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I knew that it was true.

I heard that they were coming to town.

That he drank was well known.

Do the subordinate clauses "that it was true," "that they were coming to town," and "that he drank" have similar meanings to gerunds like "its being true," "their coming to town," and "his drinking"? In some cases the gerund can replace the subordinate clause without much trouble like in the last sentence, but in other sentences there seems to be a difference. For example, "I heard that they left" seems different from "I heard their leaving."

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  • There's a change in meaning in the last sentence. In "I heard that they left" you didn't hear their leaving, but you heard about their leaving. The former would imply you heard, e.g., the door opening and closing. The latter would imply you heard the news.
    – Yay
    Feb 11 '16 at 7:00
  • True, but it seems that "that he drank was well known" and "his drinking was well known" are practically the same, which is why this question occurred to me.
    – Joe
    Feb 11 '16 at 7:05
  • Then I agree they are practically the same except for those verbs that require a presposition when followed by a NP, like know (I knew about their coming), hear, etc.
    – Yay
    Feb 11 '16 at 7:19
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No: in your first two examples, the that– clauses (or more correctly 'content clauses') are complements of the verbs "knew" and "heard", and in your third example, it’s the subject of the sentence.

Content clauses serve to expand, or complete, the meaning of the item they complement. So in you first example, the clause explains what it was that you knew was true, and in your second example it explains what it was that you heard. In some respects they are rather like objects, cf. "I knew the truth", hence their often being called noun clauses. In your third example, the clause states what it was that was well-known.

I heard that they left simply means that you became aware of their departure, whereas I heard their leaving means you physically heard the noise(s) they made as they left.

In case you're interested, content clauses almost always have a complement function. They are the 'default' kind of finite subordinate clause lacking the special properties of relative and comparative clauses in that they are selected purely for their semantic content (hence their name). They are most often introduced by the subordinator "that", but the rest of the clause does not usually differ from that of a main clause.

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  • "So in you first example, the clause explains what it was that you knew was true, and in your second example it explains what it was that you heard." - But wouldn't those whats be gerunds? Like, the what that you knew was true was its being true.
    – Joe
    Feb 11 '16 at 10:01
  • @JoeAs That's why I said that content clauses resemble objects, and of course clausal objects are gerunds. So in that respect, you are correct. But why do you want to make such a comparison?
    – BillJ
    Feb 11 '16 at 10:27
  • Well, I want to find why one sentence means one thing and another sentence means another. For example, if "that he drank" is the same as "his drinking" then "that they left" is the same as "their leaving" and "I heard that they left" is the same as "I heard their leaving." But they aren't the same, so I wondered if noun clauses with "that" aren't gerunds, then what exactly are they.
    – Joe
    Feb 11 '16 at 10:35
  • @Joe I think I answered your question 'what exactly are they' in my main answer. Of course, you can see a similarity in meaning with other expressions, for example "That he drank" (or "The fact that he drank") has a similar meaning to the NP "His drinking". But content clauses are not gerund clauses; they are finite clause complements; a quite different grammatical construction.
    – BillJ
    Feb 11 '16 at 11:33
  • @Joe Verbs of perception don't take single gerund-participle clauses as Complements. They are blocked from doing so. So "I heard them leaving" takes "them" as a direct object, and "leaving" as a separate complement of the verb. Our interpretation of the subject of the complement clause is determined by the direct object. The evidence for this is that if you passivise the sentence you get "They were heard leaving" not "*Them leaving was heard." May 26 '16 at 12:25

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