Look at the following sentence:

Her family was happy when she returned home

It is clear that "when she returned home" is a dependent clause because it starts with "when" and has a subject and a verb. But I am doubtful if it is an adverbial clause or a noun clause. As far as I know, it could be both of them if you think of it from different views:

  1. First, We could consider it an adverbial clause as it starts with conjunction "when" and describes the verb "was". It gives information about the time when they were happy so it is basically an adverb.

  2. On the other hand, It looks as if "when she returned home" is a noun clause which acts as an adjective complement.

I don't know which one is correct. Or may be both of them are correct at the same time?


1 Answer 1


Her family was happy [when she returned home].

Premliminary point: I would strongly advise you to avoid the term 'noun clause'. The classification of clauses should be based on their internal form rather than on spurious analogies with the parts of speech.

In some modern grammar, "when" is analysed as a preposition, with the expression "when she returned home" thus a PP.

For those who treat it as a subordinator (your conjunction), "when she returned home" is a subordinate clause.

In both analyses "when she returned home" functions as a temporal adjunct in clause structure.

  • Intuitively I dislike the idea of "when" being a prepostion. What's the complement? "she", the whole clause "she returned home"? It seems to function quite differently from "classic" prepositions (on, in, about... etc) which can't have a clause as a complement. You can't say "He thinks about she returned home"
    – James K
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 11:23
  • I agree that it's controversial. But there's no requirement for a preposition to have an NP complement, otherwise we wouldn't have stranded prepositions, as in "Who did they vote for?" (not the ridiculously stuffy "For whom did they vote?"). And preps can certainly have clausal complements, as in "I did it before we arrived." One dictionary gives "when" as a prep: link.
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 17:09
  • Incidentally, a "when" PP is a fused relative construction. The OP's example can thus be paraphrased as "Her family was happy on the occasion of her return home". The construction is thus comparable to the fused relative NP in "What he had bought was worthless."
    – BillJ
    Commented Oct 30, 2020 at 17:29

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