Lesson #206: Understanding, Identifying, and Using Relative Adverb Clauses in Writing

📗 “I have broken where I should have bent; and have mused and brooded, when my spirit should have mixed with all God’s great creation. The men who learn endurance, are they who call the whole world, brother. I have turned from the world, and I pay the penalty.”

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1841)

This eloquent (elegant in speech) sentence offers 2 examples of relative adverb clauses: ‘where I should have bent’ and ‘when my spirit should have mixed with all God’s great creation’. Such adverb clauses are very common in more advanced English, especially in academic language with its many embedded clauses (this is explained further below). They add nuance and complexity to a sentence, yet they don’t need to be difficult to understand.

In this Lesson we will look at

  • What we mean by relative adverb clauses
  • Some examples from Dickens’ first historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841)
  • Word order and punctuation guidelines

✏️ By the end of this Lesson you should be able to identify and use them in English (I have included some typical sentences for you to test your knowledge with!)


📗 “I have broken where I should have bent; and have mused and brooded, when my spirit should have mixed with all God’s great creation.” (Dickens)

The highlighted parts are described as ‘relative adverb clauses’ because ‘when’, ‘where’, and ‘(in) which’ are relative adverbs.

✍️ A relative adverb clause is a clause beginning with a relative (or conjunctive) adverb that connects it with the ‘main clause’ of a sentence. The relative adverb here emphasises a contrast, a condition, a comparison, a reason, a purpose, or a time in connecting the two clauses.

👉 It is important to recognise that such a clause must always have a subject, verb, and object (otherwise it is just an adverb, but not an relative adverb clause – the short test below highlights these differences). The relative adverb does much more than simply give us more information about a noun or a adjective (as an adjective clause might do, for example); rather it always connects its clause with the main clause by showing a dependent relationship between them: a reason, a particular timing, a contrast, etc.

The particular relative adverbs that we are looking at today – ‘when’ and ‘where’ – are adverbs of time and condition. We will look at other adverb clause types in future lessons, but there is already plenty to learn about ‘when’ and ‘where’ here, even on their own!

✒️ NOTE: Some other relative adverbs/conjunctions that indicate time would be ‘since’ or ‘while’.


In these sentences below – all drawn from Dickens’ own writing – I have underlined each relative adverb clause. This, together with the explanations I have just given, should help to consolidate (strengthen) your understanding!

Pay attention here to the punctuation and clause word order, take note of any patterns you notice, and I will outline the relevant rules below in the following section.


📗 ‘When he had done so, he took up the letter, broke the seal, and throwing himself back in his chair, read it leisurely through.’

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

📗 “… my whole mind and soul is bent on saving where I can save …”

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

📗 “I have told a lie to-night, for your sake, Mary, and for the sake of bygone times and old acquaintance, when I would scorn to do so for my own.

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

📗 ‘… it would be much more to the purpose if Dolly became a regular subscriber to The Thunderer, where she would have an opportunity of reading Lord George Gordon’s speeches word for word …’

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

📗 “I am often obliged to bear it in mind, when my inclination perhaps would be for the moment to forget it.

– Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge


Generally speaking, you can rearrange the main clause and the adverb clause in a sentence without changing the meaning, only the emphasis. I have highlighted the relative adverb clauses here in these examples (both taken directly from Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge):

📗 ‘When the long comrade had made these preparations, he looked towards Mr Tappertit …’


📗 ‘[John Chester] smiled as he had never done when he stood beside the mirror.

👉 Did you notice a small punctuation difference between the two sentences?

Generally speaking, when you begin a sentence with an adverb clause you should insert a comma after it, to separate it clearly from the main clause. Not all writers will observe this rule (e.g. journalists who are trying to keep their word and character count as low as possible). However, I always recommend inserting the comma in such sentences because, by introducing it as a pause, it helps to your reader to pause too, making the relationship between the clauses more clear for her/him. It is also helpful if you plan on writing academic English, which uses a lot of embedded clauses (clauses that explain a point in further detail, and are preceded and followed by a comma at both ends).


Here is a short test for yourself to see if you can correctly identify the type of clause we have just looked at.

🧐 Which of the following have a relative adverb clause? These examples come straight from Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. (My answers, with explanations, are given below.)

  1. 📗 ‘He calls me, and makes me go where he will.’
  2. 📗 ‘At length, they arrived at the corner of the street in which the house stood, where Mr Haredale, alighting, dismissed the coach.’
  3. 📗 ‘His Majesty  …  was proceeding in this strain, when two gentlemen suddenly appeared at the door where he stood …’


  1. This is not a relative adverb clause, because ‘… where he will’ does not contain the elements of a clause (subject + verb + object). Here ‘where’ is simply a relative adverb.
  2. Here we have the elements of a clause: ‘Mr Haredale’ (subject) + ‘alighting, dismissed’ (verbs, both a continuous form and a past participle) + ‘the coach’ (object).
  3. Firstly, we note 2 relative adverbs: ‘when’ and ‘where’ – a good sample sentence to end our Lesson with! With regard to the first, it is part of a relative adverb clause because we have ‘where’ followed by each element of a clause: ‘two gentlemen’ (subject) + ‘appeared at’ (verb) + ‘the door’. However, ‘where he stood’ does not constitute a relative adverb clause since it does not have an object.

Hopefully you have learned something new from today’s Lesson!

Remember, clauses like these are some of the best elements you can adopt in your writing if you want to raise it to an advanced level!

As always, I am happy to help explain anything further in a short lesson or two with you – just leave me a message through the contact form on the home page. 😊

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)