Saturday, April 14, 2012

Exploring nominal relative clauses, interrogative wh-clauses and the like

One of the more esoteric areas of grammar

The term nominal relative clause is not used very much in TEFL materials, even at advanced level. Nominal relatives and interrogative wh-clauses are usually simply treated together as wh-clauses.
But as one of my favourite student grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for Cambridge Advanced and Proficiency, by Side and Wellman (Longman), has one section on Nominal relative clauses, and another on (interrogative) wh-clauses, I thought it might be interesting to compare them.
I'd also noticed that a couple of learners had written to English language forums asking about the difference, so the question had obviously come up, at least for some people.

Explore nominal wh-clauses with lots of exercises and a bit of discussion

Part 1 - Nominal relative clauses

I think things will become a bit clearer if we have some hands-on practice, so before we go any further try this exercise:

Exercise 1 - Fill the gaps in these nominal relative clauses with suitable words from the box. Some words can be used more than once.

how   · what   · when   · where   · who   · why  
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?

Look at these two sentences. The first has a noun followed by a defining relative clause. The second has a nominal relative clause:
  • That's the thing which (or that) I was talking about.
  • That's what I was talking about.
What has happened in the second sentence is that the noun thing and the relative pronoun which (or that) have been combined in the nominal relative pronoun what. The nominal relative clause acts as a combined noun and defining relative clause, which is why it is generally considered to be a noun clause. And hence the name nominal.
Because the noun and the relative pronoun are 'fused' (joined together) in one word, nominal relative clauses are also sometimes known by linguists as fused relatives.

The most common nominal relative pronoun is what.

It stands for something like "the thing(s) which". In romance languages, for example, it would be represented by two words meaning approximately "that which"
EnglishThis is what we need
CatalanAixò és el que necessitem
FrenchC'est ce que nous avons besoin
ItalianQuesto è quello che ci serve
PortugueseIsto é o que precisamos
RomanianAceasta este ceea ce avem nevoie
SpanishEsto es lo que necesitamos
(I hope those are all correct. For Portuguese and Romanian in particular, I'm relying heavily on Google Translate)

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

Like other noun clauses, nominal relatives can have the same positions and functions in a sentence as nouns.
In this post I use the term subject complement a couple of times. After a linking verb, most commonly to be, instead of an object we have a subject complement: a noun or adjective which refers back to the subject and tells us something about it.
  • 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.asubject complement
2. Have you brought what I asked for?bprepositional object
3. That's what I've been trying to tell you.cdirect object
4. We've been talking about what we're going to do next.dsubject
For the grammatically minded, nominal relative clauses can also function as indirect objects, object complements and appositives:
  • 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)
The most common function seems to be as object, or subject complement after to be.

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)
Note that these can look very similar to adverb clauses
  • 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)
Whatever and whichever can also be used as determiners before nouns:
  • 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.

what   · whatever   · which   · whichever   · who   · whoever  
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)
Note that these can look very like defining relative clauses
  • 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)

how, why

  • 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

Nominal relative clauses are often used as subject complements after the expressions this, that, it + the verb be, and with adverbs such as just, exactly and precisely

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.
Note - this and that often refer back to what has just been said (or seen). This could be either just before the present utterance, by the speaker or perhaps by somebody else, (Question numbers 1, 3 and 4); or by the speaker themself in the same utterance (Question numbers 2, 5 and 6).

Cleft sentences

Cleft sentences 'cleave' (split, divide) a clause into two parts in order to emphasise one of the parts. There are two main types of cleft sentence, it- clefts and what- clefts. What-clefts contain a type of nominal relative clause, so we'll take a quick look at them. Let's look at a couple of example sentences.
  • Sally dumped me
  • I don't like the way she did it
In what- clefts, also known as pseudo-clefts, the nominal relative clause is usually in subject position, but it can also be a subject complement. They have three patterns:
  • 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

We can use what as a determiner before a plural or uncountable 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 here means "all the", but suggests that it's not very much:
- what few books, what little money etc.

A reminder about which in relative clauses.

Remember that as well as using which in relative clauses to refer to a noun, it can also be used in a non-defining relative clause to refer back to the whole of the previous clause. This can be a simple comment on the main clause, or introduce new information resulting from the main clause (see my post on coordinate 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

Nominal relative clauses can often look similar to another kind of noun clause (nominal clause) known as interrogative wh-clauses (often simply called wh-clauses). Look at these examples:
  • Do you know what I'm meant to do next.
  • I can't remember when she's arriving.
  • I wonder why he did that.
Wh-clauses imply a question:
  • "What am I meant to do next?"
  • "When is she arriving?"
  • "Why did he do that?"
For this reason they are often called indirect or embedded questions.
The main thing to notice is that the word order in the wh-clause is like a normal affirmative sentence, and is not inverted as in a direct question.

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 .
We often use wh-clauses in reported questions.
  • She asked me when I was going to come and see her.
If the implied indirect or reported question is a yes / no question, then we use if or whether instead of a wh-word.
  • She asked me if I was going to come and see her soon.
  • I wonder whether he'll remember me.
As indirect and reported speech are not really the topic of this post, I'll leave it there. If you want to read more about when to use if and when to use whether, there's a link to the relevant post below.

Using what and which before nouns in interrogative wh-clauses

We can use what and which as determiners before a noun in interrogative wh-clauses:
  • I wonder what idea he'll come up with next.
  • I don't know which book to read next.
Note that in this use, what as a determiner does not have the sense of "not much" that it has when we use it with nominal relative clauses; it is neutral.
They are often used after reporting verbs
  • 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

Sometimes we follow a reporting verb with a that-clause which includes a wh-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.
  • .
(That-clauses are another type of noun clause, but I won't be dealing with them in this post. I think we've got enough on our plates already.)

Nominal wh-clauses and prepositions

We can use both nominal relatives and interrogative wh-clauses after 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.
(Notice that in that last example we've got a defining relative clause inside the noun clause.)
Sometimes there is a preposition in the noun clause itself. In this case we usually put the it at the end of the clause.
  • 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

In a nominal relative clause, the nominal relative pronoun refers to something known, something concrete, which can be specified. In wh-clauses, there is an implied question; the speaker doesn't know exactly what the answer will be, it is more abstract.

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.

In fact grammarians themselves recognise that "nominal relative clauses and dependent wh- interrogative clauses are often difficult to distinguish from each other." (1). And even the experts themselves don't always agree as to which category some examples fall into. (2)
The verb know, for example, seems to be a particularly tricky case. Most people agree that in questions and negatives it's followed by an interrogative wh-clause, but not everybody agrees about positive (affirmative) sentences. Some experts say it's a nominal relative, others an interrogative wh-clause.

Grey area 1. After verbs of thinking

We often use noun clauses starting with a wh-word after verbs of thinking, such as:
know, understand, suppose, remember, forget, wonder
The following examples could all be turned into questions, and I think we can safely call them interrogative wh-clauses
  • 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?)
And personally, I would put these down as nominal relatives
  • 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)
But these next examples are not so clear - wh-clause or nominal relative?.
  • I know what the answer is.
  • I understand how you must feel.
Well, as even the experts seem to be divided, I don't think we need to worry too much. The main thing is that the construction is the same.

Grey area 2. After reporting verbs

We often use noun clauses starting with a wh-word after reporting verbs
ask, say, admit, argue, reply, agree, mention, explain, suggest
Sentences with ask are obviously indirect questions
  • 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?)
And these ones look to me more like nominative relatives
  • 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)
But these ones are anyone's guess.
  • 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

Some wh-words can be followed by an infinitive when the subject of the nominal wh-clause is the same as the subject of the main clause, or when it refers to the object.
  • 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.

how   · what   · when   · where   · who  
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.


Again it's not always easy to tell whether these are nominal relatives or interrogative wh-clauses
In Longman's Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE for instance, Side and Wellman give these two example sentences (with their categorisation):
  • 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)
Now I'm not sure I really see the difference, except perhaps one is about a specific occasion, and the other is more general. In fact I would have thought they were both interrogatives - What shall I do about this leak? and How do you work out percentages?
But as the construction is exactly the same, again it's probably not worth bothering too much, and we can leave these questions to the linguists and grammarians.

Bringing it all together 1

As I've already said, I don't think it's really necessary for students to worry too much whether a construction is a nominal relative clause or an interrogative wh-clause. The main thing is that you get an ear for how these clauses are used. So you can do Exercise 11a without bothering about the difference.
But if you fancy yourself as a grammar nerd, you can do Exercise 11b to help you differentiate between the two. I think these examples are fairly uncontroversial.

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.

all, what, who, when, where, how, why, which
whatever, whoever, whichever.
I can't remember exactly (1) it was Shirley said to him that day, but (2) it was, it made him absolutely furious. (3) it was that said "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" obviously hadn't seen Peter in action. This was (4) I began to think that (5) some people said about him (that he had a filthy temper) might perhaps be true after all.
I had known Peter for (6) seemed like ages, and we'd always got on well together. But I was also friendly with Shirley, (7) put me in a bit of an awkward situation. One day I'd have Peter coming and confiding in me, - "That's (8) I needed," he would say, "and just (9) everything was going so well". The next day it would be Shirley - "You wouldn't believe (10) sensitive that man is! I can't think (11) he has taken (12) was just a silly remark so seriously!"
(13) had happened was that some time ago Shirley had borrowed one of Peter's course books, I've forgotten (14) one, but (15) one it was, Peter now desperately needed it to revise for his exams, (16) were only a week away.
Apparently she had lost it and couldn't remember (17) she had had it last, probably in some café or other, knowing her, as that's where she likes to do (18) little studying she does. At first she didn't tell him (19) she had done, having a fairly good idea of (20) he would react.
So, when he asked (21) his book was, she tried to laugh it off. And when he told her that he couldn't see (22) he was going to pass his exams now, and that (23) chances he had had been ruined, and that it was all her fault, she had just laughed and said, 'Yeah, (24) !'
You can't blame Peter for flying off the handle, really.

Telling the difference 2

These are simply my own suggestions

1. It's likely to be a nominal relative:

a. - if the wh-clause is referring to something concrete that has just been mentioned.
  • 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.
b. - if the wh-clause is referring to something concrete mentioned in the same utterance.
  • 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.
c. - if the wh-clause is referring to something concrete which is not necessarilly mentioned, but which we could add after the clause.
  • 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).
d. - if it involves whatever, whoever or whichever. These are rarely used in interrogative wh-clauses

2. It's likely to be an interrogative wh-clause:

if there is an implied question:
  • 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

Related posts


  • (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


Cleft sentences



  1. You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar.

    Not an expert on grammar? My TESOL course peers have taken to calling me Crystal id est David Crystal because of my level of language awareness. I am by no means an expert on grammar, however you, sir, may be likened to the grammar god himself.

    Thank you for clarifying what I have been pondering for a long time (just had to sneak one in there).

  2. Terrific article. Thank you so much

  3. As a teacher of ESL, I am constantly fighting with grammars and practice books in which the difference between nominal wh- clauses and interrogative wh- clauses is just passed over. Even in level B2 textbooks and grammars it is barely mentioned. What's worse, interrogative wh- clauses are inserted as pure relative clauses in many of those books, which just makes me mad, as it is so very clear that they are not! They may work the same way, but they've got little else to do with relative clauses.
    This post is what I had been looking forward to for pretty a long time. It corroborated my aversion for what I find to be a display of shallowness, but it also provided me with a way to help students understand those three very different clauses, should I ever have high level classes to teach. Until then, I will just have to keep on asking my students to cross out the wrong entries in their books, so that they don't go desperately wrong.
    Thank you for your amazing article.

  4. This article is amazing. Thank you very much!