Hypothetically put yourself in the shoe of a person who has never heard of the English language his entire life.
Now, try to say “where were we” aloud and think of how strange, not to mention alien-ish, you sound.
Words that resemble each other, without fail, torture language learners, as in the enigma on “where” vs. “were” in English.
Worry no more because this post covers everything you need to understand such a linguistic phenomenon.
Where vs. Were: What’s the difference?
“Where” suggests a location or position, but “were” refers to a state of existence in the past. These words are more technically categorized as “synophones” or words having almost similar sounds but different meanings. They also belong to different parts of speech. “Where,” more typically known as a “question word,” may function as an adverb or conjunction in a sentence. Whereas, “were” is only recognized as a verb, at least until the present times.
Understanding the word “where” in ample detail
As basic as the word “where” may seem, it is actually not that easy to recognize how it functions in sentences.
The only good thing about this word is its consistent denotation, no matter which part of speech it is used.
For as long as we have a similar concept of “space,” which can be interpreted either physically or abstractly, then I guess we can make sense of this word.
But since I’m not a quantum physicist, let me try to explain the word “where” through the linguistic perspective instead.
Apparently, this should be a lot easier to digest than quantum physics, which only a handful of people on earth can probably understand.
As mentioned earlier, “where” is quite a flexible word because it can be used as an adverb or conjunction in sentences.
Let’s have a look at each of these functions below.
The adverb “where”
The simplest explanation regarding adverbs in grammar is that these are words that can modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
Adverbs tell us the manner, the frequency, the place, the time, and even the writer’s emotion or opinion towards the statement.
“Where,” therefore, falls under the reference to the place, position, or location that can be used, for instance, in declarative and interrogative sentences.
More particularly, “where” may be used to ask for a certain location or position, and thus, also classified as an interrogative adverb.
Sometimes, it may also be used to introduce relative clauses in declarative statements, and hence, we may call it a relative adverb in such cases.
Here are more details and examples for each.
“Where” as an interrogative adverb
As the word “interrogative” suggests, “where” can be used to ask for a location or direction.
An example of using it to ask for a location is by finding out a person’s residential address, denoting the meaning “in what place.”
It may also be used together with a preposition at the end.
It can also be used to ask for the direction, denoting the meaning “to what place.”
Or, it can be used to ask for the direction of conversations or discussions, denoting the meaning “in what respect.”
And lastly, “where” could also denote the meaning “from what” when asking for a particular source of information or any object.
In a nutshell, we can simply use the interrogative adverb “where” to seek information relating to directions and locations.
“Where” as a relative adverb
The three most common relative adverbs in English are “why,” “when,” and “where,” while the less common ones are “whenever” and “wherever.”
The categorization of such words goes back to the main functions of adverbs which are to explain conditions, to express time, and to locate.
Relative adverbs may look like relative pronouns because of their ability to refer back to an antecedent, a noun mentioned previously.
A relative clause introduced by either relative adverbs or pronouns helps in clarifying the meaning of the antecedent, which then facilitates better informational interpretation.
Here’s an example of using “where” as a relative adverb that introduces a restrictive relative clause, denoting the meaning “the place in which.”
And here’s how to introduce a non-restrictive relative clause using “where.”
The difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses lies in the essentiality of the clause in light of the holistic unit of meaning implied by the sentence.
A non-restrictive clause contains grammatically-inessential meaning which needs a comma placement.
But, a restrictive clause bears some meaning that is indispensable to the whole sentence, and hence, no comma should separate it.
For more information about punctuation relative clauses, you may visit our other post covering this topic here.
The conjunction “where”
“Where” may also function as a conjunction that carries the informal meaning of “that” or, more specifically, “in a situation or condition that,” as recognized by most lexical authorities.
Since this is the case, the trick to confirm whether it is used as a conjunction is to look for two clauses in the sentence.
But, it is worthy to note that this kind of distinction is relatively more helpful for people creating syntactic tree diagrams or making dictionary entries.
Unless your goal is to write a grammar-related blog like this, it might not be very healthy to get caught in the weeds, although doing so is highly recommended if you have plenty of time.
Here’s an example of using “where” as a clausal connector.
In the example above, the usage of “where” qualifies all the possible locations that the meeting could take place, linking the initial clause to the second.
Using “when” instead of “where” in the context of the last example is also possible, but doing so means emphasizing the time rather than the location.
Additionally, the other common words that have been formed with “where” are: somewhere, nowhere, anywhere, whereas, wherein, and whereby.
In sum, “where” is less likely going to be misinterpreted by the hearer or reader as long as he or she understands the basic concept of location or direction.
But, someone who’s only beginning to learn the English language might find it hard to make sense of the subtle distinctions elaborated in this section.
What I’m trying to say is that native speakers of English had better bear this in mind when communicating with people who are unfamiliar with the English language.
Understanding the word “were” in ample detail
Now that we have grasped the meaning of “where,” let’s also narrow down the meaning of the verb “were” for comparison purposes.
Doing so should eliminate the problem of lexical near misses.
The verb “were”
“Were” is one of the few verbs that we learned and knew, yet we did not quite understand why we even use it.
Although I don’t want to sound philosophical, the explanation would have to go back to the concept of existence.
Also, the presence of the word “were” in our linguistic repertoire is one of the subtlest reasons why we think that time is linear rather than cyclical.
This means that the mere existence of “were” in English constantly reminds us that a concept of “past” exists, which we use as a basis for making sense of the present and the future.
“Were” is the simple past form of the verb “are,” which is also the most notorious verb apart from “wear” that often gets confused with “where.”
“Are” is a child of “to be,” who has two other children, “am” and “is.”
While “am” and “is” are considered to be the prim and proper kids for always going back to the same past, “are” is more of a nuisance for going astray.
“Am” and “is” take the same past form which is “was,” but “are” goes back to “were,” leading to its synophonic resemblance with “where.”
The default usage of “were” merely indicates the existence or even inexistence of something in the past, as in the example below.
“Were” may also denote the meaning “to join” or “to attend.”
Or, it can be used to refer to the quantity of something, such as the number of entities involved at a time before “now.”
Informally, it can also be used to denote the meaning “to say” or “to mention.”
In short, we use “were” to refer to a past presence or existence, which is anytime before the relative present.
Questions with “were”
“Were” is also used with questions. We can use it to ask for, again, the existence of any event, a person, or entity in the past.
In seeking further information, we may add any wh-word such as “who” or “why” in front of “were.”
Apparently, the example sentence above dismisses the possibility of using “where” because the question already implies a context-dependent location, as suggested by the word “here.”
But, here’s how we can use “were” and “where” together in a related context, prompting a location as a response.
If I keep going with questions containing “where” and “were” together, you will start feeling or thinking that these two words sound almost the same, especially when spoken naturally.
To native English users, this may not necessarily cause a lot of trouble because of the universal grammer embedded in their first language.
(Oops, sorry! I mean “grammar.”)
So, why does this kind of confusion happen?
The confusion behind “where” and “were” lies in…
Learning a language means naturally getting exposed to the idiosyncrasies entailed by specific languages.
In other words, the arbitrary nature of language blended with human creativity is the perpetrator of these issues.
These are also common sources of writing errors and mistakes that can be improved by constant practice and exposure.
What’s actually happening is that, as our linguistic competence advances, so do the complexities, which is okay as long as we are willing to be corrected.
Generally, we get to acquire language by listening, followed by speaking, reading, and then writing.
Our brain tends to mix up the acquired linguistic data, ending up in some linguistic output mistakes and errors.
A language mistake happens when a language user, despite familiarity with the rule, misuses the language, whereas an error happens due to the ignorance of the rule.
This means that when an adult and competent native English speaker fails to use “were” and “where” correctly, that person is committing a language mistake.
However, when a child who has only been exposed to the English language recently fails to see the distinction, that child is committing a language error.
Put simply, the phoneme or sound produced when pronouncing “were” and “where” simply gets mixed up with each of their spelling.
Therefore, those who can read already have some phonemic associations with words, because, again, speaking comes before reading.
But, as we continue acquiring the four language skills, we may sometimes rely on either “spelling words the way we hear them,” or the other way around.
Another classic example is the word “grammar,” which has been deliberately mentioned earlier for emphasis.
We may have either heard or read the word first as we acquire language, but the very subtle difference between the “a” and “e” sounds may cause some trouble when we write the word down.
One good way to get around the issue with synophonic words is to transcribe them phonetically using the International Phonetic Alphabet to explicitly represent the difference.
But, just imagine reading this whole article in IPA with all those diacritics and suprasegmental markings.
It’s going to be like looking at hieroglyphics or the logograms in the movie “The Arrival,” which is unenticing.
So, the general practice is to use the Roman alphabet, which is easier and covers more range of audiences.
After all, language is primarily used as a tool for communicative convenience to maintain social balance, as opposed to making our lives more difficult.
Hence, linguistic awareness, practice, and the ability to cope with constructive criticism are keys to solving the issue entailed by synophones.
Where vs. Were: The commonly-misused phrases
And now, let’s have a look at the phrases that may get mistaken when writing.
The following subsections contain example sentences wherein both “were” and “where” are possible.
“Were there” and “where there”
“Were there” and “where there” may appear in sentences as in the next examples.
Here’s how we can use “were there.”
And here’s how we can use “where there.”
“Were some” and “where some”
Another is “were some” and “where some,” which we may unknowingly interchange if we aren’t cautious enough.
Here’s a sentence using “were some.”
And, here’s “where some” in a sentence.
“You were” and “you where”
Lastly, “you were” and “you where” may also get on our nerves and test our patience.
You can’t say “you where” in the next sentence.
Yet, you can’t use “you were” here.
Isn’t English obnoxious and interesting at the same time?
I just hope you would lean more toward the latter choice given so that can easily pull yourself together when you get confronted with these writing mishaps.
“Where you at” or “Were you at”
You want to confirm whether your friend went to the same concert you attended last weekend.
How should you ask her or him correctly to prompt a yes-or-no response?
Here’s the correct way.
But, when you want to ask your brother where he is at the moment because your mom’s getting ready to beat him up, use the next question instead.
Remember that “where you at” is an informal expression in English denoting the meaning “where are you.”
So, please refrain from using this question when asking for your subordinate’s location in the email.
“They where” or “They were” not here
Police officers are asking whether some of your friends stayed in your house last night.
No one came to your house so you want to deny this to the authorities. What would you say?
It should be…
“Where” doesn’t work in place of “were” in the sentence above, so there’s no reason to misuse it, or else you’ll be missing a verb in your statement.
“If I were” or “If I where”
You want to hypothetically and hyperbolically express how many times you’ve forgotten your keys in the ignition.
You should say…
Similarly, the verb “were” is needed in the second conditional sentence above rather than “where.”
“Not sure were” or “Not sure where”
You were asked by your mom where her keys are but you can’t remember where you placed them.
You should say…
Just be ready to get a nag, a litany, or even a beating when responding this way, okay?
“Where was I” or “Were was I?
Finally, you suddenly got distracted in your presentation and wanted to ask your audience which part you were already at.
For sure, this is the correct way.
Unfortunately, you can’t use “were” in the question above because you already have the verb “was.”
We’re vs. Were vs. Where
On top of “were” and “where,” which, I assume, is already clear at this point, “we’re” also adds insult to the injury at times.
“We’re” is the contracted or shortened form of “we are,” and thus, it is comprised of two words rather than one, which sets it apart from “were” and “where.”
Verb contractions are often used in informal written and spoken English because they are convenient, obviously enough.
When we represent contractions in writing, we need an apostrophe to indicate that we are combining two words, which are usually a pronoun and a verb.
In the example above, “were” and “where” cannot replace “we’re” in any way because “we’re” make up both the subject and the verb in the sentence.
At times, people may indolently use “were” instead when communicating in direct messaging apps, which may still be understood by the recipient.
However, it is worth noting that the more we encourage and convince ourselves that incorrect usage is okay, the more we are also fossilizing such mistakes.
And when mistakes occur because of indolence and mere reliance on technology, then we are also increasing the chances of misinformation and misinterpretation.
This, therefore, means that the future of language is literally just at the tip of our fingers.
Frequently Asked Questions on “Were” vs. “Where”
How can we teach the difference between “were” and “where?”
It depends on the language competency level of the learner. For beginners, it would be good to focus on the difference between their pronunciation first and introduce more gap-fill seatwork. For more advanced ones, we can explain the nuances more explicitly by comparing the parts of speech, together with error-spotting quizzes.
Are “were” and “where” pronounced differently?
Yes, there is a difference between the middle vowel sound of each word. “Were” rhymes with “err,” while “where” rhymes with “chair.” In other words, you can simply insert an imaginary y-sound in “where,” like saying w-e-y-r, and drop it in “were.”
What does “where were we” mean?
Without any background context, “where were we” is a question we would typically hear from a speaker who got distracted and forgot the point of discussion. When the conversation gets derailed, we can seek help from the other interlocutor to be able to remember the original topic.
Linguistic output issues may happen when we are either unaware or incompetent with the language’s grammatical rules.
As this is common not only in English but also in other languages, it should be safe to say that this is a natural issue related to language acquisition.
But, it is also worth highlighting that the failure to engage in self-correction measures is tantamount to contributing to misinformation, which may affect future generations.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.