Noun clauses in French

What is a noun clause?

A noun clause, also known as a complement clause (une proposition subordonnée completive), is a group of words that act as a direct object of a verb in the main clause. Unlike other types of subordinate clauses, they refer to a verb from the main clause rather than to a noun. There are three types of noun clauses in French grammar: noun clauses introduced by que, infinitive clauses and indirect questions.

Keep reading for a helpful overview of noun clauses in French grammar and free interactive exercises where you can test out what you’ve learned.

Example

Martin vient d‘arriver à Lyon et il s’est déjà perdu. Heureusement, il a vérifié qu’il avait bien pris un plan de la ville avant de partir.

Fatigué, il s’assoit à une terrasse et regarde les gens passer dans la rue.

Au bout d’un moment, il demande au serveur où se trouve la place Bellecour.

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Noun clauses with que

Subordinate noun clauses are often introduced by the relative pronoun que. These clauses refer to a verb or to a verb phrase such as:

  • declarative verbs (dire, préciser…say, explain)
  • verbs related to thoughts and opinions (savoir, croire, apprendre…know, believe, learn)
  • verbs of perception (entendre, voir…understand, see)
  • verbs that express a wish, feeling or judgement (vouloir, préférer…want, prefer)
  • verbs of doubt (douter, supposer…doubt, suppose)
  • impersonal verbs (il faut, il paraît…must, it seems)
  • certain expressions (verb + noun, verb + adjective)
  • certain verbs like écrire, interdire etc.write, forbid

Go to our list of verbs followed by noun clauses in French grammar for a complete overview.

Noun clauses act as direct objects in the sentence, meaning that they are used together with indirect questions in indirect speech.

Info

It can be easy to confuse noun clauses with relative clauses, because they are both introduced by que. However, noun clauses refer to a verb while relative clauses refer to a noun.

Compare:
J’espère que tu viendras bientôt me rendre visite.I hope that you will come to visit me soon.
Le dessert que Fiona a préparé est très bon.The dessert (that) Fiona made is very good.

Questions to ask yourself about noun clauses

There are three questions that you should ask yourself when using noun clauses with que.

Unsure how to answer these questions? Read on for detailed explanations and examples for each question.

Indicative or subjunctive?

The mood of the noun clause depends on the verb in the main clause.

  • If the verb in the main clause expresses a statement, opinion or remark, the verb in the noun clause is conjugated in the indicative mood. The content is presented as an objective fact or truth.
    The main verbs and expressions that are followed by the indicative in French grammar are as follows:
    affirmerconfirm, apprendrelearn, avouerconfess, constaterremark, croirebelieve, déciderdecide, espérerhope, ignorerignore, montrershow, oublierforget, promettrepromise, se rendre compterealise, savoirknow, trouverfind, avoir la certitudeto be sure of, avoir la preuveprove, être certainto be sure, il paraîtit seems, il me sembleit seems to me etc.
    Example:
    Madame Poirot affirme qu’elle n’a rien vu.Mrs Poirot confirms that she saw nothing.
  • If the verb in the main clause expresses a wish, feeling, appreciation, doubt or possibility, the verb in the noun clause is conjugated in the subjunctive mood. This adds an element of uncertainty or subjectivity to the sentence.
    The main verbs and expressions that are followed by the subjunctive in French grammar are as follows:
    accepteraccept, aimerlike, craindrefear, demanderask, douterdoubt, s’étonnerto be shocked, interdireforbid, permettreallow, préférerprefer, refuserrefuse, regretterregret, souhaiterwish, vouloirwant, c’est étrangeit’s strange, c’est normalit’s normal, il arriveon occasion, il fautmust, ça vaut la peineit’s worth, être contentto be happy, être surpristo be surprised, avoir besointo need, avoir peurto be scared, etc.
    Examples:
    Ils regrettent que Madame Poirot n’ait rien vu.They regret that Mrs Poirot saw nothing.
    Je doute que Madame Poirot nous mente.I doubt that Mrs Poirot would lie to us.
  • Some verbs of opinion that normally take the indicative change to take the subjunctive when they are negated or when they are used in a question with inverted word order.
    Examples:
    Je ne pense pas que Madame Poirot ait vu quelque chose.I don’t think that Mrs Poirot saw something.
    Penses-tu que Madame Poirot nous mente?Do you think Mrs Poirot is lying to us?

Which tense?

The tense we use in the noun clause depends on the tense of the verb in the main clause.

Main Clause Noun Clause

Present

Le présentateur ditThe presenter says…

…qu’il a plu dans le Sud de la France.that it rained in the South of France. Indicative Passé composé: prior occurrence.
…qu’il pleut dans le Sud de la France.that it’s raining in the South of France. Présent: a simultaneous action.
…qu’il pleuvra dans le Sud de la France.that it will rain in the South of France. Futur: future occurrence.

Past

Le présentateur a ditThe presenter said…

qu’il avait plu dans le Sud de la France.that it had rained in the South of France. Plus-que-parfait: past action that occurred prior to the main clause.
qu’il pleuvait/a plu dans le Sud de la France.that it was raining/rained in the South of France. Passé composé/imparfait: simultaneous past action.
…qu’il pleuvrait dans le Sud de la France.that it would rain in the South of France. Conditionnel: future in the past.

Present/Past

Denise douteDenise doubts…

…qu’il ait plu dans le Sud de la France.that it rained in the South of France.

Subjunctive Subjonctif passé: prior action.

…qu’il pleuve dans le Sud de la France.that it is raining in the South of France.

Subjonctif présent: simultaneous action.

Using the infinitive instead of a clause

If the noun clause and the main clause have the same subject and the noun clause is in the subjunctive, we must replace it with an infinitive.

Example:
Nous préférons que nous arrivons en avance.
Nous préférons arriver en avance.We prefer to arrive early.

If the noun clause is in the indicative, then we have the option of replacing it with an infinitive if it has the same subject as the main clause, although it is not obligatory.

Example:
Ils ont décidé qu’ils déménageraient dans le Lot.They decided they would move to Lot.
Ils ont décidé de déménager dans le Lot.They decided to move to Lot.

Infinitive Clauses

We use infinitive clauses after the following verbs:

The main clause and the infinitive clause do not have the same subject.

Examples:
Nous écoutons les vagues s’écraser contre les rochers.We listen to the waves crashing against the rocks.
The subject of the main clause (nous) and the subject of the infinitive clause (les vagues) are different.
Mon frère laisse toujours traîner ses affaires dans le salon.My brother always leaves his things lying around in the living room.
The subject of the main clause (mon frère) and the subject of the infinitive clause (ses affaires) are different.
but:
Tu aimerais aller au Brésil cet été.You would like to go to Brazil this summer.
The main clause and the verb aller have the same subject: this is not an infinitive clause but an infinitive complement of the verb aimer.

Indirect questions

Indirect questions (les propositions interrogatives indirects) are noun clauses that follow a reporting verb that introduces a question.

Example:
Je lui ai demandé où étaient rangées les assiettes.I asked him where the plates were kept.

Go to our page dedicated to indirect questions for a more exhaustive overview of this topic as well as free interactive exercises.