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Relative adverbs

What are the relative adverbs in English? They are; when, where and why. We use them as joiners to join clauses together. Each relative adverb has its own purpose or role, and they are used for describing the noun in the clause.

We use the relative adverb ‘when‘ as an adverb to reference “time”

  • It wasn’t long ago when I used to go to the city centre.
  • It was two minutes ago I when I had been approached by the attendant.
  • I remember the time when I was younger and played football.

The relative adverb ‘where‘ is used as an adverb in reference to “place”

  • I told the tourist where he needed to go to see the monument.
  • The islands where we met up with our friends were beautiful.
  • Jamie found a place where he could finally relax.

We use the relative adverb ‘why‘ as an adverb to reference “reason” 

  • We were told why they all had to leave so early last night.
  • I know exactly why Oliver has been acting so strangely.
  • Her constant excuses are the reason why she never managed to finish the project.

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Essential English Grammar – A Friendly Approach

Lesson #34: Relative adverbs

We use relative adverbs as ‘’joiners’’ or ‘’connectors’’ to connect phrases together. The main relative adverbs in English are: when, where and why. Each relative adverb has its own purpose or meaning. When: refers to time. Where: refers to a place or destination. Why: refers to the reason as to WHY something has happened.


  • Which university did you go to, Lisa?
  • Well, it was a long time ago when1 I was at university.
  • Come on, let’s hear it.
  • OK, well, I was lucky I had the opportunity to go to an Ivy league university called Brown University2 where3 I studied mathematics.
  • Mathematics? I didn’t know you studied math.
  • Yes, ah, well, I don’t know exactly why4 I chose math. I guess when5 I was younger I always liked the subject, and just decided it was the sciences6 where I longed7 to go.
  • Mathematics is not an easy subject, so It should have been hard to finish the degree, shouldn’t it8?
  • Yes, it took me five years to complete the degree, although, if you have9 a genuine interest when you’re young it’s not hard to be good at your subject.
  • Still, though, mathematics is not known to be easy.


  1. When: relative adverb that refers to time. In this particular case, the relative adverb, when is referring to the time when Lisa was at university.
  2. Brown University: Both Brown and University are capitalised because they form part of the proper noun, Brown University. When university is alone, it isn’t capitalised.
  3. Where: relative adverb that refers to place or destination. In this case, the place being, Brown University.
  4. Why: relative adverb that refers to reason (the reason as to WHY something happened). The phrase being, ‘’I don’t know exactly’’.
  5. When: relative adverb that refers to time. In this case the time being, ‘’when I was younger’’.
  6. The sciences: in general, there’s two main categories of study at university; the sciences, and the humanities.
  7. To long (verb): means to ‘’have a strong desire or craving for something or someone’’. 
  8. It should – shouldn’t it?: example of a question tag. Remember, positive to negative and vice versa.
  9. Have a genuine interest: remember, the auxiliary verb to have is used to show possession. In this case, an interest is what is being possessed.

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