Another thing that was raised in conversation with my ESL friend is noun clauses.

I was aware of Adverbial and Adjectival Clauses and thought that the things he was demonstrating to me were in fact noun phrases, not clauses.

After a long discussion and some google searches, I had to concede that he was right to call them Noun Clauses, according to the entire internet. However, I can't seem to find anywhere a satisfying explanation for the fact that noun clauses often leave a sentence without an independent clause. For example:

He only gave me what he already owed me.

Here, as I am led to believe, "what he already owed me" is a Noun Clause. In my understanding, this means that "He only gave me" would be the other clause that makes this a sentence. The problem in my eyes is that neither of these clauses could stand alone.

Somebody please explain how this sentence with two subordinate clauses can exist, or else tell me why I am wrong.


2 Answers 2


The sentence you gave does not consist of two subordinate clauses. It contains one independent clause, and one subordinate clause. The internal structure of the sentence goes like this:

[He only gave me [what he owed me.]]

The outer pair of brackets encloses the entire sentence, which is the independent clause. The inner pair of brackets indicates the inner clause. Clauses which are contained within other clauses are known as dependent clauses, and this particular one is a nominal relative clause. It is a relative clause because it begins with the relative pronoun what, and it is a nominal clause (or noun clause) because it functions as a noun within the sentence.

Your intuition is mostly correct, but you've misunderstood where to put the clause boundaries. You seem to have been misled by the false assumption that a clause must be a complete sentence, and the idea that a clause cannot contain another clause. In this case the dependent clause what he owed me is incomplete because relative clauses have to be embedded in a larger context to have meaning, which is why they're called "dependent". And the fragment He only gave me is not even a full clause, because it lacks the direct object that's required by the verb gave. It only becomes a clause when you include the noun clause that acts as its object.


There seems to be some confusion about whether a dependent clause goes inside or outside of the independent clause. Let's look at this deductively, beginning with a simple sentence.

(Abbreviations: [] = clause boundaries, {} = phrase boundaries, IO = indirect object, DO = direct object)

[He gave IO{me} DO{ten dollars}].

In this case, I hope that there is no doubt that the indirect object and the direct object go inside the clause that contains them. The independent clause is not just the subject and the verb, but the subject, the verb, and all of the objects of the verb.

The important thing to remember about noun clauses (and other kinds of subordinate clauses) is that the structure of the independent clause does not change when you insert a noun clause. So in the original example we have something like this:

[He gave IO{me} DO[what he owed me]].

The noun clause what he owed me is the direct object of the verb gave, and it replaces the noun phrase ten dollars. But this has no effect at all on the structure of the independent clause. You can do the same thing with the indirect object:

[He gave IO[whoever he had borrowed from] DO[what he owed them]].

You could go even further with this, adding more nested dependent clauses inside dependent clauses, doing this forever in theory. (In practice it becomes extremely hard to understand after you've nested your clauses more than two or three layers.) But no matter how deep your nesting goes or how complicated the dependent clause becomes, it's still a single component in the structure of the higher-level clause. Dependent clauses do not magically move outside the structure of their parent clauses, nor do they change the grammatical analysis of the clauses that contain them.

  • No, I'm well aware that a clause doesn't need to be a complete sentence. That is why we have Independent and Dependent clauses. However, it is my understanding that a Dependent clause is not contained within the Independent clause but is attached to it. I know a clause doesn't have to be Independent but a sentence must contain at least one Independent Clause. If you are saying that the full sentence is an Independent Clause, then I am 99 percent certain that it cannot have a Dependent Clause within it. The two are separate from one another - nesting clauses are for sub- within sub- only, yes?
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:13
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    @Karl: I am 99 percent certain that it cannot have a Dependent Clause within it. If you are 99% certain, then you are 99% wrong about this. A dependent clause must be within an independent clause. It is not outside of or adjacent to the independent clause, but rather within and dependent on the independent clause that encloses it. Aug 25, 2011 at 17:22
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    @Karl: JSBangs is right. Perhaps it will be easier to grasp if you realize that each dependent/subordinate clause is a constituent (or sub-constituent) within the main clause that it depends upon—in other words, it fulfils a syntactical function in the main clause, like subject, object, adverbial phrase, attributive phrase, etc. etc. Therefore, if the subordinate phrase acts as a constituent that is a complement to the verb of the main clause, the latter falls apart if you take the complement out, as in this example. Aug 25, 2011 at 17:33
  • Ok. So, to help me out, let's move away from noun clauses for a moment. In the sentence, "I like coffee because it helps me stay awake", we have an Independent Clause "I like coffee" and a Dependent Clause "because it helps me stay awake", right? In this case then, the Independent and Dependent clauses stand side by side. If the Dependent Clause is removed, the Independent Clause remains as a complete sentence, "I like coffee". Have I made any errors here so far?
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:40
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    @JSBngs: What, you say because is a coordinating conjunction? I disagree. Traditional grammar considers it subordinating, because you cannot have a simple independent sentence that starts with because. (By simple I mean "with no subordinate clauses".) There are other reasons that I cannot think of at the moment but will provide later if you like. Perhaps certain branches in modern linguistics use the term differently, but that is another matter. Aug 25, 2011 at 17:54

"what he already owed me" is the direct object of the sentence. It is a subordinate clause and (per this definition) a noun clause. It does not stand on its own.

The verb "give" generally requires a direct object, so "he only gave me" isn't a complete sentence either. It's not a subordinate clause, because there is nothing for it to be subordinate to -- it's just an incomplete clause That's ok; there's no reuqirement that parts of sentences always stand alone like that.

  • So far, I like this answer as it supports my own thinking. It seems that you are saying this is an example of a noun phrase but not a noun clause? That was how I saw it, and the issue certainly arises every time a transitive verb is in use. Unfortunately, my friend and the internet seem to insist that it is still a noun clause. If you can provide sources or anyone wants to corroborate, then you may well get the Accepted Answer here.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 16:44
  • answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080312040233AAQjRX0 suggests that a noun clause is a noun phrase that also contains a verb. Since "owed" is a verb, I guess that makes this a noun clause; this is a distinction that was unfamiliar to me until now. But neither a noun clause nor a noun phrase needs to be able to stand alone. Do you think it needs to be able to stand alone, or am I misunderstanding you? Aug 25, 2011 at 17:28
  • No, I don't think the noun clause has to be able to stand alone but I maintain that at least one of the clauses in the sentence must be independent. The noun clause is dependent, sure, but if you remove it, you are left with "he only gave me", which lacks the direct object provided by the phrase "what...". If there is no independent clause, then there is no sentence, surely? Therefore, "this cannot be a noun CLAUSE but just a noun PHRASE" is my assumption. You see the source of my confusion? Thanks greatly for contributing.
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:35
  • The point about containing a verb also does further the argument for its being a clause, but still doesn't clear up for me the lack of a dependent clause in the sentence. What do you say?
    – Karl
    Aug 25, 2011 at 17:36
  • The sentence is not divided into two clauses "he only gave me" and "what he already owed me", but rather is divided into the dependent clause ("what...me") and the indendent clause "he...me" -- that is, the whole sentence. "he already owed me" isn't anything special on its own. The other answer explains this better (just saw the edits there). Aug 25, 2011 at 18:00

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