4

Here's the sentence that was confusing:

He went back to Santa Monica which was his hometown.

Why can't "which" be replaced with "where"?

"Where" can be used as a relative pronoun, but it's doesn't work here, despite Santa Monica being the noun described by the relative/adjective clause. Why is this?

My theory is that this is because "where" cannot be the subject of the relative clause, that it can only the object, as in the case of:

He went back to Santa Monica where he was born.

  • Within the relative clause, "where" functions as adjunct of place, i.e. in/at some place. In your Santa Monica example, the relative clause is "he was born in Santa Monica. The "in" component is contributed by "where" together with its spacial location function. – BillJ Mar 4 '16 at 20:37
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Given the examples

  1. He went back to Santa Monica, which was his hometown.
    (The comma is necessary for a non-restrictive relative clause)
  2. *He went back to Santa Monica, where was his hometown.
    (ungrammatical because of where)
  3. He went back to Santa Monica, where he was born.
    (grammatical despite where),

your theory is partly correct.

Yes, the locative relative pronoun where can't be the subject of a relative clause, unless there's also a locative predicate in the relative clause; a location can be the subject of a locative predicate:

  • Santa Monica, where stands the famous Bridge Over Troubled Waters

But not normally.
However, in (3), where is not the object of be born, which is intransitive and can't have an object.
Even if the clause is transitive, its object is unlikely to be a locative:

  • Santa Monica, where I spent Hanukkah

Where, when, why, and how are adjectival or adverbial in nature, and don't normally function as noun phrases, which is the minimum necessary for a subject, direct object, or indirect object. The relative clauses these wh-words introduce tend to modify words that refer to the same kind of adverbial:

  • the reason why S ~ the time when S ~ the place where S (but not *the way how S
    -- how can only be used without antecedent or wh-word ~ how to do it or the way she did it)
  • But where isn't the clear-cut subject of where stands the famous BOTW or certainly no more than there is in There stands the famous BOTW - they both can be analysed as having post-posed subjects, can't they? – Araucaria Mar 2 '18 at 12:49

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