One of the more esoteric areas of grammar
Explore nominal wh-clauses with lots of exercises and a bit of discussion
Part 1 - Nominal relative clauses
Exercise 1 - Fill the gaps in these nominal relative clauses with suitable words from the box. Some words can be used more than once.
|1.||Sally? No, that's not I meant. I was talking about Jane.|
|2.||she said just then really surprised me.|
|3.||You're supposed to be an expert; that's I'm asking you!|
|4.||It was the opposite of he had suggested.|
|5.||Strong but smooth, that's just I like my coffee.|
|6.||Here's a list of I've invited so far.|
|7.||That's not I heard he'd said.|
|8.||Do you see that bush? That's exactly I saw the fox yesterday.|
|9.||You remember the time, it was we were staying at that hotel.|
|10.||Mmm, that lasagne was good. It was exactly I needed.|
|11.||We've just been talking about we should do later.|
|12.||Did you tell him we'd agreed?|
What are nominal relative clauses?
- That's the thing which (or that) I was talking about.
- That's what I was talking about.
The most common nominal relative pronoun is what.
|English||This is what we need|
|Catalan||Això és el que necessitem|
|French||C'est ce que nous avons besoin|
|Italian||Questo è quello che ci serve|
|Portuguese||Isto é o que precisamos|
|Romanian||Aceasta este ceea ce avem nevoie|
|Spanish||Esto es lo que necesitamos|
The most important things to remember are:
- 1. - that we only use one pronoun:
- This is what we need
- This is that what we need
- This is that which we need
- 2. - that the nominal relative pronoun replaces the noun:
- This is just the thing what we need
- If you want to use a noun, then you need to use a normal defining relative clause with which, that or zero relative pronoun (where possible)
- This is just the thing which we need
- This is just the thing that we need
- This is just the thing we need
Position and function in a sentence
- He's going to be a doctor. (noun)
- She's really intelligent. (adjective phrase)
- He's a really good tennis player. (noun phrase)
- This is exactly what we've been looking for. (noun clause)
Exercise 2 - match the underlined nominal relative clauses with their functions in the sentence
|1.||What I need right now is a cup of coffee.||a||subject complement|
|2.||Have you brought what I asked for?||b||prepositional object|
|3.||That's what I've been trying to tell you.||c||direct object|
|4.||We've been talking about what we're going to do next.||d||subject|
- I'll give whoever can answer this question a bonus point. (indirect object)
- She made him what he is today. (object complement)
- That man, whoever he is, just stole your wallet. (appositive)
Other nominal relative pronouns 1.
Whatever, whoever, whichever
- Take whatever you need for your picnic, children. (= anything that)
- You can ask whoever you want. (= anybody that)
- You can have whichever you prefer, tea or coffee. (= which one that)
- Whatever you do, don't wake him up. (adverbial clause)
- Whatever you do is fine by me. (nominal relative clause)
- Whichever you choose, I'll be quite happy. (adverbial clause)
- Whichever you choose is fine by me. (nominal relative clause)
- Take whatever food you need for your picnic, children.
- You can have whichever drink you prefer.
Exercise 3 - Complete the sentences with words from the box. Where you can, use a wh-ever word. Some words can be used more than once.
|1.||I didn't hear she said.|
|2.||she said was bound to be all lies.|
|3.||You can invite you like to the party.|
|4.||That wasn't I spoke to earlier earlier.|
|5.||He'll do is necessary to win.|
|6.||You can have cake you want and I'll eat the other.|
|7.||told you that doesn't know what they are talking about.|
|8.||I always like to finish book I'm reading.|
|9.||of the children finish first will get a prize.|
|10.||I didn't see child finished first.|
Other nominal relative pronouns 2.
who, where, when
- who = the person who
- That's who I was talking about. Look! Over there. The woman in blue.
- Here's a list of who I've asked so far.
- Over there is where I last saw them. (= the place in / at which)
- It was when I was talking to you earlier. (= the occasion on which)
- That's not the person (who) I meant. (defining relative clause)
- That's not who I meant. (nominal relative clause)
- This is the hotel where we stayed for our honeymoon. (defining relative clause)
- This is where we stayed for our honeymoon. (nominal relative clause)
- That was the year when I left university. (defining relative clause)
- That was when I left university. (nominal relative clause)
- Everything is just how I left it. (= the way that)
- We're late. That's why I've ordered a taxi. (= the reason that)
Nominal or defining?
Exercise 4a - Fill the gaps with who, which, when, where or what (for this exercise don't use that)
Exercise 4b - Decide whether these sentences include nominal or defining relative clauses
|1.||I'll introduce you to the woman is organising all this.|
|2.||It was the house he had been born.|
|3.||On the sitting room table was I last saw them.|
|4.||It was the book made his name as a novelist.|
|5.||He only writes he knows about.|
|6.||You must remember! It was we last visited London.|
|7.||The sixties was a time being young was suddenly fashionable.|
|8.||Let me tell you is coming to the party.|
This is, that is (just, exactly) what etc
Exercise 5 - Complete the sentences with suitable wh-words (including how).
|1.||And that's exactly I always come to you for advice.|
|2.||In the pub; that's I'll have left it.|
|3.||That's just I was thinking.|
|4.||This must have been you were very young.|
|5.||Sarah? But that's precisely I wanted to talk to you about.|
|6.||It's just you always like it. Nice and strong.|
- Sally dumped me
- I don't like the way she did it
- To talk about the whole action - what + subject + do / does / did + be + verb etc
- What Sally did was (to) dump me.
- To accent a specific action - what + happen + be + that-clause
- What happened was (that) she locked me out of the flat.
- To accent a noun phrase - what-clause + be + noun phrase
- What I don't like is the way she did it.
- Dumping people is what she's really good at.
- We can also use all (meaning the only thing) instead of what in all three patterns.
- All I want now is a room somewhere.
- All I did was break a vase.
- All that happened was (that) I broke a vase.
Exercise 6 - Complete each gap with one word.
|1.||What I liked most about the movie (1) the music.|
|2.||What she (2) was (3) look for another job.|
|3.||(4) I said (5) that he was a bit late, and he bit my head off.|
|4.||What (6) then (7) that all hell broke loose.|
|5.||All that has happened is (8) the police (9) given me a warning.|
|6.||(10) really annoys me (11) that he's always right.|
|7.||All I (12) (13) to ask for a clean cup, and the waiter went berserk.|
|8.||What (14) happened was that she'd completely forgotten about it.|
|9.||Your attitude is exactly (15) I was wanting to talk to you about.|
Using what before a noun in nominal relative clauses
- She keeps what books she has in the attic.
- He gave the busker what spare money he had in his pocket.
- What information I have suggests that he's OK
- what few books, what little money etc.
A reminder about which in relative clauses.
- They arrived late, which was a bit annoying. (simple comment)
- They arrived late, which meant we had to start without them. (a new development)
What, which or that?
Exercise 7 - Enter who, which or that. Note that not all the sentences contain nominal relative clauses
|1.||Do you know is faster, the bus or the tram?|
|2.||I'd like now is a nice, hot shower.|
|3.||He's not coming; much is obvious.|
|4.||That is just I thought you'd say.|
|5.||I told you I wanted you to do.|
|6.||But you told me you wanted me to do it this way.|
|7.||She came first in the exam, is pretty amazing really.|
|8.||Anything you say may be used in evidence against you.|
|9.||I'll tell you little I know.|
|10.||one would you choose, the red one or the blue one?|
|11.||Do you know to do next?|
|12.||We missed the bus, caused us to be late.|
Part 2. Interrogative wh-clauses
- Do you know what I'm meant to do next.
- I can't remember when she's arriving.
- I wonder why he did that.
- "What am I meant to do next?"
- "When is she arriving?"
- "Why did he do that?"
Exercise 8 - Complete the sentences with wh-clauses, starting with the question words and using the same tenses as given in the original questions
|Eg.||What was she thinking of?|
I can't imagine what she was thinking of.
|1.||Why did she marry him?|
is anyone's guess.
|2.||Who introduced them?|
Do you know ?
|3.||When did he pop the question? |
I wonder .
|4.||What does she see in him? |
I can't imagine .
|5.||How are they going to pay for all this?|
I don't know for all this.
|6.||Where did they meet? |
I'm curious as to .
- She asked me when I was going to come and see her.
- She asked me if I was going to come and see her soon.
- I wonder whether he'll remember me.
Using what and which before nouns in interrogative wh-clauses
- I wonder what idea he'll come up with next.
- I don't know which book to read next.
- We'll tell you what information we keep about you on our files.
- They'll advise you which policy will be best for you.
Clause within a clause
- The long-distance sailor told reporters that what he wanted was a long, hot bath.
- They promised that whatever happened they would help us.
- She remembered that what had frightened her had been the noise. .
Nominal wh-clauses and prepositions
- This book is about why the author became a monk.
- They consulted us on where to go for their holiday.
- The film is based on what happened to some tourists whose yacht was captured by pirates.
- It was exactly what I had been hoping for.
- He asked me where I had come from.
Part 3 - Telling the difference 1
The main difference between nominal relative clauses and interrogative wh-clauses
Exercise 9 - Decide whether these nominal wh-clauses describe something concrete, something known to the subject of the sentence, or something abstract.
|1.||This is what I was talking about earlier.|
|2.||Do you know what I'm thinking?|
|3.||I can't remember why I said that.|
|4.||That's exactly why I asked you.|
|5.||It's just how I expected it would be.|
|6.||I wonder how he feels now.|
If only it were that easy! But there are some grey areas.
Grey area 1. After verbs of thinking
- I wonder what happened to Peter. (What happened to Peter?)
- She couldn’t remember who he was. (Who is he?)
- I don't understand why he hasn't called. (Why hasn't he called?)
- You never forget how to ride a bike. (the way that)
- He remembered what he had wanted to ask me. (the thing that)
- I suppose that's why he wants to speak to me. (the reason that)
- I know what the answer is.
- I understand how you must feel.
Grey area 2. After reporting verbs
- He asked me where I had been born. (Where were you born?)
- She asked him what he was doing. (What are you doing?)
- He asked her who else she knew. (Who else do you know?)
- He told me what he wanted me to do. (This is what I want you to do)
- She advised me where to eat. (This is where you should eat)
- She explained how the machine worked. (This is how the machine works)
- She wouldn’t admit what she had done.
- Did he mention when he would come?
Grey area 3. Infinitives with wh-words in noun clauses
- I've decided what to do (= what I should do)
- But - She's decided what we're to do next
- She told me what to do next. (= what I should do)
Exercise 10 - Complete the gaps with wh-words from the box. Each one is used twice.
|1.||The secret is knowing exactly to take the pasta out of the water.|
|2.||It tells you to cook it on the box.|
|3.||It's simply a matter of knowing questions to ask.|
|4.||I haven't thought about to put it yet. Perhaps over there by the window.|
|5.||I couldn't think to turn to for advice.|
|6.||to park is always a problem at this time of day.|
|7.||I know to ask. We'll ask your mum.|
|8.||Right, I've decided to do next.|
|9.||I'm wondering to tell your dad. - Well, the truth, of course.|
|10.||I don't know to tell you this, but I've broken your Ming vase.|
- I just don't know what to do about this leak. - (Nominal relative clause)
- I never know how to work out percentages. - (Interrogative wh-clause)
Bringing it all together 1
Exercise 11a - Fill each gap with one suitable word. (They're not all wh-words.)
Exercise 11b - Choose which type of construction these clauses are.
|1.||Just he succeeded, I’ve no idea. But succeed he did!|
|2.||I never know to give him for his birthday.|
|3.||This is just what we get her for Christmas. It's ideal.|
|4.||They're very late. I wonder they could have got to.|
|5.||That was they first met, just after she started work.|
|6.||Over by the fountain is where I found the silver coin.|
|7.||Do you know who she’s spoken to about this?|
|8.||And that’s exactly he moved to Australia.|
|9.||I can't remember when I saw him. In 2005, I think.|
|10.||You know I like it, nice and strong.|
|11.||I can’t imagine he thinks that I don't like him.|
|12.||Mrs. Brown? That’s not I was talking about at all.|
Bringing it all together 2
Exercise 12 - Fill each gap with one word from this list.
whatever, whoever, whichever.
Telling the difference 2
1. It's likely to be a nominal relative:
- This (the thing that's just been mentioned) is what I was talking about earlier.
- That (the reason that's just been mentioned) is exactly why I asked you.
- That (the time that's just been mentioned) was when they first met.
- Over there (where I'm pointing) is where I found the silver coin.
- Mrs. Brown? That’s not who I was talking about.
- You're supposed to be an expert; that's why I'm asking you!
- Mmm, that lasagne was good. It was exactly what I needed.
- That’s exactly what we should give him for his birthday ( - a skateboard).
- This is just how I like it ( - hot and spicy).
- That's who we should ask. ( - Susan).
2. It's likely to be an interrogative wh-clause:
- I don't know what she sees in him. (What does she see in him?)
- I can't remember when I last saw him. (When did I last see him?)
- Why she behaved like that is anyone's guess. (Why did she behave like that?)
- I wonder how this works. (How does this work?)
Links and references
- (1) From a linguistics paper by Marcela Malá, Faculty of Education, Technical Unversity of Liberec, available here.
- (2) from a forum thread at Using English - scroll down and look at TheParser's second comment
- Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE Side and Wellman (Longman)
Nominal Relative Clauses
- British Council Learn English - doesn't distinguish between different types of clause
- British Council Learn English - reporting verbs with wh-clause
- GSU.edu - Noun clauses
- Advance Grammar Blog
- Diana Hudson-Ettle at Chemnitz (Linguistics discussion)