A nominal clause, another kind of dependent clause, can fill noun positions in a sentence. Nominal clauses enable us to embed a clause within a larger sentence and use the sentence to make some observation or judgment about the nominal clause.
Let’s begin with these sentences, each of which has a transitive verb and a direct object:
I know Bill.
He knows Oshkosh.
She will know the answer. Now, let’s take this sentence:
The plane will leave on time.
We can make this sentence into a nominal clause to make a number of statements about the clause:
He knows that the plane will leave on time. She will know if the plane will leave on time.
Why the plane did not leave on time is beyond my comprehen- sion.
There are two kinds of nominal clauses, and we distinguish them here by the word that begins the clause.
These nominal clauses begin with the question words who, what, when, where, why, how and which. They can also begin with compound pronouns, the ones that begin with question words and end with ever (whoever, whomever, and whatever).
Let’s begin with a question: Who did it? We can embed that question within a declarative sentence, as a direct object. Here the nominal clause is underlined:
I know who did it.
We can also create direct objects with other clauses that begin with question words:
I learned what he did.
I discovered when he did it. I saw where he did it.
I will ask why he did it.
I will show you how he did it.
Notice that most of these nominal clauses are not worded like questions by our usual standards: They don’t have the normal word order of questions.
The compound pronouns—whoever, whomever, and whatever— can also begin nominal clauses:
We will use whatever we find.
We will hire whoever applies for this job.
FILLING NOUN POSITIONS
As the examples above illustrate, nominal clauses appear where nouns can appear. They are often the direct objects of transitive verbs like know, see, and learn.
Nominal clauses can also be subjects:
Where these people went is not yet known.
Why they come here is a mystery.
Nominal clauses can be objects of a preposition:
The professor is writing a book about how people can improve their writing.
Mr. Chayle has time for whoever needs help and for what- ever happens.
They can be indirect objects:
You can give whoever applies the job.
And they can be predicate nominatives, following linking verbs: My question is who took my lunch?
NOMINALS WITH THAT, IF, OR WHETHER
The three words that, if, and whether (sometimes called nom- inalizers) can also make independent clauses into nominal claus- es that fill noun positions. Here are nominal clauses functioning as direct objects:
I wonder if she arrives today.
I learned that she arrives today.
I don’t know whether [or not] she will arrive today. He demanded that they serve him immediately.
We doubt if they will cooperate.
In the third example above, whether or not could be treated as a single nominalizing phrase. The sentences above demonstrate that these nominal clauses can be direct objects of the verbs know, see, and learn. They could also be objects of the verbs demand, ask, inquire, imagine, doubt, and others.
These verbs indicate an intellectual process that is being per- formed upon the idea in the nominal clause. More simply, we’re thinking about the idea of the nominal clause.
These clauses can perform almost every other function of a noun. They can be subjects:
That the sun is at the center of our solar system is beyond all question.
These clauses can also perform other nominal functions, in- cluding those of predicate nominatives or objects of prepositions:
The main complaint about the car was that it was too expensive. We know nothing about him except that he arrived yesterday.
We often omit the that nominalizer:
The main complaint about the car was [that] it was too expensive.
We know nothing about him except [that] he arrived yesterday.
But we can’t omit if or whether: We asked if they are ready.
We wondered whether they were ready.
In the exercises in this chapter, nominalized clauses will always make that explicit.
POINTS FOR WRITERS
Compare these sentences:
I know that he will attend the ceremony. I know he will attend the ceremony.
We showed them that they were wrong. We showed them they were wrong.
In the first pair, the version without that is more conversational, more direct, and stronger. That’s how we read it, anyway.
In the second pair, omitting that eliminates the clumsy series of three words beginning with th-. That’s an especially helpful change if the text is to be read aloud.
Eliminating that would also help this sentence: We should tell them that that music is too loud.
You can see that that that before that music is so repetitive that that that should be deleted. And that’s that.