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On p.56 of Bruce Donaldson's German, An Essential Grammar we read:

When ‘it’ and ‘them’ with reference to things, as opposed to people, are preceded by a preposition, the above pronominal forms cannot be used; in other words in es, auf es etc. are not possible at all, and in ihn, auf ihm etc. and in sie, auf ihr etc. are only possible if referring to a person. German uses the so-called prepositional adverb in such cases, formed by combining da (there, an adverb) with the preposition in question, e.g. damit (with it/them), dahinter (behind it/them).

Does this mean that, relative pronouns when they refer to "things" and not people, should be replaced with forms with "da-"? For instance, in this sentence:

Die Stadt, in der er jahrelang als Kind gewohnt hat, hat er nie wieder besucht.

is it correct to replace in der with darin? In particular is it possible to use "da(r) + preposition" forms in place of "preposition + relative pronoun" forms (such as the aforementioned in der)?

I have an answer to these questions; but I am not sure whether it is correct or not. I think what Bruce Donaldson says is limited to third personal pronouns; not relative pronouns (even though the relative pronoun is referring to a "thing" in the main clause. And, I think "da(r) + preposition" forms cannot be used as relative pronouns; "wo(r) + preposition" forms (such as worin) should be utilized. I am not sure I am correct.

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In older stages of German, this construction did exist, but in present day German it is archaic and I think entirely confined to poetry. In the German wikipedia, an example from Paul Celan is quoted:

Standardly, you would say "das Haus, in dem..." instead.

It is correct that an alternative to "in dem" is "worin". A "w-word" can introduce a relative clause also in other cases, and you could also use simple "wo" in your example: "die Stadt, wo er als Kind gewohnt hat" (though maybe this is stylistically not as good).

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  • "Adverb" has been used traditionally for anything that doesn't fit elsewhere :)
    – tofro
    Commented Jul 8 at 9:23
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    Do you have any sources for the claim that dafür and similar are formed with a reduced form of das and not the adverb da? Everything I can find says it’s from da, which also fits with all other Germanic languages (e.g., English therefore, Scandiwegian derfor/därför, Dutch daarvoor, etc.), as well as with the equivalent interrogative-relative wh-forms (wofür, En. wherefore, Sc. hvorfor/varför, Du. waarfor, etc.). Moreover, it would not make sense with prepositions that govern the dative or genitive to reduce dem/des to da-. Commented Jul 8 at 10:56
  • Thanks for looking at it. What I wrote was how I remembered Bayer & Bader 2007 "On the syntax of prepositional phrases"... but what I didn't remember is that they derive the nominal status of "da" from an adverbial base by some kind of neutralisation. And the Duden grammar (2022) also calls the "da-" part an adverb. You are right, I deleted my last paragraph.
    – Alazon
    Commented Jul 8 at 12:19

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