What Are Noun Clauses? (with Examples)

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Noun Clauses

A noun clause is a clause that plays the role of a noun. For example (noun clauses shaded):
  • I like what I see.
  • (Like all clauses, a noun clause has a subject and a verb. In this example, the subject of the clause is "I" and the verb is "see.")
  • I know that patience has its limits.
  • (In this example, the subject of the clause is "patience" and the verb is "has.")
Compare the two examples above to these:
  • I like innovation.
  • I know people.
The words in bold are all nouns. This proves that the shaded clauses in the first two examples are functioning as nouns.

noun clause

The Composition of a Noun Clause

Let's look quickly at the definition for "clause."
Definition of "Clause"

A clause has a subject and a verb and functions as one part of speech.

(It follows therefore that a noun clause functions as a noun in a sentence.)
Lots of noun clauses start with "that," "how," or a "wh"-word (i.e., "what," "who," "which," "when," "where," or "why"). For example:
  • I know that it happened.
  • I know how it happened.
  • I know why it happened.

How To Check If Your Clause Is Functioning As a Noun

A great way to check whether a phrase or clause is functioning as a noun is to have a go at replacing it with a pronoun. If you can, your phrase or clause is functioning as a noun.
  • What I say is true.
  • (Pronoun test: "It is true." This proves that "What I say" is functioning as a noun.)
  • Show me how they work.
  • (Pronoun test: "Show me them." This proves that "how they work" is functioning as a noun.)

Easy Examples of Noun Clauses

Here are some easy examples of noun clauses. In each example, the noun clause is shaded, the subject of the clause is bold, and the verb of the noun clause is underlined.
  • I know that the story is true.
  • I saw how the accident happened.
  • I understand why it was necessary.
  • I know who said that.
  • (Often, the opening word (i.e., "how," "that," or the "wh"-word) is the subject of the noun clause.)

The Function of Noun Clauses

Like any noun, a noun clause can be a subject, an object, or a complement. Here are some more easy examples of noun clauses as subjects, objects, and complements.
  • Whoever smelt it dealt it.
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject.)
  • My command is whatever you wish.
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)
  • I will give what you said some thought.
  • (Here, the noun clause is an indirect object. That's pretty rare.)

Real-Life Examples of Noun Clauses

Here are some real-life examples:
  • Light knows when you are looking at it. ("Light and space" artist James Turrell)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the direct object of the verb "knows.")
  • It is a light thing for whoever keeps his foot outside trouble to advise and counsel him that suffers. (Greek tragedian Aeschylus)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition ("for").)
  • My relationships are between me and whomever I'm with, not between me and the world. (Actress Lili Reinhart)
  • (Here, the noun clause is the object of a preposition ("with").)
  • Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it. (Playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  • (Here, the noun clause is a subject complement.)

More Examples of Noun Clauses

In a sentence, a noun clause will be a dependent clause. In other words, a noun clause does not stand alone as a complete thought.
  • Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he's buying. (Fran Lebowitz)
  • (This noun clause is the direct object of "ask.")
  • He knows all about art, but he doesn't know what he likes. (James Thurber, 1894-1961)
  • (This noun clause is the direct object of "know.")
  • It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man. (H L Mencken, 1880-1956)
  • (This noun clause is the direct object of "believe.")
  • I never know how much of what I say is true. (Bette Midler)
  • (This noun clause is an object of a preposition.)
  • Man is what he eats. (Ludwig Feuerbach)
  • (This noun clause is a subject complement.)
  • My one regret in life is that I am not someone else. (Woody Allen)
  • (This noun clause is a subject complement.)

Why Should I Care About Noun Clauses?

Native English speakers use noun clauses without too many snags. However, here are two issues related to noun clauses that occasionally arise.

(Issue 1) Using a noun clause starting with "That" as a subject grates on the ear.

From a grammatical perspective, it is perfectly acceptable to use a noun clause starting with "That" as the subject of a sentence. However, for many, it sounds too unnatural. Look at this example:
  • That he believes his own story is remarkable. (Jerome Blattner)
  • (Starting a sentence with a noun clause starting "That" is acceptable, but it grates on lots of people's ears. Many writers prefer ""The fact that...".)
If it grates on your ears, opt for "The fact that" instead of just "That." Bear in mind, however, that "The fact that" is considered by some to be a tautology (a needless repetition), meaning it has its own issue.

If you don't like "That" or "The fact that," then reword your sentence.
  • It is remarkable that he believes his own story.
  • (You might prefer a compromise like this one.)

(Issue 2) Choose the right version of "who" and "whom" at the start of a noun clause.

"Who" is the subject of a verb. "Whom" isn't. It's the same deal with "whoever" and "whomever."
  • My relationships are between me and whomever I'm with.
  • (Here, "whomever" is the object of the preposition "with.")
  • My relationships are between me and whoever is interested.
  • (Here, "whoever" is the subject of the verb "is." Note that the clause "whoever is interested" is the object of the preposition "between," but that doesn't mean that "whoever" becomes "whomever." If your "whoever" is the subject of a verb, then "whoever," not "whomever," is correct.)
If this made no sense to you whatsoever, just go with "who" or "whoever" every time. Firstly, they're more common, but, secondly, most grammarians agree that "whom" and "whomever" are on their last legs in English. They're going the same way as "hither" and "thither."
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is a clause? What are nouns? What are noun phrases? What is the subject of a sentence? What is an object? What is a complement? What is a direct object? What is the object of a preposition? What is an interrogative adverb? Glossary of grammatical terms