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Direct Object Noun Clauses

I like to begin with direct object noun clauses because they're a form that is often familiar to high-intermediate students even if they never learned what it is. In fact, the previous sentence ends with a direct object noun clause. Let's look at some other examples...

     I don't know what Tom is eating.

Notice that the noun clause what Tom is eating has a subject (Tom) and a verb (is eating), so it's definitely a clause. It also begins with a noun clause subordinator, which is an indication that it's a noun clause, but how can we know for sure?

If we remember that noun clauses do what nouns do, we can apply our direct object test to determine if the clause is in fact serving as a direct object in this sentence.

For example: What don't I know?

The answer to this question will be the direct object, and in this case, the answer (and thus the D.O.) is what Tom is eating. At this point, we can safely conclude that this is a noun clause because it is doing one of the jobs of a noun.

Special issues to consider:

  • What and Who can be the subjects of a noun clause
   For example:
  1.     Jessica knows who ate a bug . (It was Tom.)
  2.     Tom doesn't remember what happened after dinner.

  • When, Whether, and If are also adverb clause subordinators
   For example:  Tom eats when he gets home from school.

Is the clause in the example above a noun clause or an adverb clause? There are two tests we can use to find out...
  1. The direct object test:
   For example:   What does Tom eat?

when he gets home from school is not the correct answer to the direct object question, and since the answer to this question will be the direct object, it becomes pretty clear that this clause isn't a direct object, and thus, not a noun clause. So what kind of clause is it?
  1. The clause switch test:
   For example:  

   Tom eats when he gets home from school    ...can also be written as...

   When he gets home from school, Tom eats.

...without changing the meaning. The same cannot be said for a direct object noun clause.

   Tom knows when he eats dinner.    ...cannot be written as...

   When he eats dinner, Tom knows.

...without changing the meaning.

These same concepts can be applied to If and Whether clauses.

   For example:  Tom will come whether you invite him or not.   ...is an adverb clause because the position of the two clauses can be switched without changing the meaning of the sentence. On the other hand,...

     Tom doesn't know whether/if he will come to the party.   ...is a noun clause because the clauses cannot be switched, and it also passes the direct object question (What doesn't Tom know?).

Special note: Direct object noun clause sentences often use non-physical action verbs as the main verb in the big sentence. Such verbs are usually verbs of thinking (know, remember, understand…) or emotion (like, love, hate, feel…).

Let's continue our discussion with subject noun clauses.


page last modified: June 16, 2014

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