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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

Subordination in English: Nominal (Noun) Clauses (Content, Complement, and Verbless Clauses)

Updated: Feb 16

In English, every sentence must have at least one independent (main) clause. By definition, an independent (main) clause has a subject and a verb (or predicate if the verb is transitive and takes an object) to make sense. As such, an independent clause/ sentence can stand alone:


Two independent clauses form a compound sentence. One independent and at least one dependent clause form a complex sentence. Two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause form a compound-complex sentence.

Roughly speaking, the clause-linking strategies in English are classified according to whether the clauses are syntactically parallel and equal (independent), nonparallel and unequal (subordinate), or parallel, unequal, and/or parenthetical (appositive), and whether they are linked with a conjunction(s) (as coordinated or subordinate clauses) or without any conjunction (as juxtaposed clauses).

Juxtaposed, conjunction-less clause-linking is rhetorically known as asyndetic parataxis, and it’s less common in English. Instead, English has a strong preference for linking clauses with coordinating conjunctions, which in rhetoric is known as syndetic parataxis.

Furthermore, asyndetic hypotaxis (connecting nonequal 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 as complex sentences or compound-complex sentences.

Dependent clauses in English are structurally either finite (i.e., identical in form to main clauses) or nonfinite (i.e., verbless). The major finite clauses are structurally nominal, relative, or adverbial. In their reduced forms, with or without conjunctions, English dependent clauses are used as nonfinite clauses (verbals), including gerunds, to-infinitives, past and present participles (-ed and -ing participles), 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 Clauses vs. Nonfinite Clauses

All clauses are either finite or nonfinite. While only finite clauses can be main, both finite and nonfinite clauses can be dependent. Moreover, nonfinite clauses can only be dependent.

Finite clauses are those that have finite verbs: e.g., takes, took, can work, has worked, is writing, was written:

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

Nonfinite clauses have verbs that are nonfinite: e.g., to work, having worked, taken, knowing. Most nonfinite clauses are reduced finite clauses:

Deciding on the tasks is to solve half of the problems. [= If you decide on the tasks, you can solve half of the problems.]

There are also verbless clauses, which are nonfinite clauses or reduced finite clauses with predicatives instead of verbs:

Although always helpful, he was not much liked. [= 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 (intr.) + 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.


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

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

verbal sentence nominal sentence

He is neither sane nor brilliant. Hiking is my favorite pastime.

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.

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.

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

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


Complex Sentences

Finite Clauses

Nominal clauses ⦁ Adverbial clauses

⦁ Relative clauses ⦁ Comparative clauses

Nonfinite Clauses

to-Infinitive clause ⦁ Bare infinitive clause

⦁ Past participle -ed clause ⦁ Absolute clause

⦁ Present participle -ing clause ⦁ Verbless clause

I'll ring you again before I leave. He bought me a lovely gift, although he can't really afford it.

When you leave, please close the door. Paul was an hour late because he missed the train.

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


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 Strategies in English

As I showed above, the major clause-linking strategies in English are based on:

1. Parataxis (Coordination or Juxtaposition):

Linking clauses of equal status ⟶ compound sentence

  • Coordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)

  • Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic parataxis) (+ punctuation)

2. Hypotaxis (Subordination or Juxtaposition):

Linking clauses of unequal status ⟶ complex sentence

  • Subordination (with conjunctions) (syndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)

  • Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asyndetic hypotaxis) (+ punctuation)

3. Apposition (Quasi-Coordination or Juxtaposition):

Adding a parallel, parenthetical, supplemental structure ⟶ complex sentence

  • Quasi-coordination (with conjunctions) through interruption (asides, afterthoughts) (+ punctuation)

  • Juxtaposition (without conjunctions) (asides, afterthoughts) (+ 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 (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 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 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 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. Peripheral (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 peripheral clause, marked by introductory comma Fronted peripheral concession regardless of-clause.

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

Interrogative supplementary clause Condition no matter-clause is peripheral.


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.]