Similar to the noun and noun phrase in grammatical function, a noun clause is a dependent or subordinate clause that consists of a subordinating conjunction followed by a clause and that performs a nominal function. Some grammars use the term nominal clause for noun clauses.
Conjunctions are “words that link words, phrases, and clauses.” A subordinating conjunction is a conjunction that introduces a subordinate or dependent clause. The subordinating conjunctions in English that introduce noun clauses are that (which can be omitted in certain cases), if, whether, wh- words, wh-ever words, and sometimes for.
- Whether you come or not is no concern of mine.
- J.K. Rowling is why I want to write children’s books.
- I need to know what you want for your birthday dinner.
- The boss is giving whoever took the last donut a mean look.
- We can listen to whatever you want on the radio.
Additionally, noun clauses may be either finite or nonfinite in form.
Finite Noun Clauses
The first grammatical form of noun clauses is the finite noun clause. A finite noun clause is a noun clause that contains a finite, or conjugated, verb phrase functioning as a predicate. Finite verb phrases express person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural), and tense (present, past). For example, the following italicized noun clauses are finite:
- Where my daughter hid my keys remains a mystery.
- If you choose to attend college is an important decision.
- The instructor gave whoever got their papers in early extra credit.
- How rich I am should concern no one except me.
- I cannot recall when she and my uncle moved to the United States.
The finite, or conjugated, verbs in the noun clauses are hid (third, singular, past), choose (second, singular/plural, present), got (third, singular, past), am (first, singular, present), and moved (third, plural, past).
Nonfinite Noun Clauses
The second grammatical form of noun clauses is the nonfinite noun clause. A nonfinite noun clause is a noun clause that lacks a finite, or conjugated, verb phrase functioning as a predicate. Nonfinite verbs in English include base forms (verb), infinitives (to + verb), and present participles (verb-ing). For example, the following italicized noun clauses are nonfinite:
- Mom needs you to wash your hands1.
- For her to come to my party would be splendid.
- The teacher listened to him reciting the alphabet2.
- The neighbors heard you singing in the shower2.
- Grandma demands that Espen eat his vegetables3.
The nonfinite, or unconjugated, verbs in the noun clauses are to wash (infinitive), to come (infinitive), reciting (present participle), 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.
1 Some grammars consider constructions such as you to wash your hands as a direct object (you) followed by an object complement (to wash your hands). I disagree.
2 Some grammars consider constructions such as him reciting the alphabet as a noun phrase (pronoun him) followed by a modifier (reciting the alphabet). I again disagree.
3 Some grammars also consider the form of the noun clause in sentences like Grandma demands that Espen eat his vegetables a finite noun clause with a verb conjugated into the subjunctive mood.
Brinton, Laurel J. & Donna M. Brinton. 2010. The linguistic structure of Modern English, 2nd edn. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.