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Can "whenever,wherever, however" be used in noun clauses? Does the following sentences sound natural to you, native speakers?

e.g.

I don't know whatever she means.
I don't know wherever the children can be.
I don't know whoever told you that.

Thank you very much!

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  • yes, they can be. :)
    – Maulik V
    Jul 19, 2014 at 9:12
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    No, they can't, not like the examples above. @April - no, those sentences do not sound natural to this native speaker.
    – user8543
    Jul 19, 2014 at 10:01
  • @user8543 My comment (answer) is to the title and not the examples. :) That said, yes, whenever, wherever, however can be used in noun clause. I like whenever she calls me 'cutie'
    – Maulik V
    Jul 19, 2014 at 10:35
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    @MaulikV That causes my intuition to twinge slightly... for some reason your clause doesn't seem complete unless it is I like it whenever she calls me cutie. But that could just be me. In fact, in that case I wouldn't say that it's actually constituent to a noun phrase, but rather the head of an adverbial phrase. I'd say that wh-ever words can't actually constitute noun phrases in and of themselves.
    – jimsug
    Jul 21, 2014 at 4:54

1 Answer 1

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The wh-ever words are used primarily as heads of free relative clauses. When the wh- word is a pronoun (what, who(m), which) these clauses act most often as NPs, and when the wh- word is a proadverb (when, where, how) they occasionally act as NPs.

[SUBJECT NPWhatever she means] is bound to be wrong.
[SUBJECT NPWherever the children are] is the place to look for him.
[SUBJECT NPWhoever told you that] is a very wise woman.
[SUBJECT NPWhenever you want to go] is fine with me.
[SUBJECT NPHowever you did it last time] should work here, too.

So the answer to your basic question is 'Yes'.

However: the particular sentences you give as examples, although syntactically sound, are semantically very unlikely.

Wh-ever words always refer to a set of possible referents, not a single referent; and they give the hearer a ‘free choice’ to select any member of that set as a relevant particular referent. The the -ever piece of the word expresses the speaker's indifference to which member of the set is selected.

But in sentences like I don’t know X or I wonder X or X is unclear, a free relative clause standing for X is distinguished by grammarians as an ‘embedded question’ or ‘interrogative content clause’: the clause implies a question—what?, where?, who?. These sentences express a primary concern with identifying the particular referent. Consequently, the -ever forms are rarely used here, only the bare wh- forms.

I don't know what she means.
I don't know where the children can be.
I don't know who told you that.
I don't know when we're going.
I don't know how to do that.

Note, however, that the -ever forms are often employed as intensifiers (I have no idea whatever), and in conversation you will occasionally encounter this use ‘displaced’ onto the head of a free relative clause. In such cases the -ev- syllable will receive strong emphasis:

I can’t imagine whoEVer she might think she is to carry on like she’s the Queen of England.

But this use is strictly colloquial, and should not be employed in formal contexts.

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  • Thank you for your answer. What about "however" and "whenever"?Can they be used in noun clauses? Could you give me some examples? Thanks a lot!
    – April
    Jul 23, 2014 at 2:31
  • @April See my additions. Jul 23, 2014 at 9:33
  • As for "[SUBJECT NPWhoever you did it last time] should work here, too", I am wondering whether you want to say "However you did it last time] should work here, too." Am I right?
    – April
    Jul 23, 2014 at 12:51

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