A noun clause is a group of words that functions as a noun. Noun clauses are dependent clauses (or subordinate clauses), meaning that they contain a subject and verb but do not express a complete thought.
By themselves, noun clauses do not tell the whole story. To make sense, a noun clause must be paired with an independent clause, which can stand alone syntactically. They can also be used as part of an independent clause.
Noun clause examples Whoever is responsible for this mess will be punished.
Our reason for being late was that our car broke down.
You can choose what film we will watch.
The thief confessed that he stole the money.
Noun clause examples
Noun clauses can serve a wide variety of grammatical functions. They can serve as subjects, objects, appositives, and subject complements.
Noun clause as subjects
A noun clause can be the subject of a sentence (i.e., the thing performing an action or being described). Subjects generally come at the start of a sentence.
Noun clause as subject examples What you said yesterday was inspiring. How the world will look in 100 years is difficult to imagine. Whoever stole the car crashed it into a wall.
Noun clauses as objects
Noun clauses can act as objects of verbs in several ways. They can directly receive the action as direct objects.
Noun clause as direct object examples
The detective determined that the butler was the culprit.
The artist explained that her painting was inspired by a dream.
They can also serve as indirect objects, providing details about the recipient of the action.
Noun clause as indirect object examples
He offered whoever attended the event a discount.
Our nonprofit presented whichever volunteer worked the most hours an award.
A noun clause can also be the object of a preposition (e.g., “about,” “for,” “in”).
Noun clause as prepositional object examples
The children are dependent on what their parents decide.
I’m surprised by how quickly the years have passed.
They’re concerned about what the future holds for facial recognition technology.
Noun clause as subject complement
A predicate nominative is a type of subject complement that renames and clarifies the subject of a linking verb.
When a noun clause functions as a predicate nominative, it renames the subject of the sentence and provides additional information about it.
Noun clause as predicate nominative examples
My hope is that we can overcome our differences.
The question is who is responsible for the plan’s failure.
The committee’s dilemma was whether to prioritize economic or social issues.
Noun clause as appositive
A noun clause can function as an appositive, renaming another noun.
Noun clause as appositive example Her greatest regret, that she had never said goodbye to her grandfather, weighed heavily on her heart.”
In this sentence, the noun clause "that she had never said goodbye to her grandfather" is an appositive of the noun "regret." It reidentifies the regret, specifying the particular action she regretted not taking.
Noun clause vs relative clause
At a glance, noun clauses can look similar to relative clauses (or adjective clauses). Both types of clauses often begin with a relative pronoun. Likewise, both contain a subject and verb (as all clauses do). The difference is that relative clauses function as adjectives, rather than nouns.
In other words, a noun clause could completely replace another noun, as in the example below.
Noun clause example The wisest among us, those who invested at a young age, will retire early.
If the noun phrase “the wisest among us” were deleted, the noun clause could fulfill its role without ruining the structure of the sentence.
Relative clauses, however, cannot replace the nouns they modify.
Relative clause example I admire people who were smart enough to invest at a young age.
If the noun “people” were deleted, the relative clause could not replace it to form a grammatically complete sentence.
Noun clause vs noun phrase
Noun clauses and noun phrases are also superficially similar: they are both grammatical units that function as nouns in a sentence. However, they differ in both content and function.
While noun clauses include a subject and a verb (e.g., “I know that you tried”), noun phrases are relatively simple, containing a head noun and the descriptive words that surround it (e.g., “The big red book fell off the table”).
Noun phrases typically begin with a determiner (e.g., “this,” “some,” “the”), a noun, or a pronoun, whereas noun clauses usually start with a relative pronoun (e.g., “which,” “that,” “who") or subordinating conjunction (e.g., “if,” “whether”).
Noun clauses often (but not always) begin with relative pronouns (e.g., “which,” “that,” “who”) or subordinating conjunctions (e.g., “if,” “whether”).
A noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence (unlike a relative clause, which functions as an adjective), and it is the only type of noun that contains a verb.
How do noun clauses work?
Noun clauses essentially function as nouns, but they can serve various grammatical functions. Their roles include the following: subject, object, appositive, and subject complement (e.g., predicate nominative).