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At ten to nine, which is just before the exam begins, please make sure you assemble outside the hall.

This sentence is giving me a headache. The relative pronoun refers to the time ten to nine so why is the use of when incorrect?

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At ten to nine, which is just before the exam begins, please make sure you assemble outside the hall.

The simple answer is that "which" functions here as subject of the relative clause. But "when" cannot normally function as a subject; rather, it functions as an adjunct of time as in, for example,

At half past midnight, when everyone else in the house was asleep, I heard a strange noise outside.

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The relativized element is not at ten to nine, but ten to nine. This makes it a noun phrase and not a prepositional phrase, which explains why we use relative word which.

Main clause counterpart:

Ten to nine is just before the exam begins.

If we were to use when as the realtive word, we'd rephrase:

At ten to nine, when the exam is about to begin, please make sure you assemble...

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'Which' can be used as a subject of the depending clause : "which is just before the exam begins".

'When' cannot be used like this : "When is just before the exam begins". (wrong)

'When' is a relative adverb. It may be used in the following way : "when the exam hasn't started yet."

Sometimes, we can replace 'when' with 'preposition + which': I'll never forget the day when ( = on which) I first met you.

Similarly, "At ten or nine, which is just before the exam begins, ......"

Or, "At ten or nine, when the exam has not started yet"....

Or, "At ten or nine, at which the exam has not started yet"...

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  • At ten to nine (which/that is just before the exam begins), please make sure you assemble outside the hall. - Ideally, this needs to be given in parenthesis. In the example, 'when' cannot replace 'which'; which makes an adj clause unlike when that makes an adv. clause.
    – Ram Pillai
    May 4 '20 at 9:05
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    @RamPillai Both "which" and "when" introduce relative clauses. "Which" can assume any function in the relative clause (subject, object etc) , whereas "when" functions as an adjunct of time. Incidentally, I'd avoid using the term 'adjective clause' -- it's a misnomer. Defining relative clauses are modifiers, not adjectives, and non-defining relatives are not even modifiers.
    – BillJ
    May 4 '20 at 9:48
  • @BillJ, I know adjectives are a type of modifiers. Could you please explain the main difference between adjectives & modifiers? May 4 '20 at 10:45
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    I think your conflating the terms adjective and modifier. Adjectives may be modifiers but not all modifiers are adjectives. Adjective is a word class (part of speech) whose members include such words as "tall", "old", "new" etc. that typically function as modifiers. Subordinate clauses may be modifiers, but they are not adjectives. They are usually categorised by type: such as finite (relative, comparative, content) and non-finite (gerund-participial. past participial, infinitival).
    – BillJ
    May 4 '20 at 11:11
  • @BillJ: Yeah. I was developing some material on how English could wrapped under PoS. I think I almost did it with a little difficulty in finding space for punctuation etc. I haven't used the word adjust there at all. Now, if I use 'adjunct' the work will be easier because I think a lot of stuff like, adjective phrase, adjective clause, adverb phrase, adverb clause, infinitive phrase, can be easily wrapped in one. A bit of unlearning and relearning is required :)
    – Ram Pillai
    May 4 '20 at 11:26

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