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Concourse 2

Nominal clauses

Do you know when the next train is due?

The second clause in the sentence above is a nominal clause.  It acts, in this case, as the object of the verb know.  If you are unsure about the nature of clausal analysis, there is a guide on this site.

The usual way to analyse this question for learners is to refer to it as an indirect question (to which there is also a guide on this site) but there is an alternative view and that is what we are concerned with here.


What is a nominal clause?

Simply put, a nominal clause is a clause functioning grammatically as a noun.
There are a number of different sorts of these and we are concerned with five of them here.

As a first mini-task, spot the clause which is acting as a noun in the following:

  1. I don't think stealing in order to eat is wrong.
  2. What you need to do is open the tap fully.
  3. I want to come to the wedding.
  4. I didn't see whoever did the damage.
  5. I told him he was wrong.

Click here when you have spotted the nominal clauses.


Characteristics of nominal clauses

There are some general characteristics of all nominal clauses:

  1. As we saw above with the initial examples, nominal clauses can act in place of noun phrases in many circumstances.  So we have, for example:
    • nominal clauses as the subject of the copular verb:
          What you asked for is too expensive
          Asking for more will not be welcomed
    • nominal clauses as the complement of a copular verb:
          My argument is that we need to go as soon as possible
          Her reasoning was what he couldn't understand
    • nominal clauses in apposition to the subject noun phrase:
          Your request, that the matter be overlooked, has been granted
          The problem, who to invite, remains
    • nominal clauses acting as the subject of the verb:
          That she was ignored angered her
          What you did appalled me
    • nominal clauses operating as the direct object:
          I accept that she has been badly treated
          I dislike what she has proposed
    • nominal clauses as the complement of an adjective:
          I'm glad that she arrived
          I'm not sure what you want
          She's unhappy driving so far at night
          I am delighted to see you looking so much better
  2. Most nominal clauses cannot usually operate as indirect objects but a nominal relative clause can do so so we allow, e.g.:
        Give whoever asks the same answer
  3. Some nominal clauses can act as complements of prepositions:
        From what he told her, she assumed I was coming
        They talked about who to invite
        They argued over spending all that money on a new garage

        She was disappoint by what he had to say
        They travelled without buying a ticket
    But that-clauses and to-infinitive clauses cannot do this so, e.g.:
        *We were surprised by that he had lived in Spain
        *They travelled without to buy a ticket
    are not allowed (but may be in other languages).


Nominal -ing clauses

Eating too many chips is bad for you  

Traditionally, teachers have told learners that this is something called a gerund and, indeed, there are times when that explanation will do.  For example, in clauses such as:

  1. I enjoy fishing
  2. Fishing is a relaxing hobby
  3. His favourite hobby is fishing
  4. I'm tired of fishing
  5. His hobby, fishing, takes up all his time

In sentence 1: the verb clause is acting as the object of enjoy.
In sentence 2: the verb clause is acting as the subject of the copular verb be.
In sentence 3: the verb clause is the complement of the copular verb be.
In sentence 4: the verb clause is the complement of the preposition of.
In sentence 5: the verb clause is operating in apposition to the noun phrase his hobby.

In all five instances, the -ing clause can be replaced by a simple noun, e.g., football.  Traditionally, therefore, we can call them gerunds.

However, the situation is complicated by a number of factors.

  1. The -ing clause can also act as the complement of an adjective phrase as in, e.g.:
        She and her colleagues were extremely busy preparing the presentation.
    and it is difficult there to see how a simple noun can be substituted for the -ing clause.  We can't have, e.g.,
        *She and her colleagues were extremely busy preparation of the presentation.
    It is, therefore, a participial clause rather than a gerund.
  2. The use of the genitive or the object case.  For example, we can have both:
        She was surprised by my getting so angry
        She was surprised by me getting so angry (informal)
    In the first case, we can replace the verb with a simple noun:
        She was surprised by my anger
    but in the second case, we can't:
        *She was surprised by me anger
    so the verb is not acting purely as a noun in that case.  To call it one is misleading.
    When the subject of the sentence is inanimate, the case becomes even clearer:
    We can have:
        Her having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
        Mary's having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
        She having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
        Mary having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
        The computer having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
    but, we can't have
        *The computer's having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
        *Its having done the calculation, we assumed it was OK
    Again, in the last two examples, the -ing clause is clearly not acting as a noun.  It is not, in other words, a gerund at all.

The safest option is probably to call this construction a nominal participle clause and leave it at that, without confusing our students (or ourselves) too much.


Nominal bare infinitive clauses

The first thing he did was have breakfast  

This is a minor form of nominal clause but it is not allowable in many languages and causes some difficulty in both production and reception.
In the example above, there are two noun clauses connected by the copular verb be.  The function of the clause is to provide more data about the verb do.  That is how these types of clause always appear.
As far as teaching the form is concerned, the first thing that needs to be noticed by learners is that the to-infinitive can also be used in the construction so we can have, for example:
    The first thing he did was (to) have breakfast
    The next thing he did was (to) drive to work

    What we need to do is (to) go shopping
and so on.
However, the second issue is that when the clause functions as the subject, we must omit the to:
    Have breakfast is what I'll do first
is acceptable, if a little unusual, but:
    *To have lunch is what I'll do later
is not.


Nominal to-infinitive clauses

For a bridge to collapse like that is unbelievable (Leech et al, 1972:739)

These are much more common and cause much more serious problems for learners, especially concerning the role of the function word for.

Nominal to-infinitive clauses can perform a number of grammatical functions.

  1. In the example above, the clause is acting as a subject of the verb be.
  2. In, e.g.:
        I want you to come early
    The clause acts as the object of want.
  3. In e.g.:
        To be bilingual is to have a great advantage in life
    We have two to-infinitive clauses, one acting as the subject of the verb be and the other as its complement.
  4. In, e.g.:
        Her hope, to come in first place, was realised
    The clause is functioning in apposition to the noun phrase her hope.
  5. In e.g.:
        I will be happy to help with the arrangements
    The clause is acting as the complement of the adjective happy.

the issue with for

When the clause acts as the subject, the function word for frequently introduces it, as in, e.g.:
    For him to be so dim surprised me
    The plan developed for her to drive us all to the airport
    For me to be asked to do that is to ask too much

However, when the clause is the object of the verb, inserting for is actually wrong so we can't have:
    *They want for her to drive them to the airport
    *They asked for me to do that

For speakers of many languages, even those which allow infinitive clauses to act in this way, this is deeply confusing and leads to consistent error.


Nominal wh-clauses

They told me how to get there  

These kinds of clauses are extremely common.  As was noted at the beginning, they are commonly taught as indirect question forms such as:
    Can you tell me ...
        where the stations is?
        what time the bus leaves?
        when the train goes?
        how to get to Margate?
        who to ask for directions?

However, they do not only occur as objects in indirect questions.  They can also be:

  1. Objects in affirmative statement as in the example above:
        They told me how to get there
  2. Subjects as in:
        Where it is all going to end up is the question
  3. Adjective complements as in:
        He was unsure where he was
  4. Prepositional complements as in:
        I asked them about where the party was
  5. In apposition to nouns as in:
        His question, who would do the work, remained unanswered

yes-no nominal clauses

Do you know if you'll be late? Do you know whether it'll be there?

These operate in similar ways and can be seen as a sub-set of wh-clauses.
They are formed in the same way as wh-clauses but, instead of the wh-word, we use if or whether.  For example:
    Do you know if the train is on time?
    Can you tell me
whether this is the right bus stop?
    It doesn't matter
whether we are late or not.
These clauses are almost always the objects of verbs although it is possible to see them functioning in other ways, grammatically, such as:
    Whether he will be late is the question (subject)
    I am surprised if you believe that (adjective complement)
    She thought over whether she should go (prepositional complement)

There are complications to consider, which cause quite serious difficulties for learners:

  1. Both if and whether can be combined with or to form alternative statements such as:
        I can't see whether / if his help will make any difference or not.
        I matters whether / if she comes or not
  2. In alternative statements, if cannot be followed directly by or not but whether can be used this way so we can have:
        She doesn't know whether or not she can come
    and we can have:
        She doesn't know if she can come or not
    but we cannot have
        *She doesn't know if or not she can come
  3. In other (non-alternative) statements we can make a negative with if but we can't do this with whether so we can have
        It is not important if you don't come at 6
    but we can't have:
        *It is not important whether you don't come at 6
  4. We can use whether in a clause acting as the subject but we cannot use if in this way so we can have:
        Whether she comes or not is quite important
    but we cannot have
        *If she comes or not is quite important
  5. Only whether can function in a prepositional complement clause so we can have:
        They spoke about whether they could do the work
    but not:
        *They spoke about if they could do the work

If wh-clauses are taught following this kind of analysis then indirect wh-questions, yes-no indirect questions and reported questions such as:
    Could you let me know when he arrives?
    Can you tell me if / whether he is coming?
    She asked me where the hospital was
follow naturally.


Nominal that-clauses

He told him that it would happen  

These are as common as wh-clauses and share many characteristics and functions with them.
They are similar to wh-clauses in that they can act as:

  1. The subject:
        That he will be late
    is certain
  2. The object:
        She assumed that he would arrive
  3. The complement of the copular verb:
        It appeared that he was late
  4. In apposition to another noun:
        Her assumption, that he would be late, proved right
  5. As an adjectival complement:
        She was certain that he would be late

But there are some differences and complications.

  1. When a that-clause is the object, we usually omit the word that and make it a zero-that clause.  For example:
        She told me (that) I was too early
        He said (that) I was dead right

    But, when the clause is the subject, we must include that as in:
        That she was right was recognised immediately
    but not:
        *She was right was recognised immediately
  2. These clauses cannot act as the complement of a preposition so while we can have, e.g.:
        He talked about having the work done
        They talked over what to do
        He was astonished by what came next
    we cannot have:
        *He talked about that he will have the work done
        *They talked about that they had to do
        *He was astonished by that it came next
    In many languages, this restriction in use does not apply and that leads to a good deal of error.
  3. The longer a clause is, the more likely we are to include that or the listener / reader can get lost looking for the clause.  For example:
        I hoped he would come
    is fully acceptable with or without that but
        I hoped, without much optimism based on his previous track record, he would come
    is technically correct but difficult to follow and most native speakers would insert that to make:
        I hoped, without much optimism based on his previous track record, that he would come


Teaching nominal clauses

You cannot plan to teach everything about nominal clauses in a lesson or even a series of lessons but you can take each type at a time and plan a series of lessons to cover them.
Much will depend on the level of the learners and the amount of detail they can cope with.
Here are a few suggestions:

Whatever you do and whatever you teach, be aware that this is a complicated area that needs careful handling.
Many of your learners' languages will not have parallel nominal clause structures at all and, even if they do allow the use of clauses in the place of nouns, their languages will almost certainly work differently.
What is forbidden in English may be allowed in their languages and vice versa.

There's a short test on this.

Related guides
wh- questions for a guide to a related area
indirect questions for a guide to using nominalised clauses in polite questions
tenses in dependent clauses for a guide to a closely related area
clauses for a guide to the fundamentals of clause analysis
verb and clause types for a more technical guide to clause structures
relative pronoun clauses for a guide which considers how these clauses work
relative adverb clauses for a guide which also considers how wh-clauses can be nominalised

The above draws heavily, but not exclusively, on
Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman