I am not familiar with the idea that an adverb can function as a conjunction at the same time. Here are a couple of sentences that are confusing me.

This is the reason why she left him.


He was transferred to New York, where he was promoted to a higher level.

The relative adverbs why, where, when, and how seem to introduce a clause. Therefore, can they also be called conjunctions? If yes, would I be right in assuming that relative adverbs can function as conjunctions at the same time?


श्री गणेशाय नमः

The problem here is that parts of speech (adverb, conjunction, pronoun, etc.) are being used as labels to classify words as "being" one and only one part of speech, and that this categorization seems to be directed by faulty definitions.

Parts of speech are uses of words, and in English almost any word can be used in a number of such ways. Definitions of such use categories are just summaries, and not directions to be followed.

So, first of all, it is entirely possible for any English word to "be" more than one part of speech,
depending on the context that word appears in.

In this case, the wh-words that have adverbial meanings
      (temporal: when; locative: where; purpose/cause: why; manner/means: how)
are indeed used to introduce clauses, like many adverbs; this doesn't make them conjunctions.

Conjunctions are one special class of words with special grammar.
When, where, why, and how belong, however, to a different special class of words,
with equally special grammar. In fact, they constitute one subclass of this special class

Most of the other wh-words (what, which, who) refer to nouns, so they're called pronouns --
   either interrogative pronouns (because they're used to introduce question clauses)
   or relative pronouns (because they're also used to introduce relative clauses).

Second, then, it's quite common for something other than a conjunction to "introduce clauses". Complementizers introduce complement clauses (including embedded wh-question complements), adverbs introduce adverbial clauses, etc. The traditional definitions don't go nearly far enough; they're rough guides, no more.

These are also the proper terms for the wh-words with adverbial senses. They came originally from Indo-European oblique noun cases like Locative and Instrumental, and they were used in much the same way as any other interrogative or relative pronoun, to introduce clauses.

Since they don't refer to nouns, however, clauses that they introduce have adverbial restrictions.

Relative clauses, for instance, must modify a noun, but if the relative pronoun is where, the noun it modifies has to be the place where, or a synonym, or some other word that refers to a place. Similarly, relatives headed by when must modify nouns referring to a point or length of time; the time when itself is most common.

Why and how are even more restricted.
How itself cannot be used at all as a relative pronoun, even if it's modifying the right noun:

  • I don't like how he did that.
  • I don't like the way he did that.
    but not
  • *I don't like the way how he did that.

Why relative clauses must modify the noun reason. Synonyms don't work.

  • I'm unclear on the reason why he did that.
  • *I'm unclear on the purpose why he did that.
  • *I'm unclear on the intention why he did that.

Essentially, the phrase the reason why has become frozen.
There's a lot more, but I forbear.

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  • 1
    Mr. Lawler, excellent answer. But I am intrigued by your mention of "श्री गणेशाय नमः" which is a Sanskrit mantra said in praise of Lord Ganesha, one of the Hindu deities. How are you aware of this Sanskrit phrase? I am curious. – Prasad Shrivatsa Apr 9 '14 at 17:06
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    Linguists (i.e, grammarians) often study Sanskrit as part of our training; the science of phonetics, as well as the science of grammar, were after all invented by Pāṇini. And I was recently reminded that Sri Ganesh is the patron of grammarians. – John Lawler Apr 9 '14 at 17:56
  • Does Sanskrit pose similar conflicts for learners? Or is it logically more perfect? – Prasad Shrivatsa Apr 9 '14 at 18:21
  • 1
    It's a very different kind of language from English. It's heavily inflected, whereas English has almost no inflection. No language is "logically perfect"; logic is just a stick-figure representation of some parts of language -- not the other way around. Language is alive, part of the human species, but logic is just a form of mathematics, made up by humans. – John Lawler Apr 9 '14 at 18:54

Generally question words can be used for relative clauses and for subordinated question clauses:

1 Where have you found it?

2 the place where I found it

3 He asked me where I had found it.

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