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I wonder in which case I can use the word "where" to introduce an attributive clause.

For example, when a sentence contains the word "situation": It's really a difficult situation in which you can do nothing.

We can say: It's really a difficult situation where you can do nothing.

When can I use "where" or what words can be followed by an attributive clause that is introduced by "where"?

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As either an interrogative or a relative, where can be thought of as a ‘pro-locative’—that is, just as a pro-noun stands for a noun phrase, where stands for a phrase (usually a preposition phrase) expressing location. It most comfortably takes (literal or figurative) spatial locations, either static or the goals of movement, as its referents—the sort of locations employed with prepositions like at, in, to.

The library where I did my research ← The library at which . . .
The situation where we find ourselves ← The situation in which . . .
The country where he is going ← The country to which . . .

In formal writing, and to a somewhat lesser extent in casual speech,where may be uncomfortable with locatives expressing the origins of literal or figurative movement. For instance, you can get away with this in casual speech:

The University of Wisconsin, where I graduated from . . .

But in academic copy you would do better to write

The University of Wisconsin, which I graduated from . . . OR
The University of Wisconsin, from which I graduated . . .

And where is generally uncomfortable with locations and goals which are not felt to be in some sense ‘spatialized’; these require which + preposition (either pied-piped or stranded) instead.

ok The principle on which he rests his argument . . . but not
The principle where he rests his argument . . .
ok The goal which I am striving toward . . . but not
The goal where I am striving . . .

I know of no reliable a priori method of distinguishing what referents will be acceptable with where from what will not.

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  • The prepositions are governed by the various verbs; that's why they vary so much. Where can be substituted for all of them, which is a simplification because transitivizing prepositions serve to allow a direct object; but when the object's moved to the front of the verb, pied-piping the meaningless prepositions seems like more work than it's worth. You don't even need to know them until you've heard the verb. And indeed where is much more common than pied-piped prepositions, outside of stuffy boilerplate. May 17 '15 at 3:08
  • @JohnLawler Sometimes even knowing the verb doesn't help: *The principle where he rests his argument doesn't work, but The pillow where he rests his head does. May 17 '15 at 12:01
  • Not all verbs used metaphorically carry along the affordances of their normal uses. May 17 '15 at 14:44

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