logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Nominal clauses and phrases

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.
(Both the links above open in a new tab so if you want to follow one or the other now, simply shut the page to return.)


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 five examples.
Click here when you have spotted the nominal clauses.

  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.
  6. To be, or not to be, that is the question


Characteristics of nominal clauses

There are some general characteristics of all nominal clauses:

  1. Nominal clauses are usually subordinate clauses dependent for their meaning on a main clause as in, e.g.:
        I don't think that she will be pleased
        I can't imagine why he said that
        Can you tell me when the train gets in?
        I don't like to ask too many questions
  2. 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 or pseudo-copular verb:
          My argument is that we need to go as soon as possible
          Her reasoning was what he couldn't understand

          That appeared to be what he was having trouble understanding
    • 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
  3. As the indirect object
    Most nominal clauses represent abstract phenomena such as events, states, ideas and so on so they cannot normally be the indirect object of a ditransitive verb.  The exception to this is a nominal relative clause which can be the indirect object so we allow, e.g.:
        Give whoever asks the same answer
        I gave who needed some a bit of food
        The teacher gave the children who behaved badly extra homework
    Nominal that-clauses cannot act as indirect objects but they do act as direct objects of ditransitive verbs.  We allow, therefore:
        I told him that we would be late.
    The word that can be omitted, leaving a zero that-clause as in, e.g.:
        She said I was stupid
  4. Some nominal clauses can act as complements of prepositions (analysed as prepositional objects in some grammars):
        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 (or object) 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 nominal 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 (less formal)
    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 -ing 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 copular verb be.  We could also have, e.g.:
        For him to be so rude is not acceptable
  2. In, e.g.:
        I want 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.

Weak forms:

While this is not a hard rule, when the to-infinitive clause is the subject, the word to is usually pronounced in its full form (/tuː/ rather than /tə/) so the transcriptions of, e.g.:
    To be, or not to be
    I want to be there
are, respectively:


The problem with for

The use of clauses introduced with for has some unusual and non-intuitive restrictions.  They can be used in the following ways:

  1. 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
        For her to drive us all to the airport became the plan
        For me to be asked to do that pleased me a lot

  2. Clauses which form the subject of pseudo-copular and copular verbs also take for so we have:
        For him to be so overworked appeared unfair
        For her to meet the guests seemed the best plan

        For that to have happened is not very surprising
  3. This is also the case when the clause is the complement of the colourless copular verb be so we get, e.g.:
        The best arrangement was for her to meet the guests at the door
        The proposal was for him to do the work alone
  4. Clauses which form the complement of adjectives can also take the for construction so we see:
        I am unhappy for him to do all the work alone
        It is possible for her to take us to the airport


  1. Other copular verbs apart from be do not work with the for clause as the complement, so we cannot allow:
        *The plan became for her to meet the guests at the door
        *The proposal seemed for him to do the work alone
  2. When the clause is the object of the verb, inserting for is also 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 of the sort exemplified above.

Weak forms:

While this is not a hard rule, when the for-clause is the subject, it is usually pronounced in its full form (/fɔː/ rather than /fə/) so the transcriptions of, e.g.:
    For her not to come is mysterious
    I'm happy for it to be done later
are, respectively:


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?
        whether this is the right room
        who(m) 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 worries me
  3. Adjective complements as in:
        He was unsure where he was
  4. Prepositional complements as in:
        I asked them about what would happen next
  5. In apposition to nouns as in:
        His question, who would do the work, remained unanswered

Properly handled, nominalised wh-clauses are a useful way to encapsulate information.  However, taken too far, nominalisation of wh-clauses results in clumsy and impenetrable language and that is one reason they are disparaged by those who campaign for clear English.  Here's a real example of this clumsiness in action:

How you must inform us of your decision to receive future notices and disclosure in paper format and withdraw your consent to receive notices and disclosures electronically is described below.

That is a 27-word nominalised clause acting as the patient of a very simple passive expression of three words.  Making the sentence active only means that the nominalisation becomes the object of the verb describe which would have been preferable but still hard to unpack and clumsy.  Even better would have been a decision by the writer to go back to the drawing board and construct something clear.

Wh-clauses often suggest, naturally, some level of uncertainty in the speaker (hence their association with question forms).  For this reason, they occur semantically with expressions of uncertainty where sureness in the speaker would normally demand a that-clause (see below).  We get, therefore, e.g.:
    I am certain (that) he is driving
    I'm not sure who will drive
Uncertainty is also expressed via whether and if clauses as in, e.g.:
    I don't know whether I can be there on time
    She's unsure if she can finish the work
See below for a little more.

An oddity in English which is not parallelled in all languages is that all wh-words except why can be followed by the to-infinitive so, we allow:
    I want to know where to go
    He told me how to start the engine
    They explained what to do
    I didn't know whether to laugh or cry
    She said when to come
    I don't know who to ask

but not
    *I don't understand why to start so early
Simply alerting learners to this restriction can help considerably because it is not parallelled in many languages.


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

Here's a summary:

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.



This rather odd expression refers to the habit in English of reducing wh-clauses to the single wh-word or a short wh-phrase.  For example:
    I heard someone singing that song but I don't know who
in which was singing that song has simply been ellipted for brevity.
This happens with many wh-clauses and other examples are:
    They told us to expect some deliveries but didn't say what
    They were obviously arguing but I don't know what about
    They said they couldn't come but not why
    Mary telephoned but I don't know from where

The preposition itself is frequently ellipted along with the rest of the clause in such formulations and that gives us, e.g.:
    She was looking at something but I don't know what
Ellipting the preposition is a rare event in other languages and when it is done in English, the result is often some difficulty for learners in comprehending what is meant.


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
    However, there is a complication:
    When the reporting verb expresses both how the statement is made as well as what was said, that is usually included so we prefer:
        She whispered that the chairman looked very tired
        She loudly insisted that the weather made no difference

        She whispered the chairman looked very tired
        She loudly insisted the weather made no difference
    The guide to reported or indirect speech, linked below has a fuller discussion of this distinction between bridge and non-bridge verbs.
  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 argued over 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

Weak forms:

While this is not a hard rule, when the that-clause is the subject or acting in apposition to the subject, it is usually pronounced in its full form (/ðæt/ rather than /ðət/) so the transcriptions of, e.g.:
    I'm sure that he'll be late
    That he'll be late is certain

are, respectively:


Nominal relative clauses

There is a separate guide to relative pronoun clauses on this site and one to relative adverb clauses (because the two types function quite differently).
Nominal relative clauses, by their nature, often start with wh-words and they can act as:

  1. Objects:
    1. Direct:
          I went to talk to who did the work
          I congratulate whoever made this
    2. Indirect:
      We noted above that because most nominal clauses are abstract, usually only a relative nominal clause can be the indirect object of a verb:
          I told whoever asked me that I wasn't coming
          The snow caused whoever needed to travel serious problems

      When relative clauses are the objects of verbs the -ever formulation is very common.  In fact, whoever has now become the most frequent form and who sounds very stilted to many people.
      Routinely, a nominalised relative clause is replaced by a different formulation, using a 'normal' relative clause such as:
          I told anyone who asked me that I wasn't coming
          The snow caused people who needed to travel serious problems
  2. Subjects:
        What you are asking for is too much
        When the train will arrive is a mystery
        Who said that is wrong
    Even in subject roles, the use of whoever is now common and many would prefer:
        Whoever said that is wrong
  3. Complements:
    1. Subject complements:
          This is the office where most of the work is done
    2. Object complements:
          Make of him what you like
  4. In apposition:
        Give me the platform number, i.e., where I should meet you


Phrasal nominalisation

at the end is where his house is  

So far, this guide has only considered clauses, whether finite, non-finite, subordinated or relative, as the topics of nominalisation but, to complete the picture, we can turn to the nominalisation of phrases which do not contain verbs and therefore are not clauses in their own right.
In this part, we are not considering the ways in which adjectives, verbs and other word classes can be nominalised by altering their structure as in, for example, changing the verb analyse to the noun analysis or changing young to youth because that mostly concerns the process of word formation.  Here we are considering these four phrase classes which can be converted to nouns (i.e., nominalised) in terms of their syntactical relationships.

  1. Nominalised adjective phrases:
    The process of forming a noun phrase from an adjective phrase results in a nominal adjective or adjective phrase so we get, for example:
        This is work only for young, fit people
    changed and nominalised to:
        Only the young and fit do this work
  2. Nominalised prepositional phrases:
    This is quite rare but an example is given above.  Other examples are:
        In the house is not a good place for these animals
        Under the table seems to be where he dropped it

    and so on.
    When prepositional phrases are nominalised like this, they are usually followed by a copular or pseudo-copular verb.
  3. Nominalised adverb phrases:
    These are even rarer but examples are:
        Keenly and deeply is how I would describe how he felt
        Honestly and forthrightly appears to be the best way to answer that question
    Again, when adverb phrases are nominalised like this, they are usually followed by a copular or pseudo-copular verb.
    Adverbs can also be nominalised in the sense that they can form the complement or object, if you prefer, of a limited range of prepositions and that is a role normally reserved for noun phrases.  We find, for example:
        She was here until recently
        Up until then, she didn't know
  4. Nominalised determiner phrases:
    Aside from using pronouns derived from determiners, very occasionally a determiner phrase may be nominalised in its own right as in, for example:
        He asked me which I wanted and I opted for each and every

Phrasal nominalisation, rather than pre- and post-modified noun phrases and verb phrases (which were considered above) is a reasonably rare event in English but it occurs.


Shell nouns: another source of nominalisation

This guide is about clauses but there is a trick in most languages through which entire texts and sets of propositions can be effectively nominalised through the use of shell nouns.
These are discussed at a greater level of detail in the guide to them, linked below, so here we will just cite more or less what is said in the guide to nouns in general to give you a flavour of how they operate to nominalise propositions.
Briefly, what shell nouns do is to encapsulate ideas in a way that makes the noun itself the shell for a set of propositions.  For example in:

The problem is that too many vehicles use the new bypass causing congestion at peak times so the aim is to limit the traffic by improving and extending alternative routes through the suburbs.

we have two shell nouns, problem and aim which respectively encapsulate the propositions of identifying an issue and seeking a solution.
what can then be done, to simplify the discourse and maintain good cohesion is to make reference simply to the shell noun (using pronouns such as it, that, this etc.) rather than making the reader hunt for what the pronouns might be references to.  The shell noun referent then serves to encapsulate the whole set of propositions, not just one of them.
The shell noun is usually followed by the proposition that it encapsulates linked either with a that-clause (problem) or just a simple copula such as be (aim).
Shell nouns fall into recognisable categories (after Schmid, 2018) like this:

  1. Factual
    Factual shell nouns include, e.g., fact, phenomenon, reason, result, proof, sign, difference, similarity, aspect, part, problem, advantage, drawback and so on into which clauses or very much longer stretches of text are conceptualised.
  2. Mental
    Mental shell nouns include, e.g., idea, theory, mystery, belief, knowledge, view, illusion, doubt, question, disbelief, aim, plan, solution, regret, delight, fear, worry etc.
  3. Modal
    Modal shell nouns express most kinds of modality:
    Epistemic (related to truth): possibility, danger, truth, reality
    Deontic (related to duty): permission, mission, need
    Dynamic (related to ability and willingness): ability, capacity, opportunity
    If the terms for modality do not seem familiar and you want to know more, try the guide to types of modality, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
  4. Eventive
    These shell nouns include: event, act, situation, attempt, effort, struggle, priority, trouble, problem, success, mistake, situation, context, position, place, time, way, procedure, provision etc.

The use of shell nouns is particularly common in some kinds of academic texts in which the author is concerned to set up a series of propositions under an overall heading of, e.g., reason, problem, theory, outcome, necessity and so on.
If you would like a list of potential shell nouns, click here.


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.

For some ideas concerning dealing with shell nouns in the classroom, see the guide, linked below.

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 questions
reported or indirect speech for the guide which considers that clauses and much else
tenses in dependent clauses for a guide to a closely related area
clauses for a guide to the fundamentals of clause analysis
verb types and clause structures for a guide to clause structures
shell nouns this is a guide to this form of nominalisation particularly but not solely relevant to English for Business and Academic Purposes
catenative verbs for more about the distinction between -ing forms and gerunds proper
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

Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English, Harlow: Longman
Schmid, H-J, 2018, Shell Nouns in English: a personal roundup, Caplletra 64 (Primavera, 2018), pp. 109-128. ISSN 0214-8188, ISSN versió electrònica 2386-7159