What Are Noun Clauses and Relative Clauses? Examples and exercises

Noun Clauses and Relative Clauses

A clause is a group of words that form a part of a longer sentence and has a subject and predicate of its own. Single-clause sentences are simple sentences.

Multi-clause sentences can be complex or compound sentences. Now, let us see what the clauses are. Let’s look at the following sentences:

1a . Everybody in the family went to the cinema but Mohan stayed at home.

This sentence means: Everybody in the family went to the cinema.
But Mohan stayed at home.

These two-part sentences of 1a are called clauses of that sentence. Here both the clauses are independent and can stay alone. So, the first one is the main clause and the second one is a coordinate main clause because it is joined to the main clause with the help of a coordinating conjunction: ‘but’. The same 1a can be rewritten as

1b. Mohan stayed at home but everybody else in the family went to the cinema.

Here the main clause is Mohan stayed at home.
The coordinate clause is But everybody else in the family went to the cinema.

Let’s study another form of the same sentence:

1c. Mohan stayed at home when everyone else was at the cinema.

In this sentence the main clause is also Mohan stayed at home.

But the other clause ‘when everyone else was at the cinema’ is not an independent clause. It cannot stay alone. It is a subordinate clause.

Subordinate clauses can be of three types. They are

  • Noun clauses
  • Relative or Adjective clauses
  • Adverb clauses

Let’s consider another sentence:

2a. He sealed and posted the letter.

This sentence has got two verbs: sealed and posted. So it has two clauses as given below.

The main clause is –He sealed (the letter).
The coordinate clause is –And (he) posted the letter.

Both the clauses are independent. Neither of them depends on the other, even though we cannot change the order of the verbs. Otherwise, we would get

2b. *He posted and sealed the letter.

This sentence is grammatically correct but the meaning is absurd.
If we change the sentence in the following manner, what do we get?

3a. After sealing the letter, he posted it.
3b. He posted the letter after sealing it.
3c. He posted the letter after he had sealed it.

Now, the sequence of events is fixed. Sealing the letter and posting the letter continued one after the other, in that order. There are two clauses in each sentence because there are two verbs. Do you find any difference between 2a and 3a? In 2a we get two independent clauses: one main clause and the other coordinate main clause. But in 3a, the main clause is ‘He posted the letter.’ What about the other?

In 3a and 3b after sealing the letter has a nonfinite verb sealing. So, it is a nonfinite clause. But in 3c, had carries the past tense and therefore it is a finite verb. So, after he had sealed it is a finite clause. In 3a-c the clauses beginning with after, whether finite or nonfinite, are subordinate clauses as they cannot remain alone. But the other clause he posted the letter is independent and can stay alone. Therefore it is the main clause.

Noun Clauses

Some subordinate clauses are called noun clauses because they work like nouns in the sentence. For example,study the following sentences:

1a. Ajay remembers that it was a Friday.[ that…Friday is a clause.]
1b. Ajay remembers the Independence Day of India.[the…India is a phrase.]
1c. Ajay remembers it. [It is a word, a pronoun.]

The italicised expressions are a clause, a phrase and a word in 1a,b and c respectively. All of them are objects of the verb remembers. A noun, a noun phrase or a noun clause can work in a sentence as one of the following:

  • The subject of the sentence
  • An object of a transitive verb in the sentence
  • A complement of a verb of incomplete predication
  • An object of a preposition
  • An expression in apposition to another noun or pronoun

Let’s see how noun clauses function in the following sentences:

2a. What he says is correct.
2b. That his father has come home is true.
2c. Whether he will stay here for more than a week depends on a lot of things.

In these sentences, the italicised expressions are noun clauses working as the subjects of the sentences.

3a. Radha said (that) she was happy.
3b. I asked Radha how she felt.
3c. Tell me if Radha would go there.

In these sentences, the italicised expressions are noun clauses working as the objects of transitive verbs. In 3b and 3c the transitive verbs need two objects each: the noun clause and Radha/me.

4a. The difficulty was how we would arrange the fund.
4b. The problem is (that) we do not have any money.

In these sentences, the italicised expressions are noun clauses working as the complements of the verbs of incomplete predication. To verify this, try putting a full stop before the noun clause. (*The difficulty was. Is it a sentence ?)

5a. You should pay attention to what I say.
5b. There is no meaning in what you say.
5c. I have no objection to whatever you say.

In these sentences, the italicised expressions are noun clauses working as the objects of prepositions.

6a.The news that his father has come is true.
6b. It is true that his father has come.
6c.It is a pity that his father does not come home more often.

In 6a, the italicised expression is a noun clause in apposition to the noun phrase the news. In 6b and 6c, the italicised expressions are in apposition to the subject it even though they come after the complements. (True is an adjective and pity is a noun – but both are complements of is, a verb of incomplete predication.)

From these examples (1 – 6) we see that a noun clause works in the sentence as a noun and it usually begins with a wh-word, if or that. In some cases, that may be hidden. See 3a and 4b.

Relative Clauses

Some subordinate clauses are called Relative or Adjective clauses because they work like adjectives in the sentence. For example, study the following sentences:

1a.I have already read the book which you gave me.
1b. The book which is lying on the table belongs to my friend.
1c.The boy who always gives me books is my friend.

The italicised clauses work as the adjectives of the nouns that come before those clauses: book or boy. If we study the sentences, we will find that each of them is a combination of two sentences. For example, 1a is actually a combination of

1d. You gave me a book.
1e. I have already read that book.

The common word between the two sentences is book. So, we should use one of the sentences along with a relative pronoun after the common word book present in the other sentence. Now, break the sentences 1b and 1c in a similar way. Further, reconsider 1a.

1a . I have already read the book which you gave me.
I have already read the book that you gave me.
I have already read the book you gave me.

If the relative pronoun is the object of verb in the relative clause, the relative pronoun can be dropped as in the last sentence. Relative clauses usually begin with relative pronouns such as who, whom, which, that, whose, etc.

Study the following sentences:

1c. The boy who always gives me books is my friend.

  1. Amit, who always gives me books, is my friend.

In 1c, the relative clause defines the noun phrase going before it: the boy. With the help of the relative clause, the large number of boys is restricted to only one boy. So this type of relative clause is called defining or identifying relative clause.

On the other hand, 2 tells us about Amit, the writer’s friend. In addition to that, the writer tells us that Amit always gives him/her books. So, here the relative clause is not as much necessary as in 1c. It is an extra-information clause. Such relative clauses are called non-defining or non-identifying relative clauses. Mark the commas before and after the non-defining relative clause.


  • The defining relative clause is an essential part of the sentence but the nondefining relative clause is an additional part. It gives extra information.
  • The non-defining clause is kept separate from the main clause with the help of commas or a comma.
  • The non-defining clause cannot take the relative pronoun ‘that’.
  • The relative pronoun cannot be dropped in the nondefining relative clause.
  • The non-defining clause cannot be used after an indefinite pronoun like anyone, anybody, anything, someone, somebody, something, etc.
  • The non-defining clause can sometimes qualify the whole main clause and not a particular noun or pronoun. e.g. Satish scored a goal in the last minute, which was fortunate.

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