If I re-frame the sentence as : "A rumor that he was being promoted to Vice President circulated among the staff", it seems that the part 'A rumor that he was ...President' is a phrase. The answer given is :

The original sentence is a discontinuous noun phrase.

My question is why isn't it an adjective clause in the original sentence? Isn't there proper verb form present in the portion I mentioned in the question?

  • Why would you think it was an adjective phrase? An adjective phrase would have an adjective as its head; which word is an adjective? – curiousdannii Oct 8 '15 at 11:42
  • I said adjective clause not phrase. I don't know what an adjective phrase is. – archangel89 Oct 8 '15 at 11:49
  • The word 'clause' is generally used only for verb phrases. If you don't know what a phrase is you should look it up. – curiousdannii Oct 8 '15 at 11:50
  • @curiousdannii Hmm, not really. that he was a clown is a clause. The verb phrase in that is was a clown. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 9 '15 at 8:13
  • @Araucaria Depends on your syntactic framework... in some X-bar based frameworks subjects occupy the specifier position which means they are internal to the phrase, so that the VP/IP (inflection phrase) is the whole of the clause. In this case though I was not quite speaking clearly enough, I just meant that 'clause' is used for verb based propositions (and sometimes verbless clauses), but it is not common to call an adjective phrase a clause – curiousdannii Oct 9 '15 at 8:21

Content clauses

Many verbs take finite clauses as Complements, often introduced by the subordinator that:

  • I know [that elephants like donuts]
  • I said [that elephants like donuts]
  • We allege [that elephants have been eating our donuts]

Many nouns can take finite clauses as Complements too:

  • The idea [that elephants like donuts] is not new.
  • The news [that elephants like donuts] is spreading like wildfire.
  • The insinuation [that us elephants have been eating your donuts] is unwelcome.

Sometimes, especially if the clause is very long, it can break away from the noun and move to the end of the clause:

  • The news is spreading like wildfire [that elephants like donuts].

These types of finite clauses that appear as the Complements of nouns and verbs are referred to as content clauses by sources such as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Relative clauses

Now, noun phrases which take content clauses look a bit like nouns being modified by relative clauses (a relative clause is a technical term for an adjective clause). Here are some nouns that genuinely are being modified by relative clauses:

  • The news [that is spreading like wildfire] has astounded elephants everywhere.
  • That idea [that I got from the internet] has proved very popular.
  • The insinuation [that you made] was most unwelcome.
  • The news [that he'd been waiting for] arrived.

Now sometimes, for example if we have an intransitive verb and a long relative clause, relative clauses can also break off and move to the end of the sentence:

  • The news arrived that he'd been waiting for.

Distinguishing content clauses and relative clauses

Now there are different ways to try to understand whether a clause is a content clause or a relative clause (adjective clause). If the clause is a content clause, it will be grammatically complete in the sense that all the material after the word that will work as a stand alone sentence. So for example, in "the news that England had won the world cup", the material after that will work as a stand alone sentence:

  • England had won the world cup.

We can contrast this with "the news that he'd been waiting for" from one of the relative clause examples:

  • *He'd been waiting for. (ungrammatical)

Here there is a gap after the word for which we understand as representing the news. We can represent the sentence like this:

  • The news that [he'd been waiting for the news]

However, it isn't always so simple to see where the gap in a relative clause actually is. A better way to see what kind of clause is involved is to see if you can change the word that. The word that can nearly always be substituted by which or who when it occurs in a relative clause modifying a noun. However, the subordinator that which we find in content clauses cannot be substituted with a relative wh- word. Consider the following examples:

  • The news which he'd been waiting for arrived. (grammatical - because relative clause)
  • The news which elephants like donuts is spreading like wildfire. (ungrammatical - because content clause).

The Original Poster's example

A rumor circulated among the staff that he was being promoted to Vice President.

In this sentence the clause that he was being promoted to Vice President has broken away from the head of the noun phrase a rumour. As reconstruted by the Original Poster, the canonical phrase order would be:

  • A rumor that he was being promoted to Vice President circulated among the staff

Here the main verb in the sentence (the matrix verb) is the word circulated. All the material before the verb constitutes one long noun phrase functioning as Subject of the sentence. The clause following rumour has its own verb. We can show that this is a content clause and not a relative clause by substituting the word which for the word that:

  • *A rumor which he was being promoted to Vice President circulated among the staff. (ungrammatical)

Notes for grammar junkies

The phenomenon where the material after the noun in an NP breaks away and drifts to the end of the clause is known as extraposition from noun phrase movement or extraposition from NP for short. It usually only happens if the element is quite long.

  • @archangel89 Thanks :) You might want to wait a day or two before selecting an answer though ... You might get a much better one! People might not want to answer your question if you've already selected an answer. And your question's a good question. It deserves lots of answers! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 8 '15 at 21:00
  • @Araucaria Say I take an example: 'The reason which Ram gave is unclear'. To me it is adjective clause. But say the sentence is: 'The reason is clear to us why elephants are not eating donuts'. To me, after going through your explanation, it is noun clause. Am i right? Again in the first example if I replace 'The reason...gave' by 'it', it seems it is acting like a noun/pronoun. Although I know, it fits into relative clause category, do you think it is little confusing? Any explanations? – archangel89 Oct 9 '15 at 4:39
  • @archangel89 As far as clauses modifying nouns go, if it has a wh- word at the beginning it's definitely a relative clause. Of course the function of the whole large noun phrase can be the same as any other noun. So in the reason is clear to us, the NP the reason is the Subject . In The reason why she left is unclear to us, the whole phrase the reason why she left is the Subject. The same would be true if we had a noun with a content clause too. "The news that she wasn't coming was a great shock" has "The news that she wasn't coming" as a Subject. ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 9 '15 at 9:01
  • @archangel89 ... So the function of the NP doesn't tell us whether the NP contains a content clause or a relative clause! – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 9 '15 at 9:02
  • @archangel89 The word reason is a very odd animal. It's the only noun, so they say, that will take a relative clause with why. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 9 '15 at 9:05

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