If a noun clause acts as the subject of a sentence, is it no longer a dependent clause?

For example:

  • "What he did was outrageous."

I just saw this on a site so I wanted to see if it's true or not.

  • 1
    Consider this example: After we had had lunch [subordinate clause], we went back to work [main clause]. That would still be the same if we change After to When, and I can't see the basic syntactic categories changing if we shift to When we finished lunch [it was starting to get late]. In short, I can't see a big difference between When he did [it] (which seems unquestionably to be a dependent clause) and What he did. But whether that's a useful categorisation is another question entirely. Nov 13, 2020 at 15:35
  • Ah, I see. I was taken aback because up until recently, none of the sites I used mentioned that particular condition. It actually made sense too.
    – Joshua
    Nov 13, 2020 at 15:44
  • Well, if the categorisation matters to you (because you've got to know it to pass an exam, perhaps) then don't rely on anything I said. I don't really know or care what teachers of grammatical terminology would say about it (almost all of what I really think is contained in the final sentence above! :) Nov 13, 2020 at 16:18
  • So far, I haven't seen other sites mention it so I might ignore it. My English teachers never mentioned it, so it might be like how some teachers subscribe to the alleged "don't end a sentence with a preposition" rule.
    – Joshua
    Nov 13, 2020 at 16:36
  • "What he did" is not a clause but a noun phrase in a fused relative construction. It means "that which he did" (or "the thing that he did")
    – BillJ
    Nov 13, 2020 at 19:58

1 Answer 1


[What he did] was outrageous.

"What he did" is not a noun clause (even if there were such a thing, which there isn't), but a noun phrase in a fused relative construction.

The pronoun "what" is simultaneously head of the whole noun phrase and object (in prenuclear position) in the relative clause.

It means "That which he did* (or the thing that he did") was outrageous".

EDIT: Below is a tree diagram of a similar example showing the structure of a fused relative construction with "what" in prenuclear position. As the diagram shows, "what" is co-referenced by the i subscript to the direct object in the nucleus clause.

enter image description here

  • I am not quite clear on "in prenuclear position". Can you talk a little more on that?
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 13, 2020 at 22:43
  • @EddieKal I've edited my answer by adding a diagram of a similar example. Hopefully, this will make things clearer.
    – BillJ
    Nov 14, 2020 at 7:56
  • This is great. Every point is explained.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 14, 2020 at 7:57

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