What is Relative Adverb? [Its Use With Examples]

In this post, we’ll cover length and breadth of relative adverb, including how it’s used in sentences.

What’s a relative adverb?

Consider these two sentences.

Let’s shop in the mall. We get good discounts there.

You can join the two sentences to write another type of sentence, which would add variety to your writing.

Let’s shop in the mall where we get good discounts.

Note: In all the examples, relative adverb has been shown in bold and the noun (or noun phrase) being pointed to by the relative adverb has been shown in magenta font.

A relative adverb (where in the above sentence) is used to join two sentences that share an adverb: in the mall and there are one and the same. Such repetition hints at getting rid of one of them by replacing it with a relative adverb and merging that sentence with the other. We replaced there with the relative adverb where, placed where in the front to form the relative clause where we get good discounts, and attached it to the first sentence. This is quite similar to how we merge sentences using a relative pronoun.

A relative adverb, like a relative pronoun, introduces a relative clause. The three common relative adverbs are where, when, and why, representing adverb of place, time, and reason, respectively. (More on individual relative adverbs later in the post.)

Relative pronoun vs. relative adverb

Relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which, and that) and relative adverbs (where, when, and why) have lot in common, yet they differ on few counts.

They both play the same role of introducing a relative clause while referring to the preceding noun. That’s fundamental similarity. Few minor ones:

  • Relative clauses introduced by both can be restrictive or non-restrictive.
  • Both can be omitted, but their rules differ slightly (more on this later in the post).
  • Both look similar to question words but function differently from them.

(Note that a restrictive relative clause is an essential part of the sentence as it makes the noun specific; it comes without commas. A non-restrictive clause, in contrast, is not an essential part of the sentence as it merely adds extra information; it comes with pair of commas. To learn more about the difference, refer to the post on restrictive vs. non-restrictive clause.)

The two though differ in what they do in the clause they introduce. Whereas a relative pronoun can be the subject or object in the relative clause, a relative adverb can’t be. This difference emanates from what each fundamentally is (one is pronoun, the other is adverb). Since pronoun is a replacement of noun, relative pronoun can play the roles a noun can: subject and object. But relative adverbs can’t play the role of subject or object; they play the role of an adverb. That’s why, in relative clauses introduced by relative adverbs, you’ll always find a subject other than the relative adverb.

Another difference is in the level of formality of their relative clauses. The relative clauses introduced by relative adverbs are more informal than those introduced by relative pronouns, and hence they’re common in spoken as well as written English. The relative clauses introduced by relative pronouns, on the other hand, are used more commonly in written English.

Learn more:

Relative adverbs can sometimes be dropped

Wherever possible, we omit relative adverbs to make sentences more concise. (Even a word less makes the difference.) The rules of omission of relative adverbs though aren’t as straightforward and fit-all as rules of omission of relative pronouns. You’ll occasionally find sentences not sounding ‘right’ after omission. In such cases, don’t omit. Clarity is more important than conciseness.

When and Why

When relative adverbs when and why are restrictive and is not acting as subject of the clause, they can be left out. (We’ll come to where in a bit.) Since why is always restrictive, it can always be left out unconditionally. Note that the crossed words, which are part of the condition for dropping relative pronouns, are redundant here because relative adverbs never act as subject in the clause (we saw this at the beginning of the post). Examples:

(Comments that go with examples are in square brackets.)

Nineteenth century was the time (when) Europe witnessed unprecedented investment in science and technology. [Comment: When is restrictive, and hence you can drop when, shown in brackets.]

There isn’t one reason (why) the planet is warming. [Why can always be dropped.]

Last year, when I was still a novice at coding, I wrote such buggy software. [When is non-restrictive and hence can’t be omitted.]

Where

We can’t drop relative adverb where even if it has been used restrictively. A way around is to replace where by its equivalent ‘preposition + relative pronoun’ (more on this in the next section), drop the relative pronoun, and shift the preposition to the end of the relative clause. Examples:

The restaurant where we first met continues to hold special place in my heart. [Here, where = in which]

The restaurant which we first met in continues to hold special place in my heart.

As you’ll see in the next section, where can be used to refer to nouns beyond locations. In such cases, where can’t be dropped even by converting it into equivalent ‘preposition + relative pronoun’.

There are many more examples of omitting relative adverbs in the next section.

Examples of the three relative adverbs

Where to use relative adverbs? This section covers each of the three relative adverbs with plenty of examples.

1. Where

Relative adverb where is used to refer to location, implying that the noun preceding where will represent some location such as a country, state, city, building, and stadium. However, modern usage has expanded the definition of location, and where is now used beyond referring to just physical locations.

Where can replace the ‘preposition + relative pronoun’ combination of in which and at which, which are used more in formal writing, to give a slight informal touch to your writing. Where can take both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Examples:

Who can forget scandals at Enron and Satyam Computers, where misdemeanours of their leaders sank the companies? [These are locations. Here, where = in which]

We studied on the floor where it was quiet. [This is location. Here, where = on which]

We studied on the floor it was quiet on. [Being restrictive, where can be dropped by converting into on which and then dropping which.]

The visit to the town where I spent the first twelve years of my life brought in a flood of memories. [This too is a location. Here, where = in which]

The visit to the town which I spent the first twelve years of my life in brought in a flood of memories. [Being restrictive, where can be dropped by converting into in which and then dropping which.]

Fraud is now at a level where it poses a national security threat. The Guardian [Level isn’t a physical location and hence where can’t be dropped even though its’s restrictive. Here, where = at which]

And lab-based tests, where the drug and virus interact in a petri dish, also don’t account for the complexities of the human body. The Washington Post [Lab-based tests isn’t a physical location. Here, where = in which]

It serves an important reminder to our institutions of higher education, where majority of graduates are churned out without marketable skills. [Institution of higher education isn’t a physical location. Here, where = in which]

You’re in a position where you can ask for transfer to another country. [Position too isn’t a physical location and hence where can’t be dropped even though its’s restrictive. Here, where = in which]

2. When

Relative adverb when is used to refer to time, implying that the noun preceding when will represent some measurement of time such as moment, minute, hour, day, week, month, and era.

When can replace the ‘preposition + relative pronoun’ combination of in which, at which, during which, and on which, which are used more in formal writing. When also can take both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. Wherever relative adverb can be dropped, it has been enclosed in brackets. Examples:

The day (when) I looked at things around in the park unrushed I felt so calm and found the bounties of nature such a precious gift. [Here, when = on which. Relative pronoun can be dropped. That’s why it has been enclosed in brackets.]

But there have also been times (when) I had no work for months. [Here, when = in which. Relative pronoun can be dropped.]

Last year, when I was still a novice at coding, I wrote such buggy software. [Here, when = in which. Relative pronoun can’t be dropped because the clause is non-restrictive.]

If we had won the second session, when the other team was in dire straits, we would’ve won the match. [Here, when = in which]

I think I caught the virus in those 10-odd minutes (when) I removed my mask for coffee. [Here, when = during which]

The writer is referring to the period (when) people started making a wider variety of tools. [Here, when = in which]

3. Why

Relative adverb why is used to refer to reason (for something). In this role, it modifies noun phrases containing the noun reason.

Why can replace the ‘preposition + relative pronoun’ combination of for which, which is used more in formal writing. Why, unlike the other two relative adverbs, can take only restrictive clauses. Wherever relative adverb can be dropped, it has been enclosed in brackets. Examples:

The pandemic can’t be the sole reason (why) the organization did so poorly this year. [Why can always be dropped.]

There are tons of reasons (why) we should be wearing mask and following social distancing.

The management doesn’t know the reason (why) the contract hasn’t been renewed.

Here is a brief summary of the three relative adverbs:

Relative adverb

Note: Feel free to use the above image, using the link (url) of this post for reference/attribution.

How relative adverbs help your writing?

Understanding relative adverbs helps you expand the range of sentences you write with relative pronouns alone. Like you used relative pronouns to combine sentences with the same noun in two sentences, you can use relative adverbs to combine sentences with the same adverbial element of location, time, and reason.

Second, knowing how to drop relative adverbs, wherever possible, makes your writing concise and smoother to read.

Exercise on relative adverb

Which of the three relative adverbs would be the best fit in each of the following examples?

1. People often get lost in large organizations, _____ they become just one of the cogs in a large wheel.

2. Rare are days like these _____ nothing seems to go your way.

3. Consistent placement performance is the reason _____ our college attracts so many applicants every year.

4. How can I forget the moment _____ I stood on the podium?

5. We’ve reached a point _____ we either go all out or go bankrupt.

Answers to Exercise

1. Where

2. When

3. Why

4. When

5. Where

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