He lives in a village where there are no shops.
When who, which, where, etc are used in this way, they are called relative pronouns.

Michael Swan, Practical English Usage fourth edition, Section 21

the hotel where they were staying
When, where and why used in this way are called relative adverbs.

A.J. Thomson & A.V. Martinet, A Practical English Grammar fourth edition, Page 83

I believe Swan has loosely classified all these relative words as relative pronouns and A Practical English Grammar is more accurate there. What do you think?

  • 1
    "Where" is not a relative pronoun. We have 5 relative pronouns: which, that, whose, who, whom. Technically, it's a subordinate conjunction.
    – Cardinal
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 12:56

1 Answer 1


Swan categorizes the word according to its referent, Thomson & Martinet categorize it according to its syntactic role. Neither categorization tells you much that's useful, and both reveal the inadequacy of the traditional 'part-of-speech' approach.

In its core use, designating the location or goal of an entity or action, where is neither a pronoun nor a [pro]adverb but a pro-PP—that is, it 'stands for' a preposition phrase constructed with

  • a) an unspecified-but-inferrable preposition—in your first sentence it's in, in your second it's at—and

  • b) an unspecified-but-inferrable relative which

  1. a village where there are no shops = a village in which there are no shops
  2. the hotel where they were staying = The hotel at which they were staying

In these cases Swan's categorization is clearly inadequate, and T&M's categorization may or may not be accurate: locative PPs do not always act as 'adverbs' modifying clauses. In 2., for instance, the PP represented by where should probably be regarded as a locative complement, not an adverbial.

And there are also uses of where to designate the origin of an entity or event; here where has to be supplemented by an express preposition such as from:

The town where he comes from . . .

In informal registers this supplementary preposition is often extended to 'core' locative and goal uses:

Come on, come on, let me tell you where it's at

In such cases where may be described as a relative 'pronoun' with regard to its referent, and in most cases it will act as a locative complement rather than as an adverb.


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