A new member of Jose Carillo English Forum who goes by the username Kal recently asked me this daunting grammar question: “What are the types of noun clauses and relative clauses and what are their functions, forms, and usages?”
I say daunting because to answer it adequately will need an extensive review of two of the most complicated grammar forms in English. In fact, the forms and usage of noun clauses and relative clauses have been the most-often asked and most lengthily discussed over the seven years that I’ve been moderating the Forum. To answer Kal’s question, what I’ll be attempting therefore is a consolidation and distillation of those running discussions.
Let’s begin the review by first defining what a noun clause is. A noun clause is a subordinate clause that functions within a sentence as a noun, whether as subject, direct or indirect object, or complement. It can’t stand alone as a complete thought because it’s typically preceded by a subordinating conjunction as a dependency marker. The subordinating conjunctions are, of course, “that” (it can be elided or omitted in certain cases); “if,” “whether,” the “wh”-words (“who,” “what,” “which,” and “where”), the “wh-ever” words (“whomever,” “whatever,” “whichever,” and “wherever”) and, in some sentence constructions, “for.”
Depending on the form of the verb they are using, noun clauses come in two general forms: the finite noun clause and the nonfinite noun clause.
A finite noun clause is a subordinate clause in which the operative verb is in its normal form—meaning that it’s inflected or marked for tense, person, and number. This is the case in the sentence “Some are unnerved that hundreds of suspects have been summarily killed in the ongoing campaign against illegal drugs.” Here, the noun clause “that hundreds of suspects have been summarily killed in the ongoing campaign against illegal drugs” is finite because the verb “have been summarily killed” is marked for tense (present perfect passive), person (third person), and number (plural).
In contrast, a nonfinite noun clause is a subordinate clause in which the operative verb is not inflected or not marked for tense, person, and number; instead, it takes the form of a verbal noun, which is a word or phrase that combines the properties of a verb with those of a noun. A nonfinite noun clause can take three forms, with the operative verb of the noun clause taking any of these three forms:
1. The operative verb is in the infinitive form (to + verb). This is the case in “The President wants the Philippines to have a more responsive Constitution.” Here, the noun clause “the Philippines to have a more responsive Constitution” works as the direct object of the verb “wants.” The object pronoun “the Philippines” of the sentence serves as the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
2. The operative verb is in the gerund form (the present participle that ends in “-ing”). This is the case in “With bated breath, they listened to the singer straining to hit a very high note.” Here, the noun clause “the singer straining to hit a very high note” works as the object of the preposition “to.” The object noun “the singer” of the sentence functions as the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
3. The operative verb is in the verb’s base form (the infinitive form without the “to”). This is the case in “Our general manager demands that we change the product specifications.” Here, the noun clause “that we change the product specifications” works as the direct object of the verb “demands” (in answer to the question, “Your professor demanded what?”). The object noun “we” of the sentence functions as the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
Next week, we’ll take up the eight functions that noun clauses can perform in a sentence.
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