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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Parts Of Speech Guide » Nouns and Pronouns » Nouns » Noun Phrases/Clauses

Secondary Nouns, Noun Phrases, and Noun Clauses

Nouns The word "apposite" means "side-by-side" or "alongside." When you use one noun or noun phrase to rename another, it's called an appositive. To "rename" simply means to re-identify, always with more specific detail or information. When an appositive noun and its corresponding modifiers come together, it's called an "appositive phrase."

In the following example, all the appositive phrases are underlined, and the appositives,themselves, are in bold:

The man who discovered Pluto, American astronomer Clyde Taunbaugh, named the planet after Pluto the dog, his daughter's favorite Disney character.

A noun usually isn't a modifier, but given the descriptive nature of renaming, you might think of appositives as modifiers in disguise. In most cases (but not all), appositives are set off by commas.

Nouns In Apposition (Compound Nouns)

A closely related concept to appositive phrases is the use of nouns in apposition: two nouns that are bound together in a single concept and always appear together. We also call these "compound nouns," but "compound" could also refer to the way two or more sentence elements are conjoined (as in compound subjects, or compound sentences), so "nouns in apposition" is a better descriptor even though it's a more complicated term. Nouns in apposition can be open, hyphenated, or combined in their form:

  • car parts
  • hand movement
  • recognition award

  • brother-in-law
  • changing-room
  • witness-box

  • backyard
  • congresswoman
  • riverboat

In the development of any language's common usage, the above is a progression: open nouns in apposition eventually become hyphenated, then closed. Words such as "leather jacket" will eventually be spelled "leather-jacket" and then, ultimately,"leatherjacket" (though the latter is already used as a name for a kind of fish).

Direct Address

A special kind of appositive in English is the direct address, in which the implied "You there" of imperative and other sentences is renamed. Consider these examples:

  • Charlie, what's our destination?
  • Professor, please help me with this problem.
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
  • Welcome, delegates, to the 2012 National Democratic Convention.

Diagramming Secondary Nouns

Secondary nouns are fairly simple to diagram. If they are in appositives, then they go in parentheses right next to the nouns they rename, and their modifiers go right underneath them. If they are nouns in apposition (compound nouns), then they stay together as one concept. If they are a direct address, they "lurk" just outside the diagram. Here's a sentence that includes all three:

Professor, I think that Harold, the student in the v-neck sweater, is confused by the assignment.

Secondary Nouns

Noun Clauses

So far, the other sections under "Nouns" have all focused on how individual words, names and titles fill the role of a noun. However, sometimes entire clauses answer the question "What?" or "Who?" In the following sentence, WHAT is the object of the action? I want only what I'm owed. If we use this sentence to pose the question, "What do I want?" then the answer is "what I am owed"—the very "thing" wanted. Since a noun is a person, place, thing or concept, then "what I am owed" must, in its entirety, be a well-and-true noun. Noun clauses are, by nature, dependent clauses: they cannot stand on their own as independent clauses do. They begin with noun clause markers, subordinators that include many of the same words that serve as Interrogative and Relative Pronouns. The noun clause markers are as follows:

  • that, what and which; who, whom, and whose
  • if; whether; how; when; where; why
  • however, whatever, whenever, wherever, whichever, whoever, whomever

The term “noun clause marker” is strictly one of convenience, a way for grammarians to avoid having to admit they didn't know what the hell else to call them. Opinions differ on whether or not they should even be given their own classification. At present, I'm in that camp that defines these odd-fellows as a hybrid of the demonstrative pronoun and a subordinating conjunction: “that” fills in for a noun and answers the question “What?” but it also behaves like an adverb clause by answering the question “How?”

Okay. I know, I know. I obsess over this because I want to understand the pathology of a noun clause marker—I want it to make some bloody sense, given the rules governing other types of clauses. So far, no joy. Of course, if there were, we wouldn't have had to come up with a demure like “noun clause marker” in the first place.

For you, however, the fundamental skills student, this is purely academic and nothing to worry over. You'll just have to put your trust in a higher power and commit noun clause markers to memory, which is plenty enough work in itself.

In fact, to make it even more vexing, quite often noun clauses don't have to begin with any markers whatsoever! Rather, a noun marker is implied. For instance,

I know you mean well.

The sentence above has an implied noun clause marker, "that":

I know that you mean well.

Noun Clauses

Diagramming Noun Clauses

Just like any other noun, a noun clause can fill the role of a subject, an object, or a complement. However, it's easy to confuse a noun clause with a relative clause or an adverb clause because they all can begin with the same set of words. Remember, however, what questions a noun asks and you will have an easier time recognizing the difference. Consider the following:

    1. ADVERB CLAUSE: Wherever you go, there you are.
    2. RELATIVE CLAUSE: I pity the man who doesn't know love.
    3. NOUN CLAUSE: He believed that the world would end in 2012.

The three sentences above may sound alike in some ways, but when you diagram them, their differences become clearer. Diagramming a noun clause is as simple as putting, both, the subject and predicate in the same spot a noun or pronoun would go; however, in order to economize the use of space, it is elevated. Furthermore, whether or not the noun marker is used in the sentence, it should be included on the diagram above the noun clause, and connected by a dashed line, as shown below:

Diagramming Noun Clauses

Last Updated: 06/18/2015


Karl J Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Phone: 619-644-7871

  • Grossmont
  • Cuyamaca
A Member of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District