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Noun Clauses in Everyday Speech

From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

Almost every American has seen or heard of the movie "Forrest Gump."

The film is a touching story about the life of a man who faces many challenges.

One of the most famous quotes from “Forrest Gump” is this:

My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

These lines might interest you for two reasons.

First, if you mention them to an American, they will probably know what you are talking about. Second, if you study the lines carefully, you can learn how complex grammar is used in everyday speech.

Today on Everyday Grammar, we are going to explore how Americans use noun clauses in speech.

Just like Gump's box of chocolates, this report might have a pleasant surprise for you!

What are noun clauses?

Noun clauses are groups of words that act as a noun. They often begin with words such as if, what, why, and so on. These clauses have a subject and a predicate, just like a sentence. However, they do not act as sentences on their own. Instead, they have an effect on a longer, more complex sentence.

Here is an example. Imagine you do not know the answer to a question in your mathematics class. You could ask, "I wonder if my teacher knows the answer?"

In the sentence, the main clause, "I wonder," is followed by the if - noun clause, "if my teacher knows the answer."

In this report, we are talking about noun clauses that begin with the words what, why, where, and so on. Let’s call them wh- clauses. In technical language, you could call them subordinators. They can act as subjects, objects, complements, and so on.

The good news is this: Americans commonly use if- and wh- noun clauses in a few expressions. Generally, such expressions have one of the following verbs: know, see, and wonder.

We will use lines from popular movies and short examples to show you how Americans use these verbs with different noun clauses.

1. Know

Consider this line from the 2004 film Million Dollar Baby.

"No matter where he is, I thought you should know what kind of man your father really was."

In the sentence, the word what leads to a clause that comes after the verb, know. This is a common pattern in American English.

If you were to visit the United States, you would probably hear expressions such as "I know what..." or "I don't know what..." almost every day.

Speakers will also use different wh- words to introduce clauses. For example, you could say, "I thought you should know why I came here." Or you could say, "I thought you should know where to find the post office.”

You will also hear if-noun clauses with the verb know.

For example, imagine that a person asked you, "Do you know if the museum is near here?" You could say, "No, I don't know if the museum is near here."

2. See

Another word that is commonly followed by an if- or wh- noun clause is the verb see.

Consider this line from the 1998 film “The Truman Show.”

"Do you want another slice?

No, I'm okay.

What else is on?

"Yeah, let's see what else is on."

Where's the TV Guide?

Americans will often use the words "Let's see what...." or "Let's see if..." to make a suggestion, as in the line from The Truman Show.

At other times, speakers will use "Let's see …" in an informal way. They do not necessarily mean it as a suggestion. Consider this quote from 1999 film, “The Green Mile.”

"Mr. Jingles? Where you been? Been worried about you, boy. You hungry? Hmm? Let's go see if we can't find you something to eat."

These lines show you how some Americans speak, notably in the southeastern United States. The speaker is clearly not making a suggestion; instead, he is speaking to himself in an indirect way. Although he uses the negative "can't", he actually means "can."

3. Wonder

Another word that is commonly used with an if- or wh- noun clause is the verb wonder.

The structure "I wonder if..." is commonly used to ask a question. Remember the example, "I wonder if my teacher knows the answer."

Speakers will also use wh-clauses with the verb wonder. Many forgetful people have probably said "I wonder where my keys are?”, for example.

Why these structures are important

Now that you have learned about if-and wh- clauses, think back to the film Forrest Gump.

"My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Did you notice that Gump uses one of the common grammatical structures that we have talked about in this report?

Although you might not suspect it, every time you watch an American film, listen to American music, or talk to an American, you can learn more grammar.

All of the structures we have studied today are considered polite, and can be used in formal or informal speech. They also can be used in writing.

The next time you are watching an American film, try to find complex grammatical structures like the ones we talked about. Listen for the words know, see, and wonder. What types of noun clauses do speakers use? How do they organize their sentences?

This process might be difficult. But remember this: you know what you should do.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Jill Robbins.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section. ________________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

grammar – n. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language

clause – n. grammar: a part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

predicate – n. grammar: the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject

complement – n. grammar: a word or group of words added to a sentence to make it complete

challengen. a difficult test or problem

complementn. something that completes something else or makes it better

pattern – n. a repeated form or design

introducev. to use or make something available for the first time;

stylisticadj. of or relating to a way of doing things

politeadj. showing respect to others

formal adj. of or related to serious of official speech