This question sounds more complex than it is, so I'll provide the piece of writing that made me curious:

These realities differ from the core MCU in both minor and substantial ways, showing what would've happened if the films had played out differently.

Basically, I'm curious about the use of an 'if' subordinate clause inside a participle phrase. Is this considered part of the wh-clause (noun clause)? Or is this a subordinate clause inside a participle phrase, which would surely make it not a phrase anymore? I'm almost certain it's a part of the noun clause, but I would like clarification for peace of mind.

  • You could say that "showing" is the first word of a participle phrase. OR you could say that "what would've happened" is a wh-clause / noun clause. I don't really see how either perspective helps or hinders understanding. But what I would say is the actual if- clause obviously modifies the second of those entities (it doesn't make much sense to assume the act of "showing" could somehow be "conditional" on the counterfactual possibility of the films playing out differently). Aug 24 at 16:09
  • I should also add that my thinking stems from the knowledge that wh-clauses can often be expanded to relative clauses (e.g. 'the thing that' instead of 'what'). However, that's irrelevant now that I think about it, as the conditional would still reside inside an adjective clause that modifies the noun 'the thing' (not affecting the participle phrase). Basically, I think my question should be 'Can subordinate clauses exist inside subordinate clauses when they fulfill a specific grammatical function (such as a noun or adjective clause)?'
    – MJ Ada
    Aug 24 at 16:36
  • this is the cat that killed the rat that ate the corn... I think that's the traditional way of showing that English can recursively nest as many relative clauses as you like. And although I'm not big on grammatical terminology, it seems to me that in the current context, "relative clause" and "subordinate clause" mean pretty much the same thing. Aug 24 at 16:46
  • ...so long as we introduce the if- clause immediately after that in my example, we seem to be able to continue nesting: this is the cat that if it was hungry killed the rat that ate the corn... But if the if- clause comes at the end of the that- clause, this seems to rule out any further nesting: this is the cat that killed the rat if it was hungry can't be extended. Aug 24 at 16:56
  • 1
    Thanks for the clarification. This is basically what I thought, but it's good to hear it from someone else. By the way, if you're interested, since you said you're not big on grammatical terms, a relative clause is another word for an adjective clause. So it's not interchangeable with a subordinate clause, although it is a type of subordinate clause.
    – MJ Ada
    Aug 24 at 18:08

Having developed my understanding of grammar, I am prepared to answer my own question. Yes, we can use conditionals inside embedded questions that reside in participle phrases. This is called 'embedding' or 'nesting,' which means that this conditional (a subordinate clause) becomes part of the embedded question (a noun clause). In the example I gave, the embedded question is acting as an object of the verb 'showing.' As such, it doesn't change the fact that 'showing' (a present participle) introduces a participle phrase, as it has no subject by itself.

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