What Are Relative Adverbs? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Relative Adverbs

The relative adverbs are "where," "when," and "why." A relative adverb is an adverb that heads an adjective clause.

relative adverb definition and example

Easy Examples of Relative Adverbs

In all the examples on this page, the relative adverbs are in bold and the adjective clauses are shaded.

Let's look at the three relative adverbs. Each one has its own role:
  • "Where" introduces an adjective clause describing a place.
    • I know the town where you live.
  • "When" introduces an adjective clause describing a time.
    • They're talking about an era when a promise was a promise.
  • "Why" introduces an adjective clause describing a reason.
    • It is the reason why I left.

More Examples of Relative Adverbs

A relative adverb is used to start a description for a noun. (This description is called an adjective clause.) For example:
  • The seat where we sat last Saturday is still free.
  • (The noun being described is "the seat." The relative adverb is "where." The adjective clause identifying "the seat" is shaded.)

  • I can remember a time when I could eat four hamburgers.
  • (The noun being described is "a time.")

  • We do not know the reason why he left..
  • (The noun being described is "the reason.")
    (When the relative adverb "why" modifies "reason," you can omit the word "reason" to avoid a tautology, i.e., unnecessary repetition.)
  • We do not know why he left.
Note: When a noun like "seat" has accompanying modifiers (here, "the seat"), it is known as a noun phrase.

Real-Life Examples of Relative Adverbs

Here are some examples of relative adverbs in real quotations.
  • There is a time when even justice brings harm. (Greek tragedian Sophocles)
  • The abdomen is the reason why man does not readily take himself to be a god. (Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • I grew up in a place where the punk-rock kids fed the homeless in the town square. (Guitarist Justin Sane)

More about Relative Adverbs

A relative adverb can nearly always be replaced with a preposition and the relative pronoun "which." For example:
  • I am parked near the pier where we caught the conger eel.
  • I am parked near the pier on which we caught the conger eel.

  • I remember the era when teachers could give students the cane.
  • I remember the era during which teachers could give students the cane.

  • Tell us the reason why you ditched your tent.
  • Tell us the reason for which you ditched your tent.
  • (This example is shown for completeness. Remember that with reason why, you should delete one of the words to avoid a tautology.)
Of note, some people still consider the "[preposition] + which" versions to be more formal. This view is outdated in our opinion. In fact, we believe that the "[preposition] + which" versions sound awkward to the modern ear. They're certainly inefficient from a word-count perspective.

Why Should I Care about Relative Adverbs?

Relative adverbs cannot be considered "grammar villains." In other words, there are few serious writing errors associated with them. Nevertheless, there are two noteworthy points.

(Point 1) Only use a comma before a relative adverb when it identifies its noun.

In every example so far on this page, there hasn't been a comma before the relative adverb. There are no commas because all of the adjective clauses (i.e., the shaded texts) identify the nouns they modify. When this happens, the adjective clause is known as a restrictive clause, and it is not offset with commas (i.e., there is no comma before the relative adverb).

Occasionally, however, the clause headed by a relative adverb just gives us some additional information (i.e., it does not identify its noun). When this happens, it is known as a non-restrictive clause, and it is offset with commas. For example:
  • Let's sit on this seat, where we'll get splashed.
  • (The noun phrase being described is "this seat." (Note that it is already identified.) The adjective clause (shaded) is not identifying "the seat." It is just providing some additional information, which is why there is a comma before "where.")

  • I can remember my nineteenth birthday, when I had long hair.
  • (The noun phrase being described is "my nineteenth birthday." (Note that it is already identified.) The adjective clause (shaded) is not identifying "my nineteenth birthday." It is just providing some additional information, which is why there is a comma before "when.")
NB: Non-restrictive clauses are far more common with adjective clauses headed by relative pronouns (e.g., "that," "which," "who") than with those headed by relative adverbs.

Read more about relative pronouns.

(Point 2) Check whether you can replace a construction like "on which" with a relative adverb.

As touched upon in the "More about Relative Adverbs" section above, a relative adverb can usually be replaced with a "[preposition] + which" construction. For example:
  • I don't remember a time when words were not dangerous. (Author Hisham Matar)
  • I don't remember a time during which words were not dangerous.
For some people, the "[preposition] + which" construction (as used in the second example above) sounds more formal than the version with a relative adverb, so they use this construction. Nowadays, however, for most people, the "[preposition] + which" construction sounds too contrived. If this is how you feel, then check to see if you can save a word and make your writing less stuffy by using a relative adverb. For example:
  • School is a place in which thinking should be taught.
  • (This is not technically wrong, but it's wordy and stuffy.)
  • School is a place where thinking should be taught. (Original version by Psychologist Edward de Bono)
  • (Using a relative adverb makes it shorter and sharper.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is an interrogative adverb? What is an adjective clause? What is a restrictive clause? What is a non-restrictive clause? What are relative pronouns? Glossary of grammatical terms