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Forming Noun Clauses from Questions

Forming Noun Clauses from Questions

Similar to nouns and noun phrases in grammatical function, noun clauses are dependent or subordinate clauses that perform nominal functions and that consist of a subordinating conjunction followed by a clause. Some grammars use the term nominal clause for noun clauses. Noun clause is a grammatical form.

Grammatical function distinguishes noun clauses from other subordinate clauses (adjective clauses and adverb clauses). The nine grammatical functions of noun clauses are:

  • Subject
  • Subject complement
  • Direct object
  • Object complement
  • Indirect object
  • Prepositional complement
  • Adjective phrase complement
  • Noun phrase complement
  • Appositive

The first and most common type of noun clause is the finite noun clause. Finite noun clauses contain a finite, or conjugated, verb phrase functioning as a predicate. The subordinating conjunctions in English that introduce finite noun clauses are that (which can be omitted in certain cases), if, whether, wh- words, wh-ever words, and sometimes for.

  • that
  • Ø
  • if
  • whether
  • who
  • whom
  • whoever
  • whomever
  • what
  • whatever
  • when
  • whenever
  • where
  • wherever
  • how
  • however
  • why
  • for

Another type of noun clause lacks an overt subordinating conjunction: nonfinite noun clauses. 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 more information on the grammatical form of noun clauses, see Grammatical Forms of English Noun Clauses.

Forming Noun Clauses from Questions

One way to analyze noun clauses is via formation from interrogative constructions (questions). Only finite noun clauses can be formed from questions. The only subordinating conjunctions that can introduce noun clauses formed from questions are if, whether, and wh- words. To form a noun clause from an interrogative construction, use the following syntax patterns.

1. If the interrogative construction begins with the copular verb be, un-invert the subject and the verb and insert either if or whether before the subject. For example:

Is he your uncle? → if/whether [is] he is your uncle
if he is your uncle
whether he is your uncle

Was your grandmother beautiful? → if/whether [was] your grandmother was beautiful
if your grandmother was beautiful
whether your grandmother was beautiful

2. If the interrogative construction begins with the do operator, simply replace the do operator with if or whether and conjugate the verb to agree with the number and person of the subject and tense of the do operator. For example:

Does his aunt wear purple lipstick? → if/whether [does] his aunt wears purple lipstick
if his aunt wears purple lipstick
whether his aunt wears purple lipstick

Did a rabbit destroy your spinach? → if/whether [did] a rabbit destroyed your spinach
if a rabbit destroyed your spinach
whether a rabbit destroyed your spinach

3. If the interrogative construction begins with an auxiliary verb other than the do operator, un-invert the subject and the verb and insert either if or whether before the subject. For example:

Will you wash the dishes? → if/whether [will] you will wash the dishes
if you will wash the dishes
whether you will wash the dishes

Had the delinquents been being punished? → if/whether [had] the delinquents had been being punished
if the delinquents had been being punished
whether the delinquents had been being punished

4. If the interrogative construction begins with a wh- question word and the copular verb be, un-invert the subject and the verb. For example:

Who was your second grade teacher? → who [was] your second grade teacher was
who your second grade teacher was

Why are you angry? → why [are] you are angry
why you are angry

5. If the interrogative construction begins with a wh- question word and contains a do operator, remove the do operator and conjugate the verb to agree with the number and person of the subject and tense of the do operator. For example:

What did she want to eat? → what [did] she wanted to eat
what she wanted to eat

To whom does the company send cards? → to whom [does] the company sends cards
to whom the company sends cards

6. If the interrogative construction begins with a wh- question word and begins with an auxiliary verb other than the do operator, un-invert the subject and the verb. For example:

Where are you flying? → where [are] you are flying
where you are flying

Which has she studied? → which [has] she has studied
which she has studied

7. If the wh- word functions as the subject of the interrogative construction, then the noun clause and interrogative construction are identical in form. For example:

Who stole the cookies? → who stole the cookies
who stole the cookies

What broke the window? → what broke the window
what broke the window

Using Noun Clauses from Questions

Noun clauses formed from interrogative constructions are used to embed questions into the grammatical structure of the main clause, most frequently as a direct object or prepositional complement. For example:

Ask your grandpa. + Does he read science fiction?
Ask your grandpa if he reads science fiction.

My professor clarified. + Who was the guest speaker?
My professor clarified who the guest speaker was.

His father asked her. + What was he thinking?
His father asked her what he was thinking.
His father asked her about what he was thinking.

Note that prescriptive grammar rules require that the verb tense of the noun clause parallels the verb tense of the main clause if the main clause contains the past tense. However, native English speakers sometimes use different tenses in the two clauses. For example:

The boss questioned me. + When will the shipment arrived?
The boss questioned me about when the shipment would arrive. (more formal)
The boss questioned me about when the shipment will arrive. (less formal)

The tense rule does not apply if the main clause contains the present tense. For example:

Do you know? + Where did she live last year?
Do you know where she lived last year?
*Do you know where she lives last year? (incorrect)

One way to form noun clauses in the English language is from interrogative constructions (questions). Using noun clauses formed from questions allows English speakers to combine a question with a statement, another question, or a command within a single sentence.

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