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The question found here triggered a question in my mind. Lately I've been noticing how people tend to use the word where in a way which to me seems inapt. Some examples:

  • Anorexia is a condition where a person, usually a young female, has such a poor body image that she virtually starves herself to death.

  • A phobia is where you have a fear of, say, clowns, and this fear seemingly has no rational basis.

  • The abused dog suffered from hypothermia, a condition where the body's core temperature drops to a near-fatal level.

Wouldn't the words in which (or when, in the case of the hypothermic dog) be a better fit than where in the first and third examples?

  • Anorexia is a condition in which a person . . ..

  • The abused dog suffered from hypothermia, a condition in which . . .. Or, The abused dog suffered from hypothermia, a condition when . . ..

Wouldn't the word when, or the words a condition in which, be a better fit than where in the second example?

  • A phobia is when . . .. Or, A phobia is a condition in which . . ..

I'm not suggesting my substitutions are necessarily the best or that they exhaust the number of possibilities, but isn't the use of the word where inapt in my examples? If so, why? If not, why not?

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marked as duplicate by tchrist, jwpat7, choster, FumbleFingers, phenry Jul 21 '14 at 15:29

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3 Answers 3

Usage of where:

  • It was formerly considered incorrect to use where as a substitute for in which after a noun which did not refer to a place or position, but this use has now become acceptable: we now have a situation where/in which no further action is needed

Source: Collins English Dictionary

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I was mulling over whether to closevote as "Subjective" (sounds like a peeve), but I'll just upvote this instead! Nicely found. – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '14 at 21:06
It is a location metaphor. (I think John Lawler is away on holiday.) – Edwin Ashworth Jul 20 '14 at 21:15
While it may formerly have been considered incorrect by certain people (whose rigid and baseless rules for grammar should in general be disregarded) the actual use of where in cases like this seems to have been relatively common at least as far back as the beginning of the 19th century. From Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: "But in general and ordinary cases between friend and friend, where one of them is desired by the other to change a resolution of no very great moment …" – Peter Shor Jul 21 '14 at 3:12
I accept Collins's verdict, but I do not like the way they phrase their explanation. I would phrase it: "Formerly considered incorrect, the substitution of "where" for "in which," after a noun not referring to a place or position, has now become acceptable: we now have a situation where/in which no further action is needed." I have trouble with "It was formerly considered." The "It" is superfluous, and the locution "was formerly considered" seems to me to be as inapt as saying, "Officer Bill was formerly a sergeant in the NYPD." Either "he was a sergeant" or "he is a former sergeant." – rhetorician Jul 21 '14 at 4:54

As it were, where is semantically incorrect in all of these situations. Let me explain.

In every definition of where, the word refers to place, situation, or condition. The latter two are actually the destination of an action (as much of a destination as an action can have!). While where is used informally quite often in this situation, it is still wrong. Let me now explain the correct substitute for each of your sentences.

Anorexia is a condition where a person...

In which is, of course, the correct substitution for this situation, and the grammatical reason for this is easy to understand without explanation needed.

A phobia is where you have a fear of...

When is not, in fact, the correct substitution in this case. When refers to a specific time, and since a phobia itself is not a time, then when does not work. Therefore, we should say "A phobia is a condition in which..."

The abused dog suffered from hypothermia, a condition where...

When is not the correct substitution here either. A condition in itself is not a time, and therefore we must use in which again.


Where and When are not appropriate in any of these situations (except informally, or as a metaphor!). Where should only apply to a place or a situation/condition. When should only apply to a time or circumstance. In which should only apply to objects.

If you need any more information, just ask! I'm happy to help.

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So all metaphors are 'wrong'? I'm sorry; the people at Collins have put in more work researching the acceptability of metaphorical 'where' than you. Hence the downvote. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 20 '14 at 21:18
Metaphors are not wrong. I will duly add that to the answer, I can't believe I forgot about metaphorical usage. I apologise for my inept neglect. – Jonathan Spirit Jul 20 '14 at 21:23
@EdwinAshworth Also, do note that I did not ever say that metaphors were wrong. I simply forgetfully omitted researching metaphorical usage. My answer was inclined toward explaining why "in which" was the correct formal substitution in those situations, metaphorical implications aside. – Jonathan Spirit Jul 20 '14 at 21:36
I note that you said 'Where and When are not appropriate in any of these situations'. They're often used metaphorically. And you start off with a statement mentioning incorrectness. Yes, you mitigate 'incorrect' with 'semantically', but the tenor is still towards there being something wrong with the usages. Josh61 gives a good answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 20 '14 at 21:49
@EdwinAshworth I concede, I see that the downvote was perfecly called for. – Jonathan Spirit Jul 20 '14 at 21:52

Anorexia is a condition where a person...

To my ears where sounds wrong here, but whereby would be acceptable.

I'm guessing that use of whereby has turned into use of where over time.

On the other hand,

A phobia is where you have a fear of...

cannot be fixed by simply substituting whereby, unless you say something like is a condition whereby...

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See wiktionary's whereby “Usage notes”: “Use of whereby as a formal equivalent of where is nonstandard and is avoided by careful speakers and writers, who use where or in which instead. The term typically fails readability and comprehension review so it is generally avoided in published works.” -1 – jwpat7 Jul 21 '14 at 4:13
@jwpat7: Who's proposing to use "whereby as formal equivalent of where"? My post says something quite different: neither is a substitute for the other; they are not equivalent. For the rest, the text you cite just makes the point that whereby is no longer well known / recognized. My point was not to use whereby but that such uses of where might well occur because whereby (which would be correct) was replaced by where (which is not, here). – Drew Jul 21 '14 at 13:48
The last sentence seemed to say whereby would work – jwpat7 Jul 22 '14 at 18:05
@jwpat7 Not clear to me what you are saying. The last sentence of my post says that you cannot fix the A phobia is where... phrase by simply substituting whereby for where. But you can fix it by saying A phobia is a condition whereby... That "works", AFAIK. – Drew Jul 22 '14 at 18:14

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