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Consider this exchange:

A: Your story wasn't funny at all.
B: Maybe it was the kind of story where you had to be there.

I encountered something like that a few days ago, and wondered if the relative word where could be replaced with that:

?Maybe it was the kind of story that you had to be there.

It sounded strange a bit, but I was reluctant to say it's wrong, because there are analogous examples where a that relative or bare relative could be used instead of a where relative clause:

  • The place I went running was a few blocks away
  • This is not the place I will die.
  • It's pathetic to live in the place you grew up.
  • If you would have told me a year ago that I'd be in the place that I am now, I would have been like, good joke.
  • Why does poetry become the place that you can say it?

examples from COCA

So, when is it possible to use the relative words that and where interchangeably?

  • Where did you get that sentence? What does it mean? Most importantly "where" is not a relative pronoun. Just because you find other sentences where "where" is replaced by "that" doesn't mean you can change it in every sentence. – user140086 Apr 29 '16 at 4:56
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When you replace where with that or which, sometimes you need to add a preposition. For example,

This is the company where he works,

becomes

This is the company that he works at.

How do you figure out which preposition? Rearrange the relative clause so it forms its own sentence. You can't say

You were there the story,

so you need a preposition. The right preposition is

You were there for the story.

The proper grammar is thus

Maybe it was the kind of story (that) you had to be there for,

where the that is optional.

  • 1
    Nice guideline, but two things: a) I think in the story example, where strongly suggests that the relative clause is describing a (metaphorical) location. Therefore, for is not the best choice because it's not a preposition of location. b) There are some exceptions where after replacing where with that, there's no need for a preposition: This is the place where we first met => This is the place that we first met. – Færd Apr 29 '16 at 10:54
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    (a) I can't think of a better choice of preposition than for. (b) I said in the first line that sometimes you need to add a preposition. – Peter Shor Apr 29 '16 at 11:00
  • This is the correct answer. +1) The where in the sentence cannot be replaced by "that" because of there. Question to Peter Shor: Don't you think the there in the original sentence should not be there or the sentence sounds wrong because of "there"? – user140086 Apr 29 '16 at 13:26
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In the first example (the story where...), 'story' is thought of as a place in which some events happened, and we want to talk about the events that happened in the story, not the story itself. That's what where does here: it ushers us into the story, (which is metaphorically thought of as a place,) to show us what goes on in there. That's why a where relative clause can be rephrased into an in which relative clause:

the house where I grew up => the house which I grew up in
the kind of story where you had to be there => the kind of story in which you had to be

But a that clause is normally a statement about a thing (itself, or something related to it), not what goes on in that thing (as a place):

The story that B told was not funny.

In the example above, B told the story itself. There's no suggestion as to what happened in the story.

That's the general rule about relative words where and that. However, there's an exception to that rule, and that's when the head noun (the noun described by the relative clause; e.g., man in the man that came) is place. A good explanation and many more examples can be found here. I'll cite a couple authorities on this matter too.

  • From A Student's Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, p. 185 (adapted):

    The non-wh construction is not always available when the relativised element is adjunct (or complement) of place; the example a place (that) you can relax, with the head noun place, is perfectly acceptable, but in sentences with head nouns less likely to suggest location, a wh relative would normally be required. That is, we would say This is the web page where the claim was first made, not *This is the web page the claim was first made.

  • From The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, p. 1053 (adapted):

    Relatives introduced by when† ... have non-wh counterparts, with or without that:

    • i I haven't seen them since the day [when/(that) Kim was born].
      ...

    Relatives introduced by where, by contrast, do not in general alternate with the non-wh type except where the antecedent is a very general noun such as place:

    • i This is much better than the hotel [where we stayed last year]
    • ii This is much better than the place [where/(?that) we stayed last year]

    The (?) annotation in [ii] applies to the version with that (?the place that we stayed last year); the bare relative (the place we stayed last year) is more acceptable.
    The restriction to wh relatives does not apply when where is complement to stranded at: the hotel where/(that) we stayed at last year. Where ... at seems to be a blend between where and which ... at; note that with in we can have which but not where: the hotel which/*where we stayed in last year.

Are there any nouns besides place that have this quality? I don't know, but the citations above don't seem to assert that there aren't.


I guess partly due to the fact that you don't usually think of things as periods of time: *the story when you had to be there, so the problem doesn't arise in the first place.

  • Please say more about the non-wh in "place that you can relax". It sounds to me that the head is not place...to use "that" with "place" I would want to switch the positions: "this is the kind of place that can relax you". "Place" doesn't mean "location" in the example you provided above? – Bea Bonmot Apr 29 '16 at 5:16
  • That example is from the cited book. It's not mine to expand on. If you don't find it clear, please refer to the the place that examples in the Original Post. They are all alike. – Færd Apr 29 '16 at 5:32
  • But I don't see your COCA examples as exceptions at all. All of them, except for the second, are typical cases of relative clauses. E.g., She took me to the place that I always wanted to go to; Where the human remains were found was behind a home that nobody was living in at the time.) As for the second example, If you would have told me a year ago that I'd be in the place that I am now, I would have been like, good joke, I think we probably can think of it as the in is shared by I'd be and I am. – Damkerng T. Apr 29 '16 at 6:17
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    This is an excellent answer! Perhaps there are other words like place, but not many. By the way, the place that... (in the construction mentioned) is casual or informal. – Cerberus Apr 29 '16 at 13:04
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    That description doesn't disagree with what I wrote. Who, what, and which are pronouns (although what can also be a determinative), but not all relative words are pronouns. – snailboat Apr 29 '16 at 13:21

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