1/03/20: Edited to provide examples as suggested by jlawler.

It's a pretty straight forward question.

Here are the definitions from SIL:

Relative Pronoun

Definition: A relative pronoun is a pronoun that

  • marks a relative clause
  • functions grammatically within the relative clause, and
  • is coreferential to the word modified by the relative clause.

Relative Adverb

Definition: A relative adverb is a pro-adverb that marks a relative clause.

Relative Clause

Definition: A relative clause is a clause which describes the referent of a head noun or pronoun. It often restricts the reference of the head noun or pronoun.

Here are links to defintions and discussion at YourDictionary.com

relative adverbs

relative pronouns

It seems that the definition of a relative adverb is subsumed in the definition of a relative pronoun. So, I'm looking for examples where this distinction becomes clear and its usefulness is established.

Ok, so the distinction seems pretty straightforward with most of the words that are used to join relative clauses but not with where, why and when.

The church where we were married has burned down.

Those times when she is off her meds cause great concern.

The reason why he left you makes no sense.

In these sentences, where, when and why mark an embedded relative clause that adds information (locative, explicative, descriptive) to the subject phrase without changing its basic meaning. They are conjunctive and have a clear pronomial relation to their antecedents, the church, those times, and the reason. They are adverbial only in as much as they modify the verb in the relative clause. These are clearly relative pronouns, but I would not call them relative adverbs because they are not adverbial in their relation with the main verb, and because even if adverbs can modify nouns, these adverbs haven't changed the interpretation of the subjects; the church is just a church, and so on. These words refer to their antecedents and join them to a descriptive clause, making the relation they establish adjectival, not adverbial. They are also adjuncts.

Within the relative clause, they're just adverbs, as they are in questions like, Why did he leave you? and Where were you married? and so on. But they do seem to be taking the role of a preposition, as some commenters have suggested, where the clause is functioning as an object. But do prepositions really have a pronomial feature? Not so sure about where, why and when as prepositions, and I'm hard pressed to find a dictionary that lists preposition as a (PoS) for these words. But I get it, so that's another way of looking at these relations.

So anyway, by these definitions - where, why and when in the above sentences are not relative adverbs.

In the following sentences they seem adverbial but do not introduce a relative clause, strictly speaking - they are predicate adjuncts.

They found the ball where the dog had dropped it.

I love the church where we were married.

I am concerned about those times when she is off her meds.

Your cheating is the reason why he left you.

These relations seem to be with the the whole predicate phrase, found the ball, and so on, in as much as the clause does not have and independent relation with the main verb or its object complement. So, I don't think where qualifies as a relative adverb, nor is this a relative clause because it is not strictly about the ball (maybe).

Here are the examples from YourDictionary.com for relative adverbs:


Gone are the days when I could stay up all night.

This is an inverted copular clause - Gone is a past participle adjective, The days when I could stay up all night are gone, Gone is a subject complement - when is either a relative pronoun, or it's functioning like a prepostion (in which) with a clausal object. A similar argument could be made for the following examples.

The 50s were a time when the family unit was largely intact.

That is the year when we got married.


We danced [by the table] [where (at which) we could see the view].

The bolded text is the core sentence, the phrases in brackets are independent adjuncts. Where is locating the action so it is cleary adverbial in relation to the main verb, but it is also describing the location of the subject, and the table, it takes the table as its pronomial referent, and it is conjunctive/ prepositional. It has all these properties, so why narrowly insist that it is a relative adverb?

Similar arguments could be made for the following examples:

This is the coffee shop where we'll find the best cup o' joe.

This is the garden where they took their photos.


Her mass of library of books is the reason why she's so well-spoken.

The main verb is copular, so similar arguments (as above) apply. The relative clause is an adjectival adjunct, and why is pronomial, conjunctive and prepositional (for which).

In the following examples I see no adverbial relation to the main verb, only a pronomial relation to its object complement:

Can you provide more information why this conclusion is valid?

I have no idea why he called.

As far as I can tell, in every case where one of these words is described as a relative adverb it could also, and perhaps more validly, be described as a relative pronoun. Is it called an adverb just because that's how these words are usually identified? SIL calls the relative adverb a pro-adverb which is just another way of saying that it's not really and adverb. I have a feeling that the term relative adverb is a bit bogus, it seems to be a distiction without a difference, unless someone can provide an example where one of these words is strictly and solely in an adverbial relation to the main verb and marking a relative clause, or at least a case where it makes a useful distinction. I can't think of or find one, and that's just me and I'm not an expert, but it seems impossible.

To answer my own question, I think it may always be the case with where, why and when that these relative adverbs can also be validly described as a relative pronoun. But I'm hoping someone can prove me wrong, otherwise, what's the use of this term?

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    Some confusion comes from using adjective clause for both relative pronoun clauses and relative adverb clauses. Relative pronouns introduce adjective (=adjectival) clauses, but relative adverbs introduce adverbial clauses. Both of these can be called relative clauses, but pronouns relate only to noun phrases and adverbs relate only to adverbial phrases. – amI Dec 26 '19 at 7:23
  • So the difference is that realtive adverbs introduce a clause that modifes a verb phrase (finite or non-finite) and relative pronouns introduce a clause that modifes a noun, subject or object. Is that a correct statement? This would mean that they are always distinct. What they have in common is that they both introduce clauses and have this conjunctive property. Are relative pronouns and relative adverbs always conjunctive? – Ubu English Dec 26 '19 at 7:38
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    Yes!, but they aren't conjunctive when they aren't relative (used outside relative clauses), such as "Where is my pen", "Who took my pen", "That is my pen"... – amI Dec 26 '19 at 7:51
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    In "The street where you live is bumpy", the relative clause does seem to be adjectival, but it isn't much different from "Where you live, the street is bumpy" which is clearly adverbial. (Thus the confusion.) – amI Dec 26 '19 at 7:57
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    I think you mean 'both' rather than 'simultaneously', but "I" think the answer is NO. – amI Dec 26 '19 at 8:10

In English, the relative pronouns occupy the same positions as definite pronouns. So, no, they are not adverbs.

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  • So, in I live where... where seems to still have some pronomial aspect in as much as it refers to a place, even though it lacks a referent noun. Does that make sense? – Ubu English Dec 26 '19 at 9:29
  • Yes, that's a good point. Maybe where is an adverb. But maybe not. home is just a NP, though it can have the force of a locational phrase. "He stayed where I stayed -- namely home." – Greg Lee Dec 26 '19 at 17:17
  • "Where" is best analysed as a preposition. e.g. "We must put it where no one will find it" = "We must put it in a place where no one will find it", where the prepositional interpretation is clear. – BillJ Dec 26 '19 at 18:06
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    @BillJ, Yes, but let's make where a PP. Prepositional Phrase, rather than a preposition. And your example verb, put, makes clear that the PP there in "We put it there" is a complement, not an adverbial modifier. The verb put is subcategorized to require this complement, *"We put it". Adverbs don't work this way, at least not ordinarily. Modifiers are not obligatory. – Greg Lee Dec 26 '19 at 18:30
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    Incidentally, your point about complement / modifier demonstrates why the distinction between function and category (or class) is so important. – BillJ Dec 27 '19 at 9:08

The differences between a relative pronoun and a relative adverb is in what role in the subordinate clause they correspond to. If the word acts at least a little like a pronoun in the relative clause (in English, relativizing words like "who" or "what"), then we call it a relative pronoun, and if it acts mostly like an adverb in that clause (in English, relativizing words like "where" and "when" and "why"), then we call it a relative adverb.

This might be a bit easier if we show a main clause corresponding to each type of relative clause.

Pronoun - Relative Pronoun

He sees me - That's the man who sees me

I see him - That's the man who I see (or, if you are using older forms of English, whom I see)

His hat is blue - That's the man whose hat is blue

Adverb - Relative Adverb

I live there - This is (the house) where I live

I lived there then - That is (the time) when I lived there

English also has a third relativizer, the word that, which doesn't act like either type.

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  • that is often treated as a relative clause introducer (in parallel with that in "the fact that he left"), since unlike real relative pronouns it must always be clause-initial. – Greg Lee Dec 26 '19 at 17:24
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    By the way, there is not actually an adverb in "I live there". It is a locational complement of live. – Greg Lee Dec 26 '19 at 17:27
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    I would say that "adverb" is a syntactic category, while "locational complement" refers to the syntactic (and semantic) role, which is not mutually exclusive. It absolutely is acting more like a complement than like an adjunct, which sure is adverbs' prototypical role – matan-matika Dec 26 '19 at 19:17
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    The categorization system outlined here seems a bit inconsistent to me. If you categorize "where" as an adverb instead of as a pronoun because of its function (despite it being used with the noun phrase "the house" as an antecedent), then why don't you categorize "his" and "whose" as adjectives or determinatives instead of as pronouns (since they function as determiners of the word "hat" in your example sentences)? – ewawe Dec 27 '19 at 2:00
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    @ewawem - Very good point. These words often do the work of conjunctions as well, and in come cases they can be adverbial, conjunctive and pronomial, all at once. But descriptive analysis tends to be binary, so one must decide at that point, what it is. However, that decision doesn't obviate the fact that a word may also be displaying other functional characteristics. – Ubu English Dec 27 '19 at 3:53

I've decided to answer my own question here because I did the research and I think I've got it now. Thanks to the contributors for their helpful comments and answers.

Yes, some can, such as where and when, but probably not without some pushback. I'm not sure that the distiction made by the term relative adverb is useful.

You can look up the definitions of these terms at SIL:

Relative Pronoun

Relative Adverb

Relative Clause

There are some good discussion here for both terms:

Relative Pronoun

Relative Adverbs

But if you read carefully you will see that these two sources are not saying the same things.

Linguistic terminology can be quite confusing - there is a lot of interdependency where you need to understand other terms and concepts in order to understand just one. They are especially confusing in instructional grammar because linguistic terms often get misapplied, and adapted in different ways by different methods in langauge instruction. They even get used in different ways by linguists in different linguistic theories. There is widespread and often passionate disagreement in both fields over terminology. It’s a big mess, really, in as much as it is at best unhelpful to learners, and at worst confounding and misleading.

The most common relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, which, and that. Sometimes, when and where can be used as relative pronouns as well but this is subject to more debate, however plausible such analysis may be.

The most common 'relative adverbs' are where, why and when.

Relative pronouns and 'relative adverbs' are always conjunctive. Relative pronouns are used to join dependent relative clauses which are used to add information to nouns, subjects and objects. 'Relative adverbs' are also used to add information to things that signify time, place and manner (which may be the only reason they are called adverbs in terms of their relation to their antecedents), and usually have an adverbial relation to a subordinated verb.

Here’s the thing, these words are not only used as relative pronouns and relative adverbs. They have scope and can function in different ways in sentences. Sometimes they’re just adverbs, or conjunctions, or pronouns. And sometimes they seem to be functioning in more than one way at the same time, like where and when.

For example: where

I live where the buzzards don’t fly. S|V|AC(clause)

Where introduces an adverbial clause - it’s not a 'relative adverb', because it modifies the verb live, not a noun, subject or object. It simply locates the action of the verb, making it an adverbial sentence complement phrase. One might say that where is a pronoun because it refers to a location, a thing, even though there is no anteceding referent. Infering a referent by ellipsis, doesn't make it so - there simply isn't one, which makes its relation one that localizes the action to live. It is not a relative pronoun nor a 'relative adverb' because the clause is not adding information to a thing (a noun, subject ir object). But it is conjunctive, so you could call it a conjunction but some experts dont like this. Others call it a conjunctive adverb, or just an adverb because it and its clause modify the main verb (time, place, manner). And still others, as demonstrated in the comments, would like to call where a preposition with a clausal object. I call it a conjunction (a word-level designation) because that is its primary role at the sentence level - it joins a dependent clause to the main clause as an adverbial sentence complement phrase.

I live there. S|V|AC(avp)

I live in NY. S|V|AC(pp)

I live where the buzzards don’t fly. S|V|AC(clause)

The semantic structure is the same for all of these sentences - The subject lives somewhere (S|V|AC).

The clause is an adverbial sentence complement phrase - it says where the action happens. That’s all you really need to know. The difference is the word, phrase type or clause that is producing the adverbial relation. You can call it an adverb, a conjunctive adverb, a conjunction or even a preposition, as is your prerogative, but it is not a 'relative adverb' (if there is such a thing), nor a relative clause in this use.

On the other hand…

The house where she lives is very old.

Where introduces a relative clause that modifes the noun house - where is certainly a relative pronoun because it takes house as its referent and joins a relative clause that describes the subject. The relation where produces is pronomial and conjunctive, the relation of the clause to the subject is adjectival. Where is an adverb only because it has a relation to the verb live - it locates the action of this subordinated verb. But that relation is not to the subject, so why call it a 'relative adverb', which defines the relation to the subject, not to the subordinated verb?

I remember the time when the steam pipe burst.

In these sentences, where and when have very clear and predominating pronimal and conjunctive features, refering to the house and the time, and establishing the relation between the subject and the subordinate clause. Whether they’re doing all this simultaneously is a matter of analysis, which tends to be binary - it’s either one or the other, not both at the same time. But yeah, the word has all three functions covered, go figure.

The main thing that relative pronouns and 'relative adverbs' have in common is that they are both conjunctive - they join dependent clauses to other words, phrases or clauses that are nouns, subjects or objects. This is their primary role. And they are also always pronomial.

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  • There is no modification of the verb in your example (I live where ...). The concept of relative adverb is not necessary if you consider that there is an ellipsis. The argument of the verb is just omitted, because superfluous. So where is just a relative pronoun as who. – amegnunsen Dec 27 '19 at 11:57
  • @amegnunsen - I disagree. The sentence I live carries just one meaning - I am alive, while with the sentence complement phrase, with or without ellipsis, the meaning of the verb changes, it is not understood as a statement of being alive, but rather a meaning more related to the activity of living in a particular place. That could be disputed of course, so I do take your point. I should find a better example (thanks) . Still, I don't think your criticism is particularly relevant to the larger context of what I've said, unless there's something you'd like to add. – Ubu English Dec 27 '19 at 14:30
  • I don't understand why you brought up the question of transitivity. You should keep in mind to comprehend language that the surface and underlying form are not only destined to describe the sound but all the linguistic system. Not everything is marked. I will just add SIL is not a reference in matter of Linguistics. – amegnunsen Dec 27 '19 at 15:28
  • I think I misunderstood what you were getting at. Anyway, I didn't say where was a relative adverb, but it is not a relative pronoun either because its relation is with a verb, not a noun, subject or object. I didn't bring up transitivity, at least not explicitly, but the point of that sentence is to show that when is not a relative pronoun or a relative adverb, and the clause is not a relative clause. Whether there is ellipsis or not, is an interesting question but it is not relevant. I'm sorry but I'm just a little bit lost as to what your point is. – Ubu English Dec 27 '19 at 16:31
  • @UbuEnglish I think what you say in the second post down is precisely the reason why where is not a relative adverb in a sentence like I live where the buzzards fly. I think the preposition analysis mentioned above is more plausible. – JD2000 Dec 28 '19 at 12:42

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