I know the "omitting-rules" regarding the relative pronouns who/which/that and whose. How does it work with where and when? In the first sentence I cannot omit where but I can easily omit when in the second sentence. What is the rule?

  1. I saw John in the shop where you bought your brown T-shirt.
  2. I met Laura on the day (when) I missed the train to Barcelona.
  • @EdwinAshworth That question only really covers subjects. The answer there only addresses subjects too, not objects, objects of preposition phrases, predicative complements and so forth. Mar 2, 2018 at 11:31
  • @Araucaria The question there addresses 'He went back to Santa Monica which/where was his hometown.' This addresses 'The office will be moved to a place which/where is near my apartment.' Perhaps you could explain the difference (other than the fact that one is a defining clause). Mar 2, 2018 at 11:40
  • @EdwinAshworth Well, here the confusion can be reduced to not understanding, quite generally, when to use where or which. There the question boils down to whether where can be a subject. Although they are related, they aren't the same. The more general question is the most useful for future readers. (In addition to which, the answer there is contentious - because it is not at all clear cut why where should be a subject in JL's fourth example. It can be analysed as a straightforward locative complement). Mar 2, 2018 at 12:50

4 Answers 4


Short answer and quick fix:

Look at the gap in the relative clause. If the gap can be filled in with the pronoun it, use the relative pronoun which. If the gap can be filled in using the locative preposition there, use the relative word where:

  • That's the restaurant which [I hate ____ ].
  • That's the restaurant which [I hate it].
  • That's the restaurant where [I met my wife ____ ].
  • That's the restaurant where [I met my wife there].

Note that the strikethough across the words it and there indicate that we cannot actually leave these gaps filled!

Full answer:

This question is about relative clauses. These are special clauses with gaps in them. They modify other phrases, in particular noun phrases, which is the kind of case we are considering here.

The nominal or noun phrase which is being modified always occurs before the relative clause, and is referred to as the ᴀɴᴛᴇᴄᴇᴅᴇɴᴛ. So in the dog, which they adopted, the phrase the dog is the antecedent, and the phrase which they adopted is the ʀᴇʟᴀᴛɪᴠᴇ ᴄʟᴀᴜsᴇ modifying that noun phrase. Relative clauses are often introduced by wh-words such as which, who or where, or by the relative word that.

The word which is a pronoun and can be thought of as standing in for noun phrases. The word where—according to 21st Century grammars such as The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Huddleston & Pullum 2002) or Oxford Modern English Grammar (Aarts 2011)—is a locative preposition and can be thought of as standing in for preposition phrases (some people conjecture that where is a 'pro-preposition').

The Question

It is very confusing for students and teachers alike when considering why we use which or where when the antecedent of a relative clause can be thought of as a place:

  • That's the restaurant where I met my wife.
  • That's the restaurant which I hate.

I've heard teachers and linguists try to explain this in terms of phrases like the restaurant representing a place in the first example and a thing in the second. This is just silly.

The truth is that whether we use which or where in the sentences above doesn't depend on the status of the antecedent, the restaurant, either conceptually or in terms of its role within the larger sentence. Rather, it depends on the grammatical function that that phrase would occupy in the relative clause itself.

If we look at the sentences above , we can see that there is a gap in the clauses following the relative wh-word:

  • That's the restaurant where [I met my wife at the restaurant]
  • That's the restaurant which [I hate the restaurant]

We can see that the relative word is co-indexed with that gap, so that we understand the relative word to refer to the missing portion of the clause:

  • That's the restaurant where(i) [I met my wife ____ (i)]
  • That's the restaurant which(i) [I hate ____ (i)]

Now, you'll notice that the gap in the relative clause in the first sentence can be replaced with a preposition phrase and the gap in the second sentence can be replaced by a noun phrase. As a rough rule of thumb, we can say that when the relative word is indexed with a gap fillable with a noun phrase, we use which (or that), and when it is indexed with a gap fillable with a preposition phrase, we use where. That is why the it/there test described in the short answer works. It is a pronoun which can work as a noun phrase. There is a locative preposition which can stand in for a larger preposition phrase.

However, it is probably more accurate to consider the grammatical relations that the gap has within the relative clause (rather than what type of phrase it could be replaced with) as being the crucial factor. So it's best to think in terms of whether the missing phrase is a Subject, Object, Predicative Complement or Object of a preposition—in which case we need to use which— or whether it is a Locative Adjunct, or the Locative Complement of a verb—in which case we need to use where.

To see why this might be a better description consider the following:

  • She ate using her fingers, which I hate ___. (Object)
  • She ate using her fingers, which ___ annoyed me. (Subject)
  • She ate with her fingers, which everyone was horrified at ____. (Object of a preposition)

Here the word which can be thought of as representing a finite clause, instead of a phrase headed by a noun. Certainly in the first two sentences the gap in the relative clause could be replaced with one (if it was a stand-alone sentence):

  • I hate [that she ate with her fingers].
  • [That she ate with her fingers] annoyed me.

Of course, those gaps could also be plugged with a pronoun:

  • I hate it.
  • It annoyed me.

In the third example, the word which seems to be referring back to a clause, but the gap in the relative clause can only really be thought of as representing a noun phrase:

  • Everyone was horrified at it.
  • *Everyone was horrified at that she ate with her fingers.

Nonetheless, it is hard to show for sure that in the first two examples, the gap represents a pronoun or other noun phrase, rather than a clause. There are also instances where we might consider the relative relative word which and the gap it is indexed with to be representing an adjective phrase or verb phrase, for example. It may be simpler and more consistent, therefore, to refer to the grammatical function of the gap within the clause, rather than the type of phrase which is being deleted.

Here are some examples where the gap is functioning as a Locative Complement or Locative Adjunct:

  • This is the drawer where [I put my pen ___ ]. (Locative Complement)
  • That is the town where [I used to live ___ ]. (Locative Complement)
  • That is the park where [Bertha plays football ___ ]. (Locative Adjunct)
  • That is the pub where [I bet Bob £5 that Scotland would beat England in the rugby _____ ]. (Locative Adjunct)

Notice that a sense of location is not enough to make us want to use where. If we leave a normal preposition in place in the third example above, the gap will become the Object of a preposition, in which case we will need to use which, not where - even though the park obviously represents a location:

  • That is the park which [Bertha plays football in ____ ].

Grammar notes:

Many traditional grammars regard where and there as adverbs instead of prepositions. This is fine and doesn't affect the story above very much - apart from that we lose the neat general correspondence of prepositions usually representing preposition phrases and pronouns usually representing noun phrases within relative clauses.

Adjuncts are embellishments that we stick onto well formed clauses to give extra information. They're often preposition phrases or adverbs. Complements, in contrast, fill a special slot set up by the verb. So in the park is an Adjunct in She plays football in the park but a Complement in We put the statue in the park (consider we put the statue where there seems to be some kind of missing information). Locative Adjuncts or Complements are merely ones that tell us about goals, sources or locations. They have their own special behaviours.

  • But isn't this sentence grammatical: "That's the restaurant where I met my wife at."? Assuming for the moment it is grammatical: why can we use "where" here, when the gap is fillable by an NP, not a PP? Feb 24, 2020 at 15:34

You can omit the relative word only if it's possible to use "that" to introduce the relative clause

I think "I met Laura on the day I missed the train to Barcelona" should actually be analyzed as a simplification of "I met Laura on the day that I missed the train to Barcelona" rather than of "I met Laura on the day when I missed the train to Barcelona".

In other words, I would say that there is no general rule of being able to omit wh-relative words like when and where. We can only omit the th-relative word that (and of course, there are some contexts where that cannot be omitted). I think the preceding statement is correct, but I'm not totally sure. Please let me know if you think of any exceptions (I'm not sure exactly what you mean when you refer to "omitting-rules" for whose). As Araucaria seems to say in the comments, my view here is probably not falsifiable, but I just find it a simpler way of thinking about things.

Note that you cannot say "*I saw John in the shop that you bought your brown T-shirt." And correspondingly, you cannot say "I saw John in the shop you bought your brown T-shirt" either. "I saw John in the shop where you bought your brown T-shirt", with "where", is perfectly correct, but I don't think it's particularly relevant.

You can have a relative clause like this if the preceding noun can be used as the head of a "bare-NP adverb"

"'Missing Prepositions' and the Analysis of English Free Relative Clauses", by Richard K. Larson (1987), says "headed relative clauses containing a trace in adjunct position, but neither a relative adverb nor a stranded preposition, typically are well-formed only if their head belongs to the class of bare-NP adverbs, adverbs that can function adverbially without an accompanying preposition" (p. 239).

We can say "I missed the train to Barcelona that day", using the NP "that day"—without any preposition before it—as an adverbial adjunct, but we can't say "*You bought your brown T-shirt the shop" (we would have to use a preposition, like "You bought your brown T-shirt in the shop").

List of nouns that can be the head of bare-NP adverbs

Larson has another article, "Bare-NP adverbs", where he describes some examples and categorizes them.

He says that there are very few bare-NP adverbs of location: the only ones he knows of are the words or phrases ending in place, as in "They have failed every place they have been tried" (as well as the pro-forms there and where) (pp. 596-597). So it should be possible to "omit where" if you rephrase your sentence to use the noun place: "I saw John in the place you bought your brown T-shirt."

Here are some examples from Google Books of "place" being used similarly:

  • Using a sharp utility knife (the place you bought the Plexiglas should have a knife designed for cutting acrylic), score the line to be cut several times.

    (Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine, by John St. Clair)

  • You know that if you were to cover the pencil completely with the paper, the pencil would still be there, in the place you left it, were you to later search for it.

    ("Object perception and object knowledge in young infants: A view from studies of visual development", by Scott P. Johnson, in Perceptual Development: Visual, Auditory, and Speech Perception in Infancy, edited by Alan Slater)

Of course, just because "place" can be used this way doesn't mean it would be the best choice for your particular sentence.

Bare-NP adverbs of time are more numerous; Larson mentions moment, minute, hour, day, month and year, and words or phrases ending in time (as well as the pro-form then and the deictics now, yesterday, today, tomorrow) (pp. 595-596).

  • The shop where they met was beautiful. I saw them in the shop where they met. Nothing wrong with 1).
    – Lambie
    Feb 21, 2018 at 20:44
  • @Lambie: 1) is fine as it is, but Ines wanted to know why we cannot say "I saw John in the shop you bought your brown T-shirt" (without "where") to express the same idea.
    – herisson
    Feb 21, 2018 at 20:45
  • I don't think changing the word shop to place solves it. I think you need where and it isn't a relation pronoun. The OP is confusing relative pronouns and subordinate clauses.
    – Lambie
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:15
  • @Lambie: I can't see how "where" is a conjunction in sentence 1). A relative clause is a kind of subordinate clause introduced by a relative word and attached to a preceding noun phrase that serves as the antecedent for some understood element of the relative clause. In the sentence "I saw John in the shop where you bought your brown T-shirt", the clause "you brought your brown T-shirt" is understood to mean "you brought your brown T-shirt [in that shop]". It is introduced by the relative word "where" and follows the noun phrase "the shop" which serves as the antecedent.
    – herisson
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:35
  • [["omit where" if you rephrase your sentence to use the noun place: "I saw John in the place you bought your brown T-shirt." ]] For me, that does not work. All you did is replace shop with place. I think the "where" is needed, regardless of what you call it.
    – Lambie
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:50

I saw John in the shop |where you bought your brown T-shirt|.

where you bought etc. is a subordinate clause with where as a conjunction. Same as when, see below for the reference.

where as a conjunction, Oxford Dictionary

I met Laura on the day |when I missed the train to Barcelona|.

when I missed the train to Barcelona is a subordinate clause with when as a conjunction.

when clause, Oxford Dictionary

Neither where or when is a relative pronoun in those sentences.

I met Laura on the day that I missed the train to Barcelona. I met Laura on the day I missed the train to Barcelona.

That is a relative pronoun and can be omitted because it is the object of the clause. omitting that

  • 1
    In what way is "that" an object of the clause "[that] I missed the train to Barcelona"?
    – herisson
    Feb 21, 2018 at 21:28
  • Well, I was thinking that meet on a day is like a direct object. Maybe it should be called something else. What would you call it?
    – Lambie
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:18
  • Well, I would say "a day..." is the object of the preposition "on" in sentence 2), but the role of the noun phrase in the matrix clause is unrelated to the role of the parts of the relative clause. For example, if we said "I met Laura on a day that hadn't been going well for me", then even though "a day..." is the object of the preposition "on", the word that cannot be omitted. Same for something like "I will always remember the day that came after"; it can't be replaced with "I will always remember the day came after" just because "the day..." is the object of the matrix clause.
    – herisson
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:23
  • Ok, let me say it differently. There are two clauses, a main (matrix) clause and a subordinate, linked by that. Therefore, the that is not needed. The clause is not embedded or anything like that.
    – Lambie
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:42
  • I do see embedded clauses in both sentences. Here is how I bracket them (using [] for clauses and {} for noun phrases): [I saw John in {the shop where [you bought your brown T-shirt]}] and [I met Laura on {the day (that) [I missed the train to Barcelona]}]. Something like "I met Laura on the day, when I missed the train to Barcelona" using when as a "conjunction" doesn't make sense to me in this sentence (and if when were being used as a conjunction, I would expect the sentence to be punctuated with a comma like that).
    – herisson
    Feb 21, 2018 at 22:44

When a relative pronoun is the subject of the following sentence, we use a verb after it. For example: The man who lives next door is very friendly.

But when a relative pronoun is an object, we use a subject and verb after it. For example: The man whom I wanted to see was not there.

Pay attention to the difference between them. You see, when a relative pronoun is subject, it should not be omitted but when it is an object you are allowed to omit it.

The rule I mentioned is for all relative pronouns.

Reference: English grammar in Use

  • 1
    There are several things wrong with this. (1) It isn’t true, unless by “after it” you mean “at some point later in the sentence”; (2) You’ve italicised the wrong verb in your first example, which makes the explanation almost nonsensical; (3) It doesn’t answer the question—_when_ and where are neither subject nor object in the sentences in the question. Feb 21, 2018 at 17:18
  • Please read my post again and you will find your answer..in the 2 sentences above which Ines presented we see subject and verb after relative pronoun so in both cases relative pronoun can be omitted because they have the role of object..besides sir if the rule I mentioned has problem then we conclude one the best books in English grammar has problem.because,I have read this rule in book.I don't say sth off the top of my head
    – Lara
    Feb 21, 2018 at 17:23
  • No. There is a subject and verb after the relativiser in both examples, but that does not mean the relativiser is the object in the clause. Both clauses have objects: “your brown T-shirt” and “the train to Barcelona” are the objects. The relativisers are not objects in those sentences. Relativisers do not need to be either subjects or objects; they can have other functions as well, as indeed they do here. In fact, only who(m), which and that can function as subject and object at all; other relativisers cannot. Feb 21, 2018 at 17:30
  • so Would you please tell me what are the role of when and where in the sentences above?
    – Lara
    Feb 21, 2018 at 18:30
  • Subject always come before verb so if a relative pronoun which is before verb does not have the role of subject ,then what can it be?
    – Lara
    Feb 21, 2018 at 18:34

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