WH-Word Clauses

WH-word clauses get their name from the fact that most of the words that introduce them begin with the letters wh. There are ten WH-words. Six of them are pronouns; four are adverbs:

The pronouns are who, whose, whom, which, what, that.

The adverbs are:where, when, why, how.

You’ll notice that two of the WH-words don’t actually begin with wh. But how is pronounced with the same strong h sound as who, whose, and whom, and, as we’ll see, that is often used instead of which or who.

There are two kinds of WH-word clauses. Besides WH-word dependent (or subordinate) clauses: there are also WH-word question clauses. The two kinds function quite differently, but they’re almost identical in construction.

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WH-Word Questions

We can ask three different types of questions. There are “yes-or-no” questions like “Are you still engaged to that armadillo?” or “Is it possible to whistle while eating pancakes?” There are “alternative” or “choice” questions like “Should we send the python or the boa constrictor?” or “Which will it be—math or jail?” But when we’re looking for “new” information, as opposed to choosing between things that are already identified, we have to ask WH-word questions. It’s said that apprentice reporters are taught is to ask, “who? what? where? when? and why?” in every situation. Here are some WH-word questions (that isn’t a WH-question word):

1. Who let the cat out of the bag?

2. Whose bag was it?

3. Who (or whom) did you nominate for Migration Director?

4. What happened to that list of elephant jokes?

5. What good is a listless shopper?

6. Which birds have applied to molt?

7. Why did you give Fang all the hors d’oeuvres?

8. Exactly when and where will the next hissing conference be held?

9. How did you manage to put a howdah on a flea?

10. How many yuppies can dance on the hood of a BMW?

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The Functioning of WH-Words within their Clauses

WH-words function as subjects, completers, or modifiers within the clauses they introduce. At this point in your study of syntax, It might be easy for you to identify the functions of the WH-words in the preceding questions before you look at the answers below.

1. Who is the subject of the finite verb let. When you ask, who let? it might seem strange at first to get who back as an answer. But who is a pronoun: it refers to “some unknown person.”

2. Whose modifies bag.

3. Whom (or who) is the completer of the finite verb did nominate (you did nominate who(m)?)

4. What, a pronoun referring to “some unknown thing,” is the subject of happened.

5. What modifies good. What good is the subject of is. The completer of is is listless shopper.

6. Which modifies birds.

7. The adverb why modifies did give.

8. Where and when are coordinate adverbs: both modify will be held. (Exactly is an adverb that modifies both where and when.)

9. How modifies did manage.

l0. How modifies the adjective many. The adjective phrase how many modifies yuppies.

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Prepositional Phrases in WH-Word Questions

Take the following statements (notice the prepositional phrases):

Those boas belong (to Brigid).

You sprayed Jumbo (with the wrong cologne).

The itching powder is (for Jacob, the media star).

If we convert these statements to WH-word questions, note what can happen to the position of the preposition:

Whom (or who) do these boas belong to? / To whom do these boas belong?

Which cologne did you spray Jumbo with? / With which cologne did you spray Jumbo?

Who is the itching powder for? / For whom is the itching powder intended?

Often, people feel that it’s incorrect or awkward to end a sentence with a preposition. Both arrangements are equally possible, though beginning with a preposition makes for a much more formal-sounding sentence.

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The Two Kinds of WH-Word Clauses Compared

WH-word questions are independent clauses and WH-word dependent clauses are just what their name indicates: dependent clauses that function within a main clause. In the examples that follow, I’ve placed some of the WH-word questions we’ve just been looking at next to sentences that contain corresponding WH-word dependent clauses. As I mentioned, the two kinds are nearly identical in construction. The WH-words have exactly the same function in both, and the conversion, so to speak, from question to dependent clause usually involves just a change from question word order to statement word order. However, even when the word order is exactly the same, the two sound unmistakably different in their contexts. I’ll put the WH-word dependent clauses in curvy brackets:

Who let the cat out of the bag? / I’m looking for the dirty rat {who let the cat out of the bag.}

Whom did you nominate for Migration Director? / The clueless bird {whom you nominated for Migration Director} couldn’t even find his own goggles.

What good is a listless shopper? / I can’t imagine {what good a listless shopper would be}.

Why did you give Fang all the hors d’oeuvres? / {Why you gave Fang all the hors d’oeuvres} is utterly beyond my imagination.

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The Functioning of WH-Word Dependent Clauses

WH-word dependent clauses are either adjective clauses (they modify nouns) or noun clauses (they function as subjects or completers).

WH-Word Adjective Clauses

A WH-word adjective clause almost always follows immediately after the noun or pronoun it modifies (you’ll notice that that finally makes its appearance as a WH-word):

Any duck {that refuses to migrate} will be fired from the flock. [The “that” clause modifies duck.]

I pity the poor vulture {who has to pick your brains}. [The “who” clause modifies vulture.]

This report, {which the Carrion Resources Committee spent its entire budget on}, or {on which the CRC spent its entire budget}, is full of rotten thinking. [The “which” clause modifies report.]

Maestro Pachyderm, {who(m) we invited to speak at our culture rally}, is willing to appear for peanuts. [The “who(m)” clause modifies Maestro Pachyderm.]

Anyone {who (or that) hates plums} should keep their thumbs out of pies. [The “who” (or “that”) clause modifies anyone.]

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Relative Pronouns and Relative Clauses

The WH-words in WH-word adjective clauses (who, whose, whom, which, or that) are pronouns. The word that the pronoun stands for (called its antecedent) is also the word that the entire adjective clause modifies. The antecedent-pronoun pairs in the examples just discussed are duck / that, vulture / who, anyone / who, and so on. Because the pronoun relates so strongly to its antecedent, WH-word pronouns are frequently called relative pronouns and WH-word adjective clauses are called relative clauses.

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Relative Adverbs

In one kind of relative clause, the WH-word is not a pronoun but an adverb. The adverb (when, where, or why) modifies the verb in its own clause, but the clause it introduces modifies the noun that precedes it:

Dusk is the time {when elephants sing to their sweeties}. [The “when” clause modifies time. When itself modifies sing.]

This is the place {where Jumbo proposed}. [The “where” clause modifies place. Where itself modifies proposed.]

Do you know the reason {why Fang fainted}? [The “why” clause modifies reason. Why modifies fainted.]

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Ellipting Relative Pronouns

When a relative pronoun (again, the WH-word that introduces an adjective clause) is a completer in its own clause, it is very often ellipted (left out). Nevertheless, it’s still easy to tell through the sentence rhythm that the dependent clause modifies the noun it follows:

The fleas {that he fired} weren’t up to scratch.
The fleas {he fired} weren’t up to scratch.

The frog {that she kissed} was better looking than the prince {who(m) she married}
The frog {she kissed} was better looking than the prince {she married}.

The python {you tried to hide under} or {under which you tried to hide} is unusually ticklish.

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WH-Word Noun Clauses

WH-word noun clauses are like noun phrases in that they function as subjects or completers of finite verbs or as completers of prepositions. They can also stand in apposition to noun phrases.

WH-Word Noun Clauses as Subjects

{What an octopus can do with only eight arms} always amazes me. [The “what” clause is the subject of amazes.]

{Why Jumbo suddenly burst into tears} no longer remains a mystery. [The “why” clause is the subject of remains.]

{When the beguine will begin} depends (on {when the beguiners show up} ). [The first “when” clause is the subject of depends. The prepositional phrase on when the beguiners show up modifies depends. The second “when” clause, when the beguiners show up, is the completer of the preposition on.]

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WH-Word Noun Clauses as Completers of Finite Verbs

The neighbors finally realized {what the beware-the-flea icon stood for}. [The “what” clause is the completer of realized.]

! wonder {when Fang will finish his morning slithering}. [The “when” clause is the completer of wonder.]

We haven’t discovered yet {how piranhas pay their dentist bills}.[The “how” clause is the completer of discovered.

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WH-Word Noun Clauses as Completers of Prepositions

There was a lot (of quacking (over {who should organize the migration ceremony} ) ). [There is a dummy subject; the actual subject of the finite verb was is lot. The “who” clause is the completer of the preposition over. The prepositional phrase over who should organize the migration ceremony modifies quacking.

This report deals (with {how porcupines manage to cuddle} ). [The prepositional phrase with how porcupines manage to cuddle modifies deals. The “how” clause is the completer of the preposition with.]

The question (of {why yuppies like to dance on BMWs} ) seldom bothers automobile designers. [The prepositional phrase of why yuppies like to dance on BMWs modifies question. The “why” clause is the completer of the preposition of.]

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WH-Word Noun Clauses in Apposition

The judge’s next question, {how we got the octopus drunk in the first place}, was much more embarrassing. [The “how” clause is in apposition with question; it identifies the question.]

We haven’t solved the real problem: {what will become of those excess piranhas}. [The “what” clause is in apposition with problem; it identifies the problem.]

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WH-Word Noun Clauses and Subordinating Connective “That” Clauses

WH-word noun clauses might remind us of subordinating-connective noun clauses beginning with that. Compare these examples:

{What an octopus can do with only eight arms} always amazes me.
It always amazes me {that an octopus can keep all eight sleeves rolled up}.

{What the skull-and-crossbones flag meant} finally dawned on the passengers.
I finally realized {that a skull-and-crossbones flag doesn’t mean that the mast is poisonous}.

This report deals (with {how porcupines cuddle} ).
{That porcupines cuddle} is a tribute to their romantic nature.

Placing the two types of noun clauses together like this suggests that there is always, so to speak, a bit of question implied in a WH-word dependent clause.

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Where, When, and That

Where, when, and that can introduce both subordinating-connective clauses and WH-word clauses, but it’s not difficult to tell the difference between the two types. If a clause beginning with when or where modifies a verb, we have a subordinating-connective adverb clause. If a clause beginning with when or where functions as a subject or completer or modifies a noun, the clause is a WH-word clause.

If a clause beginning with that functions as a subject or completer or is in apposition with a noun, the clause is a subordinating-connective clause. If a that-clause modifies a noun, or if you can substitute which for that, the clause is a WH-word clause.

Both sentences in the following pairs contain identical or very similar dependent clauses. One of them is a WH word clause; the other is a subordinating-connective clause. See if you can tell which is which (the answers follow):

1a. When Fang phoned, I was having lunch with Miss Hiss.
1b. I simply don’t know when Fang phoned.

2a. Her thesis, that fleas do well in calculus, came as something of a surprise.
2b. The kind of calculus that fleas do well in hardly will get them jobs in information technology.

3a. A buzzard like him always knows where the best carrion is.
3b. Intelligent buzzards spend the winter where the best carrion is.

Here are the answers:

In 1a, the “when” clause is a subordinating-connective clause; it modifies was having. In 1b, it’s a WH-word noun clause, the completer of don’t know.

In 2a, That fleas do well in calculus is a noun clause and that is a subordinating connective. In 2b, That fleas do well in is a WH-word adjective clause modifying calculus and that is a relative pronoun. We could also say which fleas do well in or, in which fleas do well.

In 3a, Where the best carrion is is a WH-word noun clause, the completer of knows. In 3b, where is a subordinating connective introducing an adverb clause that modifies spend.

Download practice sentences for WH-Word Clauses.

–> Continue on to Non-Finite Verb Phrases.

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10 Comments on “WH-Word Clauses

  1. Hello,
    Thanks for your informative information. Could you please give your examples in simple English language? In think most of the visitors are non-native.

    • Hi, the examples we’ve given serve two purposes: hopefully to explain, but also to show some fun and idiomatic uses of English. Please let me know if you have questions.

  2. Can you tell me what kind of structure this is?
    “I don’t know where to go to have fun.”
    It looks like a noun clause, but I don’t think the two infinitives can be verbs. Is it some kind of noun phrase complement?

    • Hi, Steve, The two infinitives are modifiers. “Where to go to have fun” is a noun clause, the completer of the finite verb “know.” “To have Fun” is a non-finite verb phrase modifying “go.” “To go” modifies “where.” Regards, Dr Ron

  3. Whether these sentences are write or not?

    Who are they?
    Who they are is not my problem.
    Who they are are not my relatives.

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