How many kinds of noun clauses are there in English?
A Russian member of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Ivan Ivanov asked me this question recently, observing that as far as he knew, there are only two main kinds of noun clauses, namely “that”-clauses and “wh”-clauses.
I explained to Ivan that noun clauses being such a complicated aspect of grammar, it would be tough to give a meaningful answer to his question unless it’s clearly understood what a noun clause is to begin with.
By definition, a noun clause is a dependent or subordinate clause that functions as a noun within a sentence, whether as subject, direct or indirect object, or complement. A noun clause can’t stand alone as a complete thought because it is typically preceded by any of these subordinating conjunctions as dependency marker: “that,” “if,” “whether,” the “wh”-words (“who,” “what,” “which,” “where”), the “wh-ever” words (“whomever,” “whatever,” “whichever,” “wherever”) and, more rarely, by “for.”
The above definition and particulars of the noun clause should immediately dispel the notion that it’s only of two kinds; indeed, it’s too limiting—even misleading—to say that a noun clause can only be either a “that”-clause or a “wh”-clause. To get to know how many kinds of noun clauses there really are, it must first be clearly recognized that they are of two general forms and that they can perform as many as eight possible functions in a sentence.
Depending on the form of the verb in the clause, a noun clause can either be a finite noun clause or a 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 “We are disappointed that the witness refuses to answer our questions.” Here, the noun clause “that the witness refuses to answer our questions” is finite because the verb “refuses” is marked for tense (present), person (third), and number (singular). As I will discuss later, the most common kinds of noun clauses are the finite noun clauses, which are marked by the subordinating conjunctions that were enumerated earlier.
In contrast, a nonfinite noun clause is a subordinate clause in which the operative verb is not inflected or marked for tense, person, and number. It has three forms, with the operative verb of the noun clause taking the infinitive form, the gerund form, or its base form, as follows:
1. The operative verb is in the infinitive form (to + verb). This is the case in the sentence “The general manager wants you to submit the sales report now.” Here, the noun clause “you to submit the sales report now” works as the direct object of the verb “wants.” The object pronoun “you” of the sentence serves as the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
2. The operative verb is in the gerund form (the present participle form that ends in “-ing”). This is the case in “They all listened to me playing the piano.” Here, the noun clause “me playing the piano” works as the object of the preposition “to.” The object pronoun “me” of the sentence is the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
3. The operative verb is in the verb’s base form (the infinitive form minus the “to”). This is the case in “My professor demands that I revise my dissertation.” Here, the noun clause “that I revise my dissertation” is the direct object of the verb “demands” ((it answers the question, “Your professor demanded what?”). The object noun “I” of the sentence is the subject of the nonfinite noun clause.
Next week, we’ll look into the eight possible functions that noun clauses can perform in a sentence.
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