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I am pretty sure we can say "You can do it when ready." but I am not sure if we can say

When sad, I often eat a lot of cakes

Of course, we can say I often eat a lot of cakes when I am sad or I often eat a lot of cakes when being sad

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    In natural speech, a native speaker might say: When I'm sad, I eat a lot of chocolate, or doughnuts, or pistachios, but we would never reduce the clause "When I am sad" to "When sad" in natural speech - or "happy" or "freaky" or anything. It is grammatically correct, but you will almost never hear it or read it. And of course we can say when being sad, but we never do. We say when I'm sad or maybe while I'm sad. – P. E. Dant Sep 12 '16 at 5:21
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    You may also say: "Whenever I feel sad, I eat a lot of...." – user5267 Sep 12 '16 at 5:35
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    When is an adverb that means basically means “at what time” or “at, in, during which” To answer your question, you certainly can start a sentence with a single word modifier: “Sad, I often eat a lot of cakes.” Now, just add the adverb to explain “When?” “When sad, I often eat a lot of cakes.” Here’s an example, “When upset, taking a walk can help ease your mind.” You can start sentences with one word, phrases, or clauses: see page 481. || images.pcmac.org/SiSFiles/Schools/AL/HooverCity/SpainParkHigh/… – Arch Denton Sep 12 '16 at 7:56
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when sad is an example of a reduced adverbial clause. It is possible to reduce an adverbial clause to an adverbial phrase by omitting the subject and (predicate) verb: the omitted items are implied. The clause with the implied items reinstated would be when [I am] sad.

The reduced form is rarely used in spoken English, but is popular in signage where it's important to save space.

When closed, use High Street facilities - sign on public toilet door

It also occurs in technical writing, for example:

How do you act when sad? - Children of Metamphetamine-involved families

Most children will identify crying as a common response when sad. What works when with children and adolescents

You mentioned in your question that an adverbial phrase seems to be OK at the end of the sentence. Both of the written examples above, the adverbial phrase occurs at the end of the sentence. It is possible to find examples with an adverbial phrase at the start of a sentence, but they are uncommon. Here is an example:

When happy, he is frivolous and gay; when sad, he is crushed and subdued. Han Ying's illustrations

This could be because parsing problems can arise when it is placed at the beginning of the sentence, as shown by these two sentences:

When happy people smile the world is a better place
When happy people smile

I removed the commas from the sentences so that you didn't get any clues about the adverbial phrase: as a result, you probably had to read the second sentence twice because you mis-parsed it the first time.

  • "when sad is an example of an adverbial clause." Not true. "Sad" is an adjective modifying the subject "I" and you may add an adverb or a whole lot more to modify the adjective: "When sad because of life's woes, I often eat lots of cakes." – Arch Denton Sep 12 '16 at 8:03
  • @ArchDenton: check out the link to adverbial clauses in my answer, especially the bit about types of adverbial clause. The first section is: "Conjunctions answering the question "when?", such as: when, before, after, since, while, as, as long as, till, until, etc.;". When sad can be placed at the beginning or end of the sentence: this is possible because its function is adverbial. – JavaLatte Sep 12 '16 at 8:21
  • "...It is possible to reduce an adverbial clause.." There was never one to begin with. There's no reduction. The sentence never began with any type of clause. Unfortunately, you may not understand. [I used an adverb, all by itself, it never came from a clause.] Also, adverbs are versatile and can come almost anywhere in a sentence. What makes them versatile is that they modify so much: adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. I, when sad, often eat cupcakes. I often eat cupcakes when sad. – Arch Denton Sep 12 '16 at 8:50
  • @ArchDenton: it is true that adverbs can come anywhere in a sentence, but the normal locations depend on the type. For adverbs of time, like "when sad", the normal locations are, as I said, the beginning and the end of the sentence. Adverbial clauses function like adverbs and are therefore subject to the same guidelines. Here is a summary: dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/… – JavaLatte Sep 12 '16 at 10:50
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    @Arch Denton: When wrong, admit it. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 12 '16 at 11:07

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