Relative pronouns: one aspect that textbooks often don’t cover

(Not that I have noticed, anyway.)

Most coursebooks will contain, in some form, the following information about relative pronouns:


So far, so good . . . until a student brings up a case like the following:

The year 1840 was the final year of convict transportation to Sydney, which by this time had a population of 35,000. (formatting added)


Sydney is a “place”, so–the student will reason–the pronoun in the relative clause highlighted above should be where, right? Wrong . . . but before we examine why, let’s first have a look at a sentence which uses the relative pronoun where appropriately.

So the greatest sporting event on the planet did not take itself too seriously: that was never going to be the way in Sydney, where men dance with lawnmowers and a merry cynicism is bred in the bone. (formatting added)

Where Am I And Who’s Winning?

It all depends upon how we conceptualise “Sydney.” In the second example, we’re thinking of Sydney as the location of an action: an action takes place there (namely, men dancing with lawnmowers and a merry cynicism being bred in the bone–sounds like the place to be).

In the Wikipedia extract, however, Sydney is not a location but a “thing” that can be the subject or object of an action. In this case, “Sydney” is the subject, represented in the relative clause by which, and the “action” is “had a population of 35,000.” (Not the most accurate nomenclature, I know, but there’s no need to go into action verbs vs state verbs here.)

In short, if Sydney is the setting of the story, we use where; but if Sydney is a character in the story, we use that or which.

It’s not that difficult to explain to students–I recommend using several examples to highlight the contrast–but I’ve yet to come across a textbook that addresses this point. Perhaps textbook writers are worried about confusing learners; or perhaps I just haven’t encountered enough textbooks.