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How To Use "Where" And "When" Properly

In the previous post, I discussed the need to use "who" properly (i.e., whenever you refer to a person). In this post, I discuss similar issues related to "where" and "when"—except in this case, the common mistake is to use these words too often rather than not often enough.

In this post, I explain how to use properly "where" and "when"—and tell you when you should instead use "in which." The key is to remember that, although all these terms are commonly used and serve similar purposes, they are not interchangeable.

Write This, Not That: Use "where" only for places and directions; use "when" only for times. (Example: be careful with all the sentences in which you use "where" or "when.")

...Not That

The advice in this post certainly applies to all uses of "where" and "when"; however, most of the misuses of these words occur when they are used as subordinating conjunctions, so I will focus on those uses in this post.

Let's start by briefly explaining what a subordinating conjunction does: It introduces a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own as a complete thought (a dependent clause). Here are a couple examples of sentences with subordinating conjunctions (in bold) that introduce dependent clauses (underlined):

The house that I want to buy is too expensive. If you are going to the store, please pick up more butter.

In each case, the dependent clause modifies either a noun (e.g., "that I want to buy" modifies "house") or the entirety of the main sentence (e.g., "If you are going to the store" modifies "please pick up more butter"). Most of the errors regarding "where" and "when" occur when they are used to modify nouns (or noun phrases) rather than full clauses, so that is my focus in this post.

Here are several examples of these conjunctions being misused; I've underlined the nouns that the dependent clauses are modifying to highlight why the conjunctions are incorrect:

I do not enjoy the feeling when everyone's eyes are on me. During the course where I learned how to sew, I also met several new friends. This is a game where each player tries to form as many words as possible. The day before leaving for college was where I finally began to pack.

This is the general rule: Use "where" only when it refers to a location or direction, and use "when" only when it refers to a time or the timing of an action.

Note that the key noun usually comes immediately before the conjunction, but sometimes (as in the last example) there is an intervening phrase. As you can see, in each example, the noun does not match the conjunction. Next, we'll talk about a simple way to fix these sentences.

Use This...

In most cases in which "where" or "when" are misused, the correct conjunction is actually "in which." For whatever reason, "in which" is underutilized, both in speech and in writing. Perhaps it seems too formal or a bit awkward because it is two words instead of one. Regardless, I'd recommend that everyone get comfortable using "in which," as it is often correct to do so!

The first three examples all are correct once "in which" is swapped in for the incorrect conjunctions:

I do not enjoy the feeling in which everyone's eyes are on me. During the course in which I learned how to sew, I also met several new friends. This is a game in which each player tries to form as many words as possible.

Please also keep an eye out for cases in which "where" is used in place of "when" (or vice-versa), as in the final example, which should use "when" rather than "where":

The day before leaving for college was when I finally began to pack.

It's really a pretty simple process to choose the correct word:

  1. If the conjunction modifies a noun that is a place or direction, use "where."

  2. If the conjunction instead modifies a noun that refers to a time, use "when."

  3. If the conjunction modifies any other type of noun, use "in which."

Note that, when I say you use "where" to express a "direction," I do not mean only literal directions. The following use of "where" to express a metaphorical direction is also correct:

The last episode was disappointing, but I will still watch the show to see where the story goes.

Here are a few more correct uses of "where" and "when" as subordinating conjunctions:

The room where I sleep has only one small window. (location) The left side of the trunk is where you'll find the old flag. (direction) No one can predict when the next earthquake will strike. (timing of an action) The first week of the month is when the rent is due. (time)

Finally, I'd like to present an alternative that will often result in stronger, more concise sentences: Rephrase without the conjunction (or the dependent clause). In most cases, sentences with the conjunction forms of "where," "when," or "in which" can be rephrased in a smoother way. Read these alternate forms of the examples above and think about which version you prefer:

I do not enjoy the feeling of having everyone's eyes on me. During the course, I not only learned how to sew but also met several new friends. In this game, each player tries to form as many words as possible. I finally began to pack day on the day before I left for college. My bedroom has only one small window. You'll find the old flag in the left side of the trunk. No one can predict the next earthquake strike. The rent is due during the first week of the month.

As you can see, there are many ways of rephrasing these sentences; probably the easiest and most common is to use a preposition (such as "of," "on," "in," or "during") to connect the two parts of the sentence instead of using the conjunction. In other cases, the phrasing with the conjunction is simply wordy and can be replaced entirely (as with "the bedroom" replacing "the room where I sleep"). Note that you may have to move parts of the sentence around in order for the rephrased form to work.

I'd recommend attempting to rephrase a sentence whenever you are not sure whether "where" or "when" is correct, as well as whenever "in which" is correct but seems awkward to your ear. If you have time for extra revision, it is also a good idea to examine all your uses of subordinating conjunctions to see if you can rephrase them more concisely. Even a few such changes can noticeably strengthen your text.

Or, if you prefer to have an expert perform such revisions, you can always submit your document on! I am always happy to help. In addition, if you have any questions about "where" or "when"—or any other topic related to English writing—please leave a comment or email me at I'm always grateful for feedback as well. Thank you for reading!



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