not very polite.

It’s easy to assume that Alicia, Megan and the boy are the subjects of these sentences. But that’s not quite correct. Ask yourself these questions to find the noun clauses.

  • What made her friends cry? (What Alicia said)
  • What surprised her family? (What Megan wrote)
  • What was not very polite? (How the boy behaved)

A noun clause that functions as the subject of a sentence can be long or short. However, if you’re writing the sentence, keep in mind that a very long noun clause as a subject may be confusing to the reader.

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Object of a Verb

Just like all nouns, noun clauses can act as the direct object of a verb. They follow verbs to inform the reader where the action is going.

For example:

  • The pharmacist checked that the prescription was correct.
  • He didn't know why the stove wasn't working.
  • They now understand that you should not cheat on a test.

Once again, you can use the method of questioning to demonstrate how the noun clause is used as a direct object. These are the same questions you would use to find any direct object.

  • What didn't she realize? (That the directions were wrong)
  • What didn't he know? (Why the stove wasn't working)
  • What do they understand? (That you should not cheat on a test)

Try replacing each noun clause with the word it. Each sentence still works because each direct object is a noun clause.

Subject Complement

A noun clause can also serve as a subject complement. A subject complement modifies, describes or completes the subject of a clause. Subject complements are also called predicate nominatives or predicate nouns.

  • Carlie's problem was that she didn't practice enough.
  • Harry's crowning achievement at school was when he became class president.
  • Darla's excuse for being late was that she forgot to set her alarm.

Do you see what questions these noun clauses answer and how they relate to the subject?

  • What was Carlie's problem? (That she didn't practice enough)
  • What was Harry's crowning achievement? (When he became class president)
  • What was Darla's excuse for being late? (That she forgot to set her alarm)

These noun clauses provide more information about the subjects of their sentence. Notice that in each case, the verb is a form of to be. This is true for all subject complements, not just noun clauses.

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Object of a Preposition

Noun clauses also act as objects of a preposition in prepositional phrases. In the examples below, you'll see the prepositions "of" and "for" in action.

  • Harry is not the best provider of what Margie needs.
  • Josephine is not responsible for what Alex decided to do.
  • Allie’s research report is about how Marie Curie discovered radium.

Again, the best way to understand this concept is by asking the appropriate questions.

  • Harry is not the best provider of what? (What Margie needs)
  • Josephine is not responsible for what? (What Alex decided to do)
  • Allie’s report is about what? (How Marie Curie discovered radium)

Each of these sentences could be complete before the addition of the prepositions. However, the prepositions are introduced to provide further detail and the noun clauses act as the objects of these prepositions.

Adjective Complement

Last but not least, a noun clause can also function as an adjective complement. These noun clauses complement an adjective or adverb.

  • It’s very disappointing that you left the party early.
  • They're perfectly happy where they live now.
  • Geoffrey runs so fast that he can outrun his dog.

The adjective complement is providing more information about the adjective or adverb that precedes it.

  • What was disappointing? (That you left the party early)
  • What are they happy about? (Where they live now)
  • How fast does Geoffrey run? (So fast that he can outrun his dog)

Similar to the examples containing prepositions, each of these sentences could be complete after the adjective. The adjective complements provide further detail and, in each of these instances, these adjective complements are noun clauses.

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Clauses Make Sentences Interesting

Noun clauses function in any way that a one-word noun can function. They are great additions to a sentence when you want to provide more information and vary your sentence structure. Compare noun clauses to different types of clauses with a guide to teaching adverbial and adjective clauses.