Public Works and Government Services Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional Links

 
Search TERMIUM Plus®
To begin your search, go to the alphabetical index below and click on the first letter of the word you are searching for.

noun clause

A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb. Some clauses are independent: they can stand alone as sentences. Others are dependent: they cannot stand alone and need an independent clause, or sentence, to support them. These dependent clauses act as adjectives, adverbs or nouns.

A dependent clause that acts as a noun is called a noun clause.

Structure

Noun clauses most often begin with the subordinating conjunction that.

Other words that may begin a noun clause are if, how, what, whatever, when, where, whether, which, who, whoever, whom and why.

Function

Since a noun clause acts as a noun, it can do anything that a noun can do. A noun clause can be a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, an object of a preposition, a subject complement, an object complement or an appositive.

Examples

  • Subject:
    • Whatever you decide is fine with me.
  • Direct object:
    • I can see by your bouncy personality that you’d enjoy bungee jumping.
  • Indirect object:
    • We will give whoever drops by a free Yogalates lesson.
  • Object of preposition:
    • Lacey talked at length about how she had won the perogy-eating contest.
  • Subject complement:
    • The problem is that my GPS is lost.
  • Object complement:
    • Call me whatever names you like; you’re still not borrowing my car.
  • Appositive:
    • Al’s assumption that bubble tea was carbonated turned out to be false.

A key difference between noun clauses and other dependent clauses

Other dependent clauses act as adjectives and adverbs. We can remove them and still have a complete independent clause left, with a subject and verb and any necessary complements.

That is not the case with most noun clauses. Usually, a noun clause is too essential to the sentence to be removed. Consider these examples:

  • Whether you drive or fly is up to you.
  • I wondered if you would like to go to the barbecue.
  • Sandy led us to where she had last seen the canoe.

If we remove these noun clauses, what is left will not make much sense:

  • ... is up to you.
  • I wondered ....
  • Sandy led us to ....

That is because, in each example above, the noun clause forms a key part of the independent clause: it acts as the subject, the direct object, the object of a preposition. Without those key parts, the independent clauses do not express complete thoughts.

A sentence containing a noun clause is thus the one case in which an "independent" clause may actually need a dependent clause to be complete!

Commas

Noun clauses may need to be set off by one or two commas in the following situations.

1. Appositives

An appositive is a noun or nominal (a word or word group acting as a noun) that is placed next to another noun to explain it. For example, in the following sentence, the noun phrase the mayor of Riverton is an appositive explaining who John Allen is:

  • John Allen, the mayor of Riverton, is speaking tonight.

Noun clauses are nominals and can act as appositives. In that case, they may require commas if they are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

  • I did not believe his original statement, that he had won the lottery, until he proved it to us.

Here, the words his original statement identify which statement is meant, so the noun clause provides information that is merely additional and not essential. For that reason, the clause is set off with commas.

Compare that example to the one below:

  • I did not believe his statement that he had won the lottery until he proved it to us.

In this case, the noun clause is essential for identifying which statement is meant. It therefore takes no commas.

2. Unusual position

If the noun clause is in an unusual position, it may require a comma:

  • That the work was done, we cannot deny. (object before verb)
    BUT
    That the work was done is certainly true. (subject before verb, as usual)
  • Whatever I say, she argues with. (object before its preposition)
    BUT
    Whatever I say seems to annoy her. (subject before verb, as usual)

3. Clarity

As the above examples show, we do not normally use a comma for a noun clause acting as subject at the beginning of the sentence, because that is the usual position for a subject. However, a comma may sometimes be needed to prevent confusion if two identical verbs end up side by side:

  • Who the owner of this money is, is a mystery.
  • Whatever property Alexandra still had, had increased greatly in value.