As you progress in learning French, you need to start using more complex sentences, and one way of doing this is with French relative pronouns.
These can be a little tricky at first, but if you break things down, they aren’t that difficult to master. So in this post, I’ll explain how they work to help you get started.
By the time you're done, you'll be well on your way to making more sophisticated sentences and sounding more fluent in French.
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What Are French Relative Pronouns?
What exactly is a relative pronoun? As you probably know, pronouns are those small words we use to replace nouns. For example, we might use “he” or “it” to avoid repeating the name of a person or thing. “He” and “it” are known as personal pronouns.
Relative pronouns, on the other hand, are used to introduce clauses within a sentence. They don’t replace the noun like a personal pronoun, but rather, they stand for nouns or pronouns and refer back to them, giving you extra information about them.
In English, the relative pronouns are “who”, “whom”, “which”, “that” and “what”.
Here’s an example:
- The person who you met last night is a famous DJ
In this sentence, “who” is a relative pronoun that refers back to the “the person”, giving you extra information about that person. Here, the extra information is that the person is the one “you met last night”.
Without the “who” clause, the simple sentence would just be “the person is a famous DJ” – and the part introduced by “who” is inserted to tell you more about that person.
In French, relatively pronouns work in a similar way to those in English, although with some differences – so let’s look at that now.
The French Relative Pronouns Qui And Que
In French, the first two relative pronouns you need to learn are qui and que, and both can be used in situations where English uses “who/whom”, “which” or “that”.
In English, the relative pronoun you use is partly determined by whether you are talking about a person or a thing. Broadly speaking, “who” and “whom” are used for people while “that” and “which” are used for things.
But this is not the determining factor in French.
Rather, what’s important is whether the relative pronoun is being used to stand for the subject of the sentence or the direct object. Qui is used for the subject of the clause while que is used for the direct object.
This means to choose the right one, you need to know whether you are using the relative pronoun in place of the subject or the direct object of the sentence.
However, if this all sounds like too much complicated grammar, there’s no need to panic because it’s easier than it sounds. And there’s a handy shortcut too.
A simpler way to understand it – without needing to struggle with abstract grammar – is that if the subject of the sentence comes between the relative pronoun and the verb, then the relative pronoun should be que.
If, on the other hand, there is no subject between the relative pronoun and the verb, the relative pronoun should be qui.
Qui vs Que: An Example
Look at these sentences:
- L’homme qui l’a frappé (The man who hit him)
- L’homme qu’il a frappé (The man (who) he hit)
In the first sentence, there is no subject between the relative pronoun and the verb. The person doing the action is l’homme (the man), highlighted in bold. Because l’homme comes before the relative pronoun, the correct relative pronoun to use is qui.
In the second sentence, the subject of the sentence is il (he) – again highlighted in bold. Since il comes between the relative pronoun and the verb, the correct relative pronoun is que.
It’s useful to understand the technical grammatical reasons behind this so you can check when you’re unsure. But when you’re speaking, you don’t have time to analyse grammar, so using this kind of shortcut will help you master relative pronouns more quickly.
Now let’s look at a few more examples.
Examples With Qui
- La petite fille qui pleure (The little girl who cries/is crying)
- Le cuisinier qui travaille dans un hôtel (The cook who works in a hotel)
- L’homme qui me l’a dit (The man who told it to me)
- Le vin qui coûte cher (The wine that costs a lot)
In all of these sentences, the subject comes before the relative pronoun. So for all of these sentences, the correct relative pronoun is qui. (The subject of each sentence is highlighted in bold to make it clearer.)
In the third example, we also have direct and indirect objects (me and l’). But this doesn’t affect our choice of relative pronoun since the subject comes before the relative pronoun.
Notice also that in the fourth sentence, the subject is a thing rather than a person. But in French, we still use qui because this type of sentence doesn’t distinguish between people and things.
Examples With Que
- La femme qu’il connait (The woman (who/that) he knows)
- Le restaurant que tu aimes beaucoup (The restaurant (that) you like a lot)
- La carte de visite que mon oncle avait perdu (The business card (that) my uncle had lost)
- Le cadeau que je t’ai offert (The present (that) I gave you)
In all of these sentences, the subject (in bold) comes between the relative pronoun and the verb, so in each case, the correct relative pronoun is que.
You will notice that often, the subject of the sentence is a subject pronoun (je, tu, il etc.), so when you see these following the relative pronoun, it gives you another hint that the correct relative pronoun to use is que.
One important point to note here is that in English, the relative pronoun is commonly dropped in sentences like these, and saying “the woman he knows” probably sounds more natural. However, in French this is impossible, and you must always use a relative pronoun.
Finally, note that when que comes before a vowel or unaspirate ‘h’, it becomes qu’, as in the first example.
Ce Qui And Ce Que
Another important pair of relative pronouns in French are ce qui and ce que, and these are used where English uses “what”.
They can also be used in sentences where English uses “which” when they refer to something abstract like an idea rather than a concrete thing.
Here are some examples:
- Je sais ce que tu veux dire (I know what you mean)
- Il ne sait pas ce qu’elle veut (He doesn’t know what she wants)
- Ce qui est difficile à comprendre, c’est… (What’s difficult to understand is…)
- Il parle thaï, ce qui est très difficile (He speaks Thai, which is very difficult)
Here, in the fourth example, the sentence refers to the idea of “being able to speak Thai” rather than a specific thing, and the English translation is “which”.
Something you’ll probably notice is that ce qui and ce que follow the same rules as qui and que. So if there is a subject after the relative pronoun, you should use ce que. But if there isn’t one, you should use ce qui.
This means that once you are confident using qui and que correctly, ce qui and ce que should fall into place without too much effort.
French Relative Pronouns After Prepositions
When it comes to using relative pronouns after French prepositions, things become slightly more complicated since there are more possibilities.
So let’s go through these now.
Qui For People
When talking about people, we usually use qui after prepositions.
Look at this example:
- L’ami avec qui j’ai mangé (The friend with whom I ate)
- La femme pour qui j’ai acheté les fleurs (The woman for whom I bought the flowers)
The first thing you’ll probably notice here is the slightly old-fashioned and stuffy English translations, but I have written it like this for a reason.
In normal English, we would usually say “the friend I ate with” or “the woman I bought the flowers for”. But French follows the same pattern as more old-fashioned or formal English. So it might help you to think of this when trying to make sentences in French.
There are also two exceptions to this rule of using qui for people following prepositions – see the next section on lequel for details.
When talking about things rather than people, after a French preposition, the relative pronoun to use is lequel.
However, with this pronoun you have a bit more to think about since it must agree in number and gender with the noun it refers to, like this:
- masc. sing. lequel
- masc. pl. lesquels
- fem. sing. laquelle
- fem. pl. lesquelles
Furthermore, when combined with à or de, it also changes, like this:
- masc. sing. auquel
- masc. pl. auxquels
- fem. sing. à laquelle
- fem. pl. auxquelles
- masc. sing. duquel
- masc. pl. desquels
- fem. sing. de laquelle
- fem. pl. desquelles
Here are some examples:
- La rue dans laquelle se trouve ma maison (The road my house is in)
(or, “the road in which my house is found/located”)
This could also be expressed with où (where) – la rue où se trouve ma maison (the road where my house is found/located)
- Le public auquel je m’adresse (The audience I speak to/address)
(à + lequel = auquel)
- L’endroit duquel j’ai parlé (The place I spoke about)
(de + lequel = duquel) (or “the place about which I spoke”)
The two exceptions I mentioned above for talking about people are when using the prepositions parmi (among) and entre (between).
With these two prepositions, when talking about people, you should use lequel instead:
- Ces amis parmi lesquels il y a beaucoup de problèmes (Those friends among who(m) there are lots of problems)
When the preposition de is followed by qui (when referring to a person), de and qui are usually replaced by dont, especially in more formal or careful French. Although in informal French, de qui is also possible.
Here’s an example:
- Le chanteur dont j’ai parlé (The singer I spoke about)
- Le chanteur de qui j’ai parlé (The singer I spoke about)
This time, I have translated into natural English, but again, it might help you to think of a more formal way to phrase this in English: “the singer of whom I spoke”.
Often, even when not talking about people, dont is also used instead of duquel, like this:
- L’endroit dont j’ai parlé (The place I spoke about)
- L’endroit duquel j’ai parlé (The place I spoke about)
Master The Basics And The Rest Will Follow Naturally
My best advice with French relative pronouns is to work on the easiest ones first.
Qui and que are the most common and the most useful. And if you concentrate on mastering these first, it will help train your brain to think about French relative pronouns in the correct way.
Then, once you can use these naturally and without thinking about it too much, the rest should follow easily and without you needing to struggle too much with abstract and difficult grammar.
As ever, be on the look out for French relative pronouns as you listen to French, read in French and chat to French native speakers. As they're so frequent, you'll spot them everywhere and you'll be all set to master them in no time.