I am new here. I dont know how to use it.

I am teaching Syntax and I have some problems to differentiate Nominal Relative Clauses and Wh-Interrogative Clause. I am wondering if some of you could help me with these examples.

Do you remember when Columbus discovered America?
Do you remember when we first came here, darling?
What caused the fire remains a mystery.
We never discovered what caused the fire.

Thanks beforehand.

  • 2
    Sentences 1, 2, and 4 have objective clauses, sentece 3 has a subjective clause.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 5:11

3 Answers 3


The difference between relative clauses and embedded question complement wh-clauses
can be very tricky to identify.
For example,

  • all of the sentences presented contain embedded question complement wh-clauses,
  • none of the sentences presented contain restrictive relative wh-clauses.

Relatives and questions use almost the same set of wh-words.
There are some differences, though.
For one thing, whether, how, and what can never be used as relative pronouns:

  • **the answer whether he was coming*
  • **the way how he walks*
  • **the car what he drives*

why is severely restricted in what nouns it may modify as a relative pronoun; basically only reason:

  • the reason why he came, but not **the cause/purpose/intent(ion) why he came*

These restrictions on wh-words contribute to the frequency of that in relative clauses,
since that can be used instead of any wh-word, and is not restricted like wh-words are.

Complements, on the other hand, are clauses used as nouns,
while relatives are clauses used as adjectives, to modify nouns.
I.e, complement clauses can be the subject or the object of
clauses that have the appropriate (complement-taking) predicates.

The first, second, and fourth original sentences contain direct object complement clauses,
governed by the respective transitive predicates remember, remember, and discover.

The third original sentence contains a subject complement clause,
governed by the complex predicate remains a mystery.

(This predicate, btw, has already been done some things to;
  for more details than you need on that subject, see here.)

That's enough to be going on with for a while.

  • The first and the second example sentence contain an embedded interrogative clause. The third and fourth example sentence, in contrast, contain a free relative clause. In other words, a relevant distinction for the question is between a free relative clause and an embedded (indirect) interrogative clause. The article in Wikipedia on relative clauses mentions free relative clauses en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_relative_clause#Bound_and_free . Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 23:39
  • So you're calling a conjunctive wh-clause like the one in (4) a "free relative clause"? If you changed discover to remember in sentence (4), would that change the diagnosis? No doubt you have tests that can distinguish the one from the other?
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 23:46
  • Considering subcategorization, predicates can subcategorize for interrogatives, whereas they do not subcategorize for free relatives. So yes, with "discover" you'd have a free relative. Embedded interrogatives are therefore much more limited in their distribution. Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 0:03
  • 1
    The terminology is transparent -- Conjunctive clauses are factive, like relative clauses, which is why I think you want to call them free relative clauses, and a conjunctive why he came is reason(a) and reason(b) and ... Whereas Disjunctive clauses are unknown rather than presupposed, which is why I think you wanted to call them questions -- reason(a) or reason(b) or .... But whether they're one or the other is, as Ross shows, a very complex matter, dependent on a number of factors, most having to do with the matrix predicate, as befits a governed cyclic rule.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 4:45
  • 1
    thanks for the explanations. I will try to take a longer look at Ross' analysis. But I think his use of terminology in this area has not caught on. His disjunctive clauses are commonly called indirect or embedded interrrogative clauses. They are indirect questions. Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 4:56

Try to identify the subject, predicator and object of each sentence.

If a whole (relative clause) immediately precedes/follows the [predicator], i.e. the main verb, it is the subject/object of the sentence; hence, a nominal relative clause.

E.g.: Do you [remember] (when Columbus discovered America)?

(What caused the fire) [remains] a mystery.

If a (relative clause) follows a {noun phrase}, it is a post-modifying dependent relative clause.

E.g.: That was {the time} (when Columbus discovered America).

{He} (who shall not be named) is here.

  • It's not correct to say that if a relative clause immediately follows the main verb, it is a nominal relative. This doesn't address the question of how to distinguish an embedded interrogative from a nominal relative - by your rule, embedded interrogatives will be misidentified as nominal relatives. In a sentence like "Do you know [who Mary is dating]?" there is an ambiguity - 'who Mary is dating' can either be an embedded interrogative, in which case the Q asks for the identity of x, s.t. Mary is dating x, or it can be a nominal relative, functioning as something like a def desc.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 16:31
  • I guess there's more to add then. Thanks for the clarification. Commented Nov 10, 2013 at 0:20
  • @P. Elliot and Adam, a "nominal relative" seems to be synonymous with "free relative", correct? I think I prefer the term "free relative" because it is not tied down to the nominal category. Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 23:43
  • @P. Elliot, the ambiguity you suggest is present in the question "Do you know [who Mary is dating]?" is hardly available for me. The embedded interrogative reading dominates almost completely. To get the other reading, I think a head noun needs to be inserted: "Do you know the guy who Mary is dating?" Commented Dec 9, 2013 at 23:48
  • @TimOsborne Free relative is the term that i'm more familiar with too, and i assume that `nominal relative' means the same thing. I agree that the free relative reading in the example you mention is very difficult to retrieve, i'm not sure why that might be, although it does generally seems to be the case that free relatives in English headed by bare wh-words are fairly marked, e.g. ?who Mary is dating is handsome.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Dec 10, 2013 at 0:08

You can usually tell the difference by the amount of stress that the wh-word carries. If it carries stress, it's likely to be interrogative. If not, it's likely to be relative.

If this doesn't work, you can try to rephrase. If you can rephrase so the we-word becomes a top level interrogative, it's likely an interrogative in the original clause. If you can rewrite so the wh-word has a head, it's a nominal relative clause

Do you remember when Columbus discovered America? ->
When did Columbus discover America? Do you remember? - Interrogative
Do you remember the time when Columbus discovered America? - Relative (not likely unless you're very old)

Do you remember when we first came here, darling? ->
When did we first come here, darling? Do you remember? - Interrogative
Do you remember the time when we first came here, darling? - Relative

What caused the fire remains a mystery. ->
What caused the fire? That remains a mystery. - Interrogative, you still don't know what caused the fire.
The thing that caused the fire remains a mystery. - Relative, you know what caused the fire, and that thing is a mystery.

We never discovered what caused the fire. ->
What caused the fire? We never discovered that. - Interrogative
We never discovered the thing that caused the fire. - Relative

In the last case, the semantic difference is very small, since discovering an object is somewhat synonymous to discovering what that object is.

The difficulty of analysis is specific to English. Many other languages use different words for the two usages, e.g. German: when = wann/wenn, Spanish, what = qué/lo que.

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