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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

Subordination in English: Nominal Clauses (Content & Complement Clauses)

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Clause-Linking Strategies in English

In English, to make sense, any sentence must have at least one independent (main) clause, consisting of a subject and a predicate (a verb + an object/complement), which embodies the core of any English sentence. Any clause consisting of one such core is a simple (independent) sentence:

Simple Sentence/ Independent Clause = Subject + Predicate

When a simple sentence as an independent (main) clause connects to another clause, the type of the resulting sentence depends on the type of the added clause.

If the added clause is:

  1. Independent, the resulting sentence is compound.

  2. Dependent, the resulting sentence is complex.

  3. Supplemental (parenthetical), the resulting sentence is supplementive.

The clause-linking strategies in English can thus be classified according to the syntactic (structural) and semantic (meaning-based) differences between the clauses within the sentence.

Rhetorically speaking, clauses are linked by either of these devices:

Parataxis (coordination) as independent, parallel, equal clauses (forming a compound sentence).

Hypotaxis (subordination) as dependent, nonparallel, unequal clauses (forming a complex sentence).

Parenthesis (supplementation) as parenthetical or equivalent constructions (forming a supplementive sentence).

A clause can also be linked either:

Asyndetically: without any conjunctions, as a juxtaposed clause.

Syndetically: with a coordinating or subordinating conjunction, as a coordinated or subordinate clause.

Polysyndetically: with multiple coordinating conjunctions.

As an overview, the table below summarizes the common patterns of linking constituents (words, phrases, or clauses) within a sentence:


(Ø conjunction)


(1 conjunction)


(1+ conjunctions)


(Makes Parallel & Equal)

Asyndetic Parataxis


I love you; you love me.

The practice has a long, controversial history.

Syndetic Parataxis


I love you, and you love me.

The practice has a long and controversial history.

I’ll take either a bus or a taxi.

Polysyndetic Parataxis


I’ll either call out or bang on the door or blow my whistle.


(Makes Nonparallel & Unequal)

Asyndetic Hypotaxis


I am here should you need me.

I am here for the routine physical checkup.

She is expected later today.

Syndetic Hypotaxis


If you're clever, you can do anything.

I knew that running meant dying.

Mary, who lives in New York, is coming to visit.


(Makes Supplemental & Parenthetical)

Asyndetic Parenthesis


Gary Jones, then a student, wrote several bestsellers.

Emily, my wife, was waiting for me.

She said yeswould you believe it!—to Jim Cross from our school.

Syndetic Parenthesis


The United States of America, or America for short, is an empire in decline.

His explanation, that he couldn't see the car, is unsatisfactory.

The practice has a long, and controversial, history.

Juxtaposed, conjunction-less clause-linking of equal elements is rhetorically known as asyndetic parataxis, and it’s less common in English than syndetic parataxis—the style of linking clauses using coordinating conjunctions to produce syndetic compound sentences (connected with a coordinating conjunction and a comma, or a dash) or asyndetic compound sentences (connected using a semicolon or a colon, or a dash, without any conjunctions). English has a strong preference for the syndetic style.

Furthermore, asyndetic hypotaxis (connecting unequal elements through juxtaposition) describes the style of linking of hierarchically ordered, subordinate elements without any conjunction. Like in many other languages, English has a limited use of such constructions, which are typically used in formal context.

Finally, syndetic hypotaxis means using conjunctions for clause-linking characterized by subordination—by far the most common way of connecting clauses to produce complex sentences or compound-complex sentences.

Dependent clauses in English are structurally either finite (i.e., identical in form to main clauses) or reduced finite, i.e., nonfinite. Dependent finite clauses are typically structured as nominal, relative, or adverbial clauses. In their reduced nonfinite forms, English dependent clauses are used as verbal clauses, including gerunds, to-infinitives, present -ing and past -ed participial clauses, absolute, small, and verbless clauses. Although rarely used in speech, verbals are a staple of formal English writing.

The painting  "Girl Wearing a Kimono" by Alfred Stevens, featuring a young European girl wearing a blue-gold kimono
Girl Wearing a Kimono by Alfred Stevens

Finite vs. Nonfinite Clauses

All clauses are either finite or nonfinite. While only finite clauses can be independent (and main), both finite and nonfinite clauses can be dependent (or subordinate). Nonfinite clauses can only be dependent.

A finite clause has an explicit subject and a finite (complete) verb: e.g., takes, took, can work, has worked, is writing, was written:

We can move in together | if you are being transferred here.

Main indep. clause: S. + V. Dependent if-clause: S. + V.

A nonfinite clause is a reduced finite clause with an implicit subject (shared with the main clause) and a nonfinite (incomplete) verb: e.g., to work, having worked, taken, knowing:

After being transferred here, | you can move in together with us.

Deped. -ing clause: [S.] + V. Main indent clause: S. + V.

[= After you are transferred here, you can move in together with us.]

There are also verbless clauses, which include sentences with the so-called absolute clauses (i.e., nonfinite clauses with their own subjects and predicatives instead of verbs) and reduced relative and adverbial clauses:

Although always helpful, | he was not much liked.

Deped. verbless cl.: [S.] + V. Main indent clause: S. + V.

[= Although he was always helpful, he was not much liked.]


Clause Structures in English

English clauses can be classified by their structure:

Subject + Verb (intransitive) Subject + Verb (transitive) + Object

The kids | are swimming. The students | are swimming | the long distance.

Subject + Verb (linking) + Subject Complement Subject + Verb (transitive) + Indirect Object

The kids | are | happy. Laura | called | me.

The students | feel | happy.

Subject + Verb (trans.) + Indir. Object + Dir. Object Subject + Verb (trans.) + Indir. Object + Preposit. Complement

The kids | made | me | a cake. He | informed | us | of | the robbery.

Subject + Verb (trans.) + Object + Object Complement

This | made | us | happy.


Traditional Sentence Structures in English

English differentiates between four types of sentences:

  • Simple sentences = one independent clauses

  • Compound sentences = two independent clauses

  • Complex sentences = one independent clause + one dependent clause

  • Compound-complex sentences = two independent clauses + one dependent clause + ...


Simple Sentences

Finite Clauses

⦁ Nominal sentence ⦁ Verbal sentence

⦁ Adjectival sentence ⦁ Gerund sentence

For he is a jolly good fellow. The kids like trains.

nominal sentence verbal sentence

He is neither sane nor brilliant. His hobby is collecting old photographs.

adjectival sentence gerund sentence

In the lumen of the large intestine, inulin becomes a source of nutrition for saprophytes and beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and also retains fluid in the lumen of the intestine.

A verbal sentence with a compound predicate; the comma before the second verb, although grammatically incorrect, is used to make it easier to read.

Compound Sentences

There are no rattlesnakes in this canyon, or so our guide tells us.

John plays basketball well, yet his favorite sport is badminton.

The tourists huddled in the shade, for it had been a long, hot day.

No one has looked on life as a sport; it has always been felt as a harsh experience.

They lost the war; consequently, their whole country was occupied.

The law has at last passed: next year, all cars will be tested for environmental compliance.


Complex Sentences

Finite Clauses

Sentence with nominal wh-clause ⦁ Sentence with adverbial clause

Sentence with relative clause ⦁ Sentence with comparative clause

Nonfinite Clauses

⦁ Sentence with a past -ed participial clause ⦁ Sentence with an absolute clause

⦁ Sentence with a present -ing participial clause ⦁ Sentence with a verbless clause

⦁ Sentence with a to-infinitive clause ⦁ Sentence with a bare-infinitive clause

⦁ Sentence with a fused participle ⦁ Sentence with a small clause (reduced that-clause)

What made me happy was seeing you. You can't ignore the fact that he was drunk.

sentence with a nominal subject wh-clause sentence with a content that-clause

He told me that he is leaving. He bought me a gift that he couldn't really afford.

sentence with a complement that-clause sentence with a relative that-clause

I'll be there at nine if I can catch the early train. This is a lot more difficult than I expected.

sentence with an adverbial clause sentence with a comparative clause

The old lady driving the horse was dressed in black. Much discouraged, I moved on to Philadelphia.

sentence with an -ing participle clause sentence with an -ed participle clause

I can understand his wanting to go. These are the conditions most common in children.

sentence with a fused participle (possessive with gerund) sentence with a verbless clause (reduced relative clause)

They made the professor forget his notes. You must book early to secure a seat.

sentence with bare-infinitive clause sentence with to-infinitive clause

The house empty once more, I fell asleep quickly. Susan found the job very difficult.

sentence with an absolute clause sentence with a small clause (reduced that-clause)

Compound-Complex (Complex-Compound) Sentences

Embedded Relative Clause:

[Natalya’s sister, [who is younger], graduated from Lincoln High School], and [Natalya graduated from Oxford University].

Embedded Adverbial Clause:

[Laura forgot her friend's birthday], [but, [when she finally remembered], she sent her a card].

Embedded Nonfinite Clause:

[Laura doesn’t know [how to bake bread]], so [she buys it already made].

Multiple Embedded Clause:

He said [that, [if, [when you’ve finished], you’d close the door], he’d be very grateful].


Fragment Sentences

Ads & Marketing Exclamations Spoken Language

What a pity! You and your headaches! You fool.

No taxation without representation. Nice one, Eddy! Got it.

Open Monday through Friday. No way! For example, this one.

20% off any item! Why not? Because I said so.


Clause-Linking in English (Classification)

To reiterate, most English sentences consist of an independent clause linked through either of these clause-linking devices:

1. Parataxis (Coordination or Juxtaposition):

Adding a semantically independent, syntactically parallel, equal clause ⟶ compound sentence

  • Syndetic parataxis: Coordination with coordinating conjunctions (+ punctuation)

  • Asyndetic parataxis: Juxtaposition without any conjunctions (+ punctuation)

2. Hypotaxis (Subordination or Juxtaposition):

Adding a semantically and syntactically dependent, nonparallel, unequal clause ⟶ complex sentence

  • Syndetic hypotaxis: Subordination with subordinating conjunctions (+ punctuation)

  • Asyndetic hypotaxis: Juxtaposition without any conjunctions (+ punctuation)

3. Parenthesis (Supplementation, Apposition, Quasi-Coordination):

Adding a syntactically supplemental, parenthetical, or semantically equivalent structure ⟶ supplementive sentence

  • Anchored parenthesis: Equivalence or quasi-coordination (appositives) (+ punctuation)

  • Parenthetical supplementation: Loosely attached elements (comments, tags, inserts) (+ punctuation)


Finite Subordination in English: Four Main Types of Dependent Clauses in English

The table below provides an overview of the typical dependent clauses constructed with FINITE verbs and related subordinators used in English (with the multiple-use subordinators marked with asterisk*):

Here is the more detailed account of the use of relative clauses in English. Check my other post on the remaining causes-linking strategies in the English language.


Finite Nominal Clauses


Nominal Clauses (Content and Complement Clauses)

(Syndetic Hypotaxis)

Nominal (noun) or content clauses are subordinate clauses which are often syntactically similar to main clauses. They function as subjects, direct objects, predicatives, or complements in sentences.

Nominal clauses are unique because they replace one of the core elements of the sentence. As a core element cannot be omitted from the main clause, no comma should follow or precede the nominal clause, unless it is supplementary and added to the sentence as a parenthetical comment, aside, or afterthought.

Nominal content clauses include:

  • Finite declarative (that-clauses) and interrogative (wh-clauses) content and complement clauses

  • Nonfinite nominal content gerund -ing phrases, to-infinitive and bare infinitive clauses

Subject Content Clauses Object Complement Clauses

What goes up must come down. I don’t know what he is thinking.

That he could have simply disappeared is unbelievable. The judge concluded that the accused was innocent.

Whether we can do that remains to be seen. I doubted whether the story was true.

To love for the sake of being loved is human. We didn't want to confess in front of my children.

Communicating with children is their parent's job. He liked walking at night.

Subject Complement Clauses Predicative Subject Complement Clauses

The reason that he won was the support of the minorities. The reason he failed was that he didn’t get our support.

The belief that one should work hard is ingrained in our culture. The belief was that he could have simply disappeared.

Interrogative Complement Clause Exclamative Content Clause

She asked where the files were. She knows what a good teacher you are.

[= She asked, “Where are the files?”]


Nominal Clauses (Content Clauses):

Subjects & Objects

What Sub-Clause MAIN CLAUSE

MAIN CLAUSE what Sub-Clause

who when whether that

whom where if

whose why

which how

What the students enjoy studying matters the most.
subject content clause
During the meeting, we discussed whether the students enjoy studying.
object clause

Why the research funding was withdrawn was never adequately explained.

subject clause

Humans have made the environment what it is today.

object complement

What she said was that she’d be contacting us later in the day.

subject clause object complement

That the invading troops have been withdrawn has not affected our government’s trade sanctions.

subject clause

Nominal Clauses (Content Clauses):

Declarative Complements

MAIN CLAUSE + that + Sub-Clause


Complement is part of the sentence that follows the verb and which thus completes the sentence. In English, complements follow their heads.

Declarative content complements are often used as objects (object complements):

He told me that I was the love of his life.

object complement

She thought that we were going to meet at 2 PM.

I hear that you've been meeting in secret.

I wish that we met earlier.

I believe that students enjoy grammar.

Declarative content complements are also used as subject complements or predicative subject complements:

The fact/ problem/ rumor is that he can’t afford the rent. The fact/ rumor that he can’t afford the rent is...

subject complement predicative subject complement

He made the point that most debtors will have to pay, and will respond positively when things improve.

object complement

The point that capitalist planning is conducted on an international scale poses problems for the socialist project.

subject complement

Declarative content complements often serve as direct objects of reporting verbs and verbs cognition, perception, etc. In English, the conjunction that, which heads the clause, is often omitted.

Compare the common complements as that-clauses:

I noticed [that] he spoke English with an Australian accent.

object complement

We are glad [that] you are able to join us on our wedding anniversary.

subject predicative (adjectival complement)

Convinced [that] he could manage it without help, he decided to proceed.

-ed participle complement

My assumption is that interest rates will soon fall.

subject predicative (subject complement)

You can't ignore the fact that he was drunk.

object complement

Your criticism, that no account has been taken of psychological factors, is fully justified.

appositional clause

Most parts of speech have complements, which can be used as that-clauses:

He feared that he might lose his job. He told me of his fear that he might lose his job.

direct object = verb complement oblique object = prepositional complement

He was afraid that he might lose his job. You can stay here provided that you keep your job.

subject predicative = adjectival complement adverbial clause = prepositional complement

Linking verbs (to be, to seem, to feel, etc.) are, by definition, complemented. Here are the common complementary structures for the linking verb be:

The reason he resigned was that he didn’t get on with the boss.

What she said was that she’d be contacting us later in the day.

The fact/ problem/ rumor is that he can’t afford the rent.

This claim, that the commissioner exceeded the terms of reference, will need to be carefully investigated.

Appositional interrogative clause is enclosed by commas as interrupting element.

Declarative content complements are commonly postponed in small clauses or as object complements to the end of their main clause, with an expletive it standing in their original place as subject:

It startled me that she was sitting in my office.

It is important that he should attend every day.

I find it odd that she takes so long to do that job.

It annoys me that Kim never returns the books she borrows.


Nominal Clauses (Content Clauses):

Complement Interrogatives

MAIN CLAUSE + whether + Sub-Clause

who if however

what whether whoever

whether … or … whatever

Complement interrogative clauses correspond to direct questions and in writing are formatted as embedded indirect questions. Like declarative content clauses, they are often direct objects of reporting verbs and verbs of cognition and perception, with the emphasis on knowledge or lack of knowledge:

They asked where she was born. They know when she was born.

It was amazing what they offered. I don’t care whether I go or not.

I doubt whether I should accept. I object to what you are planning to do.

I’m not certain as to what she’s asking for. I’m not certain about what she’s asking for.

formal neutral

I’m not certain of what she’s asking for. It depends on whether she was born here.

formal neutral

They were wrangling over who should be secretary.

He is anxious about whether he should accept it or not.

I overheard their discussion on how to do that.


Integral Nominal Clauses vs. Supplemental Nominal Clauses

They will appoint whoever we recommend. They will appoint Jones, whoever we recommend.

interrogative integral clause interrogative supplementary clause, added as an afterthought

Whoever we recommend, they will select Mia. Regardless of whom we recommend, they will select Mia.

Fronted supplemental clause fronted supplemental concession regardless of-clause.

Come here whoever you are. Come here, no matter who you are.

integral interrogative clause peripheral no matter-clause is .

Finite vs. Nonfinite Interrogative Clauses

Finite: Nonfinite:

I wonder whether I should tell. I wonder whether to tell them.

I wonder whether I should go or not. I wonder whether to go or not.

I wonder what I should do. I wonder what to do.

Whether hunting or being hunted, the fox is renowned for its cunning.

Whether taken neat or with water, the mixture can be quite lethal.

Whether historically a fact or not, the legend has a certain symbolic value.

Whatever their faults, they are not hypocrites.

However well-meaning, the very act of helping old people may reduce their ability to look after themselves.


Whether vs. If in Interrogative Clauses

Integral complement interrogative clauses can only be postposed, i.e., placed after the main clause. In such clauses, whether and if can be used interchangeably, with the interrogative if-clauses used more frequently in speech.

However, the use of if may cause ambiguity, since if is used as a marker of conditionality as well as interrogation. This becomes evident when we try to front a dependent clause for a pragmatic reason: e.g., to emphasize it. While the fronted whether-clause retains its interrogative meaning, the fronted if-clause reads as a condition-clause:

Let me know whether you need any help. Whether you need any help, let me know.

interrogation-clause fronted interrogation-clause (pragmatic, acceptable in speech)

Let me know if you need any help. If you need any help, let me know.

interrogation-clause fronted condition-clause

With whether, the sentence is unambiguous:

I won’t tell her whether you intend to bring it back today.


With if, the sentence can be understood as either interrogation or condition:

I won’t tell her if you intend to bring it back today.

interrogation or condition?

If you intend to bring it back today, (then) I won’t tell her.

fronted condition-clause

Whether you intend to bring it back today, I won’t tell her.

fronted interrogation-clause (pragmatic, acceptable in speech)

🎵 There is a small difference in style level between if and whether: Other things being equal, formal style favors whether, informal style if. Keeping that mind, I’d recommend avoiding using the interrogative if in writing, especially because it could be confused with a conditional if-clause, limiting the use of the interrogative if to the spoken language only.


Alternative Interrogative Clauses: whether... or ...

If we add a correlative or to the whether-clause, we can create a sentence with an indirect interrogative question expressing alternatives:

Whether you intend to bring it back today or not, I won’t tell her.

[= Regardless of whether you intend to bring it back today or not, I won’t tell her.]

Fronted or postponed, a whether-clause, when used with the correlative or, introduces an indirect interrogative question that consists of multiple alternative possibilities. Interrogative whether-clauses that indicate doubt between alternatives are always peripheral and must be separated with a comma or a dash:

I won’t tell her, whether you intend to bring it back today or not.

[= I won’t tell her, regardless of whether you intend to bring it back today or not.]

I won’t tell her whether you intend to bring it back today.

[= I won’t tell her about whether you intend to bring it back today.]


Nominal Clauses (Content Clauses): Exclamatives

MAIN CLAUSE + what + Sub-Clause

what how

I kept saying, “He is so frail!” ➞ I kept saying how frail he was.

What a blunder it was didn’t emerge till later. ➞ It didn’t emerge till later what a blunder it was.

subject extraposed subject

What a difference a little paint can make is incredible. ➞ It’s incredible what a difference a little paint can make.

subject extraposed subject

She thought what a fool she’d been to trust them. This just shows how immature he was.

object object

They were surprised about what a good price we were offering. He expressed his dismay at what a raw deal she’d had.

adjectival complement prepositional complement

It’s amazing/ extraordinary/ remarkable how old they were. I found it quite amazing what a fuss he was making.


Nominal Relative Clauses

What Sub-Clause MAIN CLAUSE

MAIN CLAUSE what Sub-Clause

who which where

whom when why


When we are not sure how to identify something or someone, but we would like to share a comment, a description, or some other detail about it, we plug in an indefinite placeholder noun or pronoun: someone, something, a thing, a person, etc.

In English, descriptions and comments can be signaled by a relative pronoun as part of a relative clause:

The thing that I like best is football. This is the place where Shakespeare was born.

subject subject complement

The prize will go to anyone who submits the best design.

indirect object

However, since the headwords are so non-specific—and English is allergic to clumsy non-specificity—English allows us to either drop the headword or fuse it with the relative pronoun, and create a new headword:

The thing that I like best is football. ⭢ What I like best is football.

This is the place where Shakespeare was born. ⭢ This is where Shakespeare was born.

The prize will go to anyone who submits the best design. ⭢ The prize will go to whoever submits the best design.

This special type of clause is something between a nominal content clause and a relative clause; hence, its name, the nominal relative clause.

the thing(s) that = what

the thing(s) that = whatever

What he really needs is a nice cup of tea. They did not like what he wrote.

I am what’s generally called a dustman. What I need is an hour of sleep; what you need are days of rest.

Like nouns, nominal relatives exhibit number contrast, taking singular or plural verbs depending on the context:

What we need is a plan. What we need are new ideas.

to t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶c̶e̶ where = to where

from t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶c̶e̶ where = from where

This is where I crashed the car. I crossed the room to where she was sitting.

He lives two streets down from where Mr. Sutton works.

anything = whatever

anyone = whoever

I’ll do whatever you want. You’ll need written permission from whoever is in charge.

I want to do whatever I can to help them. People will choose whichever of these systems they find suits them best.


Nonfinite Nominal Clauses

(Asyndetic Hypotaxis)


Gerund Noun Phrases

He’s talking about facing the music. On weekends, give gardening a try.

complement of a preposition indirect object

Before running, I like to do some stretches. Sports are not the only means of staying fit.

adverbial complement of a preposition modifying complement of a preposition

Figure skating is certainly a graceful sport! I really enjoy playing golf.

subject object

Bare Infinitive Clauses

All I did was laugh. She does nothing but cry.

complement object

I’ll do anything except cook. She made the children do their homework.

adverbial object

I’d rather sit here. Dad wouldn't let me drive his car.

object object

Infinitive to-Clauses

To err is human. I would like to thank you.

subject object

It takes two hours to get to the camping area. Their hope is to succeed in the election this fall.

object subject complement

We were the first to come home. Dinner is ready to eat.

numeral complement adjectival complement

It was difficult for me to swallow. The fever caused me to hallucinate.

adjectival complement object

Fused Gerunds with Possessives

I don’t approve of your friend’s going there. I don’t approve of your friends going there.

[= One friend is going.] [= More than one friend is going.]

propositional complement propositional complement


Nominal Small (Verbless) Clauses

Small clauses lack an overt tensed-verb, meaning that they are verbless.

Small clauses are essentially reduced nominal clauses, characterized by subject & object complementation as:

  1. Predicative expressions after the verbs consider, name, regard, elect, etc.

  2. Bare infinitives after:

    • Verbs of perception: e.g., see, watch, notice, observe, feel, hear, etc.

    • Causative verbs: e.g., make, have, let, help, etc.

As with other verbless clauses, small clauses can undergo dual-reduction: at first, by reducing from a nominal complement that-clause; and then, by dropping the implicit linking verb to be:

She has proved me wrong. The new recruit seems promising.

[= She has proved me to be wrong.] [= The new recruit seems to be promising.]

[= She has proved that I was wrong.] [= The new recruit seems that he is promising.]

The jury found him not guilty. I’ve watched him quickly grow.

[=The jury found him not to be guilty.] We found them arrogant.

[=The jury found that he was not guilty.]

It was impossible to believe our government would consider us expendable.

[= It was impossible to believe our government would consider us to be expendable.]


A drawing of a flower, white and purple colors


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