A Clue as to Why Wh- Clauses Are So Tricky

Here’s the thing. Wh- clauses can be complements in noun phrases, and in this position they can look quite a lot like identifying adjective clauses with the relative pronouns where, when, and why.

…Is that too much terminology in one sentence? Did you follow my line of thinking? Well, that’s part of the problem. We can trip ourselves up with labels. I love grammar, but I only use terminology as long as it’s helpful. When we need to discuss how to compose a sentence or how to correct a sentence, terminology helps us identify the building blocks. But if trying to name things stops us from building, then perhaps we should find alternative means to form our ideas.

Often language learners build sentences without knowing what all the structures are called, and that’s fine. However, those who turn to formal instruction as a way to elevate their English need to pinpoint areas of inaccuracy. That’s when structures can finally get their proper names. That’s when I introduce terminology to explain what the acceptable patterns are.

Wh- clauses go by another name, embedded questions. I prefer that second one when I’m showing the use of these noun clauses. I like demonstrating how the noun clauses are embedded into a sentence. But I found myself questioning my knowledge the other day when I was giving examples to a private student.

It was easy enough to show embedded questions as a subject, direct object, and indirect object:

  • How we approach a problem can vary from person to person.
  • I need to decide how to approach this problem. (Note that how to implies the meaning of should or could.)
  • We talked about how problems are solved through collaboration.

Once my student demonstrated understanding of this much, it was safe to move on to complements. I find it best to start with subject complements. For students who have never heard of complements, I explain that subject complements define or describe the subject. They follow linking verbs. Many students use the pattern subject + linking verb + complement without even realizing it.

  • The problem is how we rush to conclusions. (We need to define the problem.)

Complements in an adjective phrase aren’t all that different. We need the embedded question to complete the description or to define the adjective more fully:

  • I’m not sure how we can avoid the pressure of time. (I need to explain “sure.”)

At my lesson, I had examples ready for complements in noun phrases. In fact, I pulled two from a previous blog post:

  • The question why I am here is not the issue. (The noun clause is part of the subject.)
  • We had no idea how worried you were. (The noun clause is part of the object.)

In those examples, the complements are defining or identifying the question or the idea. But then when I began to think of other nouns that can easily and naturally be followed by a wh- clause, sentences like these sprang to mind:

  • I wanted to know the real reason why you left.
  • I can’t think of a time when you disappointed me.

That’s where I needed to pause. Are those are examples of adjective (relative) clauses or embedded questions?

A way to check could be to reword the sentences using the more common relative pronoun which: the reason for which you lied/ a time at which you disappointed me. Those substitutes may sound awkward or overly formal, but they work. This test confirms those clauses are identifying adjective clauses. We can’t do a similar rewrite of the earlier examples with the nouns question and idea.

We can do the same test with clauses using where:

  • That’s the kind of place where you can get lost.
  • I try to avoid situations where personal and professional interests conflict.

Couldn’t we reword those sentences using the kind of place in which / situations in which? Yes. Biber et al. point out that use of where in adjective clauses is common to refer to both physical and logical locations (626,

Biber also states that embedded questions aren’t very common as noun complements. So although they may look similar in appearance as adjective clauses, in fact, these wh- clauses mainly occur with the head noun question. (656, 8.14.4). Two alternative ways to embed wh- clauses in a noun phrase make use of prepositions:

  • Please provide a detailed explanation of how you intend to achieve your goal.
  • The question as to whether the experiment was successful is much debated.

The insertion of those prepositions close the door on adjective clauses. Only a noun or something that behaves like a noun can follow a prepositions. Embedded questions fall into that category.

In the end, what matters most is effective communication. If looking at such such patterns helps one build better sentences and achieve greater variety, then it’s worth having some explicit instruction. At the very least, students should have a healthy dose of exposure to common head nouns that pair up with wh- clauses. Biber has put together lists of words expressing place, time, and reason (627, 8.12) as well as speech communication, exemplification, problems, and cognitive states or processes (656, 8.14.4). Such lists can help us teachers create activities that prompt use of these words in meaningful contexts. If you want to suggest an idea, please do! Perhaps I’ll give it a go in a future post.



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.


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