A noun clause is a type of subordinate clause (dependent clause) that acts as a noun in a sentence. Most of the time noun clauses begin with a relative pronoun like what or whatever. In this noun clause example, “I like who you are,” the noun clause “who you are” acts as a single noun, specifically the direct object for the verb like.
Noun clauses are considered advanced English because they can get a little confusing. So in this guide, we cover the rules for how to use noun clauses correctly. But first, let’s take a deeper look at the question, What is a noun clause?
What is a noun clause?
A noun clause gets its name because it is simply a clause that acts like a noun. A clause is any group of words that contains both a subject and a verb, but noun clauses are a specific type of clause called a subordinate clause.
Also known as dependent clauses, subordinate clauses cannot be used alone and need to join an independent clause. That means sentences with noun clauses will always have at least two verbs (because they will always have two clauses). Let’s look at a noun clause example:
Whoever wrote the graffiti needs grammar lessons.
This sentence has two clauses: an independent clause and a noun clause. The noun clause is the phrase “whoever wrote the graffiti”; this group of words work together as a single noun and include both a subject (whoever) and a verb (wrote).
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The noun clause “whoever wrote the graffiti” is also the subject of the independent clause. The verb of the independent clause is needs, and its direct object is grammar lessons.
Let’s say the noun clause represents someone named Cody. In other words, Cody wrote the graffiti. We could rewrite the first sentence as:
Cody needs grammar lessons.
Essentially, the noun clause “whoever wrote the graffiti” replaces the individual noun “Cody.” The noun clause acts just like the individual noun it represents but gives a little more detail by introducing a new verb into the sentence.
How to use noun clauses
Noun clauses can do anything a regular noun can do. This means they can act as a:
Noun clauses completely replace individual nouns in a sentence, no matter how long the noun clauses are or how many words they contain. For example, let’s look at a sentence without a noun clause.
My dog eats things.
The individual noun things is the direct object for eats. If we want to give more detail, we can replace the noun things with a more descriptive noun clause. Not only do noun clauses contain an extra verb for more details, they can also include other words like adverbs and prepositional phrases.
My dog eats whatever falls on the floor.
Notice how our new noun clause has its own subject (whatever) and verb (falls). These are different from the independent clause’s subject (my dog) and verb (eats). The noun clause also contains the additional prepositional phrase “on the floor,” which offers even more information. No matter how many words or phrases it contains, the noun clause still acts as only a single noun, replacing things.
What do noun clauses start with?
Noun clauses are fairly easy to recognize if you know what they start with. Noun clauses can begin with relative pronouns and certain subordinating conjunctions. Here’s a list of common words that begin noun clauses to help you identify them when reading or use them when writing.
Indefinite relative pronouns
Noun clause examples
1 Noun clause examples: Subject
The subject is the person or thing that does the main action in a sentence. The subject usually comes at the beginning of a sentence.
Whoever wins the race gets the trophy.
Whichever you pick is fine with me.
2 Noun clause examples: Direct object
The direct object is the noun that receives the action of transitive verbs.
I couldn’t see whether it was day or night.
The chess player didn’t know if they could win.
3 Noun clause examples: Indirect object
In sentences with transitive verbs, indirect objects receive the direct object. They typically come between the verb and the direct object.
She told whoever would listen her sad story.
Look for open teammates; don’t just pass whoever is closest the ball.
4 Noun clause examples: Prepositional object
Our suspect depends on who owns the murder weapon.
The people want to hear about why you’re running for congress.
5 Noun clause examples: Predicate nominative
Predicate nominatives are nouns that follow linking verbs like be or seem. Instead of describing an action like other verbs, linking verbs describe the subject—the action is simply existing.
Is this what you wanted?
His reason for being late was that his cat got sick.
Keep in mind the relative pronoun that is often optional and can be removed from a sentence. In the next example, it is still assumed but not stated.
His reason for being late was his cat got sick.
Noun clauses vs. relative clauses
Although both noun clauses and relative clauses can begin with relative pronouns, noun clauses function differently than relative clauses. A noun clause completely replaces an individual noun in a sentence. However, relative clauses don’t replace anything; they simply add new information. They modify nouns instead of taking their place.
[NOUN CLAUSE] Karen needs to speak with whoever runs the store.
[RELATIVE CLAUSE] Karen needs to speak with the person who runs the store.
In the first example above, the noun clause “whoever runs the store” acts as the object of the preposition with. But in the second example, “the person” is the object of the preposition with. The relative clause “who runs the store” is an adjective phrase that describes and modifies “the person” but does not replace it like a noun clause does.
Noun clause vs. noun phrase
Just like a noun clause, a noun phrase is also a group of words that work together as a single noun. The main difference between a noun clause and a noun phrase is noun clauses have verbs, but noun phrases do not. Noun clauses also usually start with relative pronouns, unlike noun phrases.
[NOUN CLAUSE] The gas station clerk told us how we can go from Main Street to the highway.
[NOUN PHRASE] The gas station clerk told us directions from Main Street to the highway.
In the noun clause example, “how we can go from Main Street to the highway” has a subject (we) and a verb (go), the necessary parts of a clause. The prepositional phrases “from Main Street” and “to the highway” act as adverbs that describe the verb go.
The noun phrase “directions from Main Street to the highway” does not have a verb. The prepositional phrases “from Main Street” and “to the highway” act as adjectives to describe the noun directions.
In both of these examples, the group of words work together as a single noun that is the direct object of told and explains what the gas station clerk said.
Noun clause FAQs
What is a noun clause?
A noun clause is a type of subordinate clause (dependent clause) that acts as a noun in a sentence. In the noun clause example, “I like who you are,” the noun clause “who you are” acts as a single noun, specifically the direct object of the verb like.
How do noun clauses work?
In noun clauses, the words all work together to replace a single noun. You can use noun clauses in all the same places you can use a normal noun: as the subject, direct object, indirect object, prepositional object, or predicate nominative.
What’s the difference between a noun clause and a noun phrase?
Both noun clauses and noun phrases are groups of words that work together as a single noun. The difference is that noun clauses contain a verb, but noun phrases do not. Noun clauses also usually start with a relative pronoun, whereas noun phrases do not.