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Clauses that include a wh-word are called wh-clauses. Wh-words can

appear in main clauses and in subordinate clauses.

Who is bringing Violetta’s icon to Athens?

Vince is bringing what to Athens?

Vince is bringing whose/which icon to Athens?

Vince is bringing Violetta’s icon where?

The preceding clauses are main wh-clauses. They contain wh-words such
as who, what, whose, which, where. These words can replace a
constituent in a main clause, thus turning the clause into a wh-question.


Standard wh-questions resemble yes/no questions, both of them display

subject-auxiliary inversion.

What is Vince bringing to Athens?

Which/whose icon is Vince bringing to Athens?

Where is Vince bringing Violetta’s icon?

The wh-word is displaced from whatever position it had in the previous

sentences to the front of the sentence. This displacement of the wh-
expression to the front of the sentence is called wh-fronting.

When a wh-expression appears at the front of a clause it is represented as

occupying the same position as the complementiser that.
What is Vince bringing to Athens

(complementiser) (sentence)

Whose icon is Vince bringing to Athens

(complementiser) (sentence)

Wh-fronting does not result in a change of word-order.

The wh-expression not only serves to introduce the clause, it actually has
a function in the structure of the clause that it introduced. The wh-
expression functions as an obligatory element in the structure of the
clause. If we ignore the wh complementiser, the sentence itself is clearly
seen to be incomplete:

• Is Vince bringing to Athens?

(there is a direct object missing)

• Is bringing Violetta’s icon to Athnes?

(there is a subject missing)


The same wh-forms that appear in information seeking questions also

occur in nominal clauses – who, what, which, where, when, why, how.
(How is treated as a wh-word even though it is spelled with an initial h). In
such cases the wh-word is both a proform and a subordinator. All
subordinators are semantically empty. This is not true of wh-words
because they do have referents, even though those referents are not
specified in the sentence.
I know who Justine is dating. [Justine is dating

What he said shocked the reporters. [He said something.]

I saw what she did. [She did something.]

Wh clauses differ from interrogatives in that the operator in the wh-clause

does not move. The wh-word usually occurs first in the clause regardless
of its function. In the following sentence what is moved out of normal
direct object position and appears at the beginning of the clause.

I heard what Geoff said.

Wh-clauses can perform all the normal nominal functions. They can act as
subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, subject complements, object
complements, and also as the objects of many prepositions. Wh-words
within nominal clauses take on a variety of functions – subject, direct
object, indirect object, object complement, subject complement,
determiner, adverb, and object of a preposition.


Wh-clauses often function as direct objects. Like any other clause, the wh-
clause has internal structure.

Subject direct object

Samantha knows what Joyce is doing

d.o. subject

Steve knows where Ian is going

Adv. Subject

of place

I know what they christened the baby

Object subject d.o.


I saw which kid took the candy

Determiner d.o.


When wh-clauses function as predicate nominatives, they occur in the

same environments that characterize infinitive and that clause predicate

Wh-predicate nominative clauses

The issue is what she told her boss.

The problem is where we will put the visitors.

The question is why he told her at all.


While that clauses, infinitive clauses, and ing clauses never function as
indirect objects or object complements, wh-clauses do. However, in the
case of indirect object clauses, this occurs only when the wh-word is
nonspecific whoever and whichever and very occasionally whatever. Who
never appears in a wh-indirect object clause; I will give the silver dollar to
whoever gets the highest grades is fine but I will give the silver dollar to
who gets the highest grade is ungrammatical.
Wh-indirect object clauses

He gave whoever answered the door the subpoena.

I will offer my services to whoever I like.

I will tell whichever reporter arrives first my story.

Give the free lunch to whatever group needs it most.

The most common wh-forms in object complements are whoever and

whatever, but what can also occur in these structures. Wh-object
complement clauses are somewhat unusual, however.

Wh-object complement clauses

You may name the puppy whatever seems suitable.

Paint the room whatever color you like.

Wh-object complement clauses (cont.)

This makeup artist can make you whoever you want to be.

They named the baby what they were told to name her.


Wh-clausal subjects occur in a very limited environment; they most often

precede copulas and verbs that communicate a psychological reaction –
shock, bother, disturb, please, thrill, elate. As with direct object clauses,
the wh-word in a wh-subject clause can take on almost any function.

Wh-subject clauses

Who gave me the report is confidential.

Who I loaned my car to is none of your business.

Who Mary’s admirer is remains a mystery.

What Louise said pleased me.

What this machine does is to stamp the packages.

Which house they sold isn’t relevant.

Why he screamed was a mystery.

How long we are staying is Gertrude’s decision.

Which suspect is guilty hasn’t been determined.

Whether she participates or not is immaterial.

Whatever he said shocked his parents.

Whoever told you this lied.

Sometimes wh-clause subjects are followed by infinitival predicative

nominatives in which the to is optional – What Sam did was [to] offend
the boss; What this policy does is [to] protect you form flood and fire.

Extraposition of WH-clauses Subject wh clauses can be extraposed fairly

readily and many sound better extraposed.
It’s none of your business who I loaned my car to.

It hasn’t been determined which suspect is guilty.

It is immaterial whatever she participates or not.

It isn’t clear when they left.

Direct object wh-clauses containing when are routinely extraposed, even

though the extraposed clause often follows the cataphoric it directly.

I hate it when my brother interrupts me.

I enjoy it when my students seem enthusiastic.

Mom doesn’t like it a bit when you whine.

Wh-clauses can on occasion function as complements of predicate

adjectives – Doris wasn’t certain who was coming to the party; I
wasn’t sure whether Mabel would be there. More often, however, a
wh-clause functions as the object of the preposition in prepositional
phrase adjective complements. In the sentences in the following chart, the
adjective complement is a preposition phrase in which the object of the
preposition is a wh-clause.

Wh-clauses in prepositional phrase adjective complements

Regina was afraid of what might happen to her house.

Ted was worried about who would feed the cats during the trip.

They were sorry about what their dog had done to my rug.

Evie is unhappy about who was chosen.


English has a number of postnominal modifying constructions. One of the

most common is the relative clause. A relative clause is a wh-clause that
always follows an NP; the relative proform, always a wh-word or that, has
the same referent as the preceding NP. In The guy who borrowed your car
isn’t reliable, who and the guy refer to the same individual. The relative
proform always has a grammatical function within the clause and at the
same time acts as a subordinator.

English contains two distinct types of relative clauses, each of which has a
different effect on the preceding NP.


The primary job of a restrictive relative clause is to restrict the possible

referents of the preceding NP, thus making the referent more accessible
to the header.

Give the man who is waiting at the door the package.

The repairperson who fixed your computer was totally


The steak which you brought me is cold.

In a sentence like The kids who are playing on the doorstep are too
noisy, the restrictive relative clause tells us which kids are being referred
to; it’s not the kids who are sitting in the living room or the kids who are
hiding in the attic; it’s the kids who are playing on the doorstep.

Since restrictive relative clauses restrict the possible referents of the NP,
such clauses do not occur with proper nouns because proper nouns
already have unique reference. In a sentence like The John Doe who is in
my statistics class is an idiot, John Doe is not technically a proper noun.
The presumption here is that there is more than one John Doe and the
relative clause restricts the reference to the one in my statistics class.
Because of this restricting function, restrictive relative clauses are usually
used in cases in which the preceding NP has more than one potential
referent. If I know that a friend has two daughters, I might say “The
daughter who lives in Cleveland just finished medical school, and the
daughter who lives in Tucson is unemployed.”

Relative clauses can modify NPs in any position and the clause is
embedded in the nominal structure. In other words, if the clause modifies
a direct object NP, then the relative clause is part of the direct object.

Direct object

I don’t know the student who is standing in the back.

Restrictive relative clause

Like any other clause, a restrictive relative clause has internal structure
and the wh-word typically comes first in the clause, regardless of its
grammatical function within the clause.

Restrictive relative clause

I really like the man who my sister is dating now

Restrictive relative clauses can modify indefinite pronouns:

I don’t know anyone who can fix this.

This is somebody who has a grudge.

Anybody who would do that is a creep.

They can also modify personal pronouns, but only when the pronouns are
used as indefinites – He who dies with the most toys wins. Indefinite
personal pronouns are fairly rare in Modern English. On rare occasions
you is used with a restrictive relative clause, as in You who’s holding up
the line, move along.

The proform whom is required when the relative pronoun functions as an

object (including object of a preposition), even highly educated speakers
of English use who in all positions in conversation - I know the woman
who you offered that job to; I met the guy who you had that big fight with.

Where, when and why can also be used as relative proforms in very
limited circumstances. Where must follow an NP that indicates a place,
when must follow an NP that indicates time, and why typically follows the
NP the reason.

The town where I was born no longer exists.

Do you remember the time when we danced until dawn.

She won’t tell me the reason why she did it.

The indefinite wh-proforms (whoever, whatever, wherever, etc) do not

occur as relative pronouns.

Inanimate whose endures in speech and sentences like these can be

heard My doctor gave me some pills whose side-effects were terrible or
That’s the school whose roof blew off in Hurricane Andrew.

Restrictive relative clauses Function of italicized or

covert proform

I need someone who can fix this. Subject

The names which Sherry called Bobby were shocked. Object


The place where my sister lives is rundown. Adverb of

The woman on whose porch you are sitting is my aunt. Genitive

The house in which I grew up has been razed. Object of preposition

(PP functioning as
adverb of place)


Non-restrictive relative clauses perform a very different function from

restrictive relative clauses; they simply provide additional information
about the NP and are never crucial in identifying the referent(s). While
non-restrictive relative clauses are subordinate clauses, i.e., they can’t
stand alone, they are not embedded within the NP. Unlike restrictive
clauses, they can co-occur with proper nouns and they don’t co-occur with
indefinite pronouns. The fact that non-restrictive clauses provide
additional information and are not embedded is underscored by the
pauses that surround these clauses in discourse, these pauses are
reflected by commas in written texts.

Jerry Seinfeld, who is a stand-up comedian, had his own t.v.


My oldest sister, who is an accountant in New York, handles my


George is visiting Cecilia, who is living in Spain.

Absalom, Absalom, which Faulkner published in 1936, was his

most difficult novel.

Although the material provided by non-restrictive relative clauses is

“additional”, it is not superfluous or irrelevant. Sometimes a non-
restrictive clause will provide very important information as in These
batteries, which should be changed monthly, will ensure that your smoke
detector can be heard all over the house.

Unlike restrictive relative clauses, non-restrictive relative clauses can refer

back to structures other than NPs. Because the referents of these clauses
are structures rather than people, the relative proform is always which.

Diana loves that purple dinosaur, [refers to preceding


which many kids do.

Today is Sunday, which means I can sleep in. [refers to

entire sentence]

Aaron lied to his parents, which really bothered them.[refers to

entire sentence]

When a non-restrictive structure is an NP rather than a clause, it is usually

called an appositive. Like non-restrictive relative clauses, appositives
refer to same entity as the NP they follow.

Non-restrictive relative clause Appositive

My daughter, who is a surgeon in Texas, has been My daughter,

a surgeon in Texas

awarded a big grant. has been awarded a

big grant.

Dr. Keller, who is a well-known chemist, made an Dr. Keller, a

well-known chemist,

amazing discovery. made an amazing

Ward, which is an old counter-culture community, Ward, an old

is fascinating. community, is


Berk , Lynn M. English Syntax, From Word to Discourse, New York: Oxford Oxford
University Press 1999

Burton-Roberts, Noel Analysing Senteces , An Introduction to English Syntax,

New York: Longman Longman Group Limited 1986