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How to use relative pronouns in French?

By: Céline Bateman-Paris Thu Mar 21 2024
French
Pronouns

Use French relative pronouns to link two sentences together that have some words in common to avoid repetition. Unlike in English, relative pronouns in French cannot be omitted. Choosing the correct relative pronoun depends on whether you’re replacing the subject (qui), the object (que), the object of a preposition (dont, lequel, auquel , duquel) or an expression of time or place (). Sometimes, you can even replace an unspecified subject or object using the demonstrative pronoun ce (ce qui, ce que, ce dont). In this post, we’ll review the differences between the relative pronouns and how to use them. Let’s take a look!

Table of Contents

    What is a relative pronoun in French?

    French relative pronouns are words used to replace a common element in two or more sentences to avoid repetition. Let’s start by looking at an English example:

    • → book = object

      I am reading a book.

    • → book = subject

      The book is interesting.

    The word “book” is common in both examples above. Both sentences are correct, but if we want to avoid repetition and be more concise, we can combine these two sentences like this:

    The book that I am reading is interesting.

    In the new sentence, the common element “book” appears only once, and it has been replaced by “that”: “that” is a relative pronoun in English!

    In French, there are several relative pronouns: que(that, which, who), qui(that, which, who), dont(whose, of whom, which), and (where, when). There are aso other French relative pronouns, like ce que, ce qui, ce dont, lequel, duquel, and auquel, which are used for unspecified subjects or objects or for things. Let's take a closer look at each!

    What is the difference between ‘que’ and ‘qui’ in French?

    Although que and qui can both be translated as "that," "which," or "who," the big difference between the relative pronouns is the part of the sentence they can replace: either the subject or object.

    • Que example 1:

      Let's combine these two sentences:

      • object

        Je vais lire un magazine.

        I’m going to read a magazine.

      • subject

        Le magazine est en français.

        The magazine is in French.

      Final sentence:

      Le magazine que je vais lire est en français.

      The magazine which I’m going to read is in French.

      → Because sentence 1 (where magazine is the object) comes second, you need to use que.
    • Que example 2:

      Let's combine these two sentences:

      • object

        J’ai rencontré mon voisin hier.

        I met my neighbor yesterday.

      • object

        Je cherche mon voisin.

        I'm looking for my neighbor.

      Final sentence:

      object

      Je cherche mon voisin que j’ai rencontré hier.

      I’m looking for my neighbor who I met yesterday.

      → Because sentence 1 comes second, and mon voisin is the object of sentence 1, you need to replace it with que.
    Tip

    Memorize the following pattern when using the relative pronoun que:

    noun + que + (subject + verb)

    Now, let’s take a look at when to use qui.

    • Qui example 1:

      Let's combine these two sentences:

      • object

        J'ai un collègue.

        I have a coworker.

      • subject

        Mon collègue est colombien.

        My coworker is Colombian.

      Final sentence:

      subject

      J’ai un collègue qui est colombien.

      I have a coworker who is Colombian.

      → Because sentence 2 come second, and collègue is the subject of sentence 2, you need to replace it with qui.
    • Qui example 2:

      Let's combine these two sentences:

      • subject

        La réunion est à 10h.

        The meeting is at 10am.

      • object

        Je prépare la réunion.

        I am preparing for a meeting.

      Final sentence:

      subject

      Je prépare la réunion qui est à 10h.

      I am preparing for a meeting which is at 10am.

      → Because sentence 1 comes second and réunion is the subject of sentence 1, you need to replace it with qui.
    Tip

    Memorize the following pattern when using the relative pronoun qui:

    noun + qui+ verb

    Now, let’s take a look at when to use qui.

    All of these sentences could also be combined in the reverse order: you could start with 1 and insert 2 or vice versa. Just keep in mind the role of the noun you replace with qui or que.

    Using the most recent example, the noun réunion is the object of sentence 2 and therefore, you will replace it with que when you link it to sentence 1:

    object

    La réunion que je prépare est à 10h.

    The meeting which I am preparing for is at 10 am.

    Important

    Que becomes qu' with a noun starting with a vowel.

    Les biscuits sont bons. Il a mangé des biscuits.

    The cookies are good. He ate the cookies.

    Les biscuits qu'il a mangés sont bons.

    The cookies (that) he ate are good.

    Remember that the French participle agrees with the direct object when the auxiliary verb is avoir(to have) and the object comes before the auxiliary verb.

    Qui, however, cannot become qu' before a noun starting with a vowel:

    Je mange un biscuit. Le biscuit est bon.

    I am eating a cookie. The cookie is good.

    Je mange le biscuit qu’est bon

    Instead say:

    Je mange le biscuit qui est bon.

    I am eating a cookie (that) is good.

    When to use ‘dont’ in French?

    Use the French relative pronoun dont to say "whose," "of whom," or "of which" and to express possession when a French verb is used with the preposition de.

    Like “whose” in English, dont can introduce a noun which belongs to someone or something that was mentioned before. Good news, it works exactly the same in both languages!

    Le garçon dont le frère est dans ma classe s’appelle Julien.

    The boy whose brother is in my class is called Julien.

    Just like qui and que, the relative pronoun dont can also be used to link two sentences that have a noun in common in order to avoid repetition. It works a bit like que, except it is used when verbs have the preposition de. Check out our list of verbs in French followed by the preposition de! Here are a couple of examples where the de accompanying a verb becomes the relative pronoun dont:

    • rêver de(to dream of)

      Je rêve d’une maison. La maison est grande.

      I dream of a house. The house is big.

      La maison dont je rêve est grande.

      The house of which I dream is big.

    • avoir besoin de (to need)

      J’ai besoin d’un stylo. Le stylo est sur la table.

      I need a pen. The pen is on the table.

      Le stylo dont j’ai besoin est sur la table.

      The pen (that) I need is on the table.

    The relative pronouns que, qui, and dont can also be used in combination with the demonstrative ce.

    When to use ‘ce qui,’ ‘ce que,’ or ‘ce dont’ in French?

    Use the relative pronouns ce, qui, and dont in combination with the French demonstrative pronoun ce to mean "the thing" or "what." These relative pronouns are used when there is no specific object or subject. Let’s see an example of each:

    • Ce que is used when “what” is the object of the verb:

      object

      Ce que j’aime, c’est le bruit de la pluie.

      What I like is the sound of the rain.

    • Ce qui is used when “what” is the subject of the verb:

      object

      Ce qui m'énerve dans les transports, c’est la chaleur en été.

      What annoys me in public transport is the summer heat.

    • Ce dontis used when “what” is the object of a verb followed by the preposition de:

      object

      Ce dont j’ai besoin, c’est plus de temps.

      What I need is more time.

    Now, let’s take a look at the French relative pronoun !

    When to use ‘où’ in French?

    Use the French relative pronoun to replace places and time. When you use “where” and “when” as relative pronouns in English, you'll use in French.

    • Use (where) as a relative pronoun to talk about places:

      Voici la ville j’ai grandi.

      Here is the town where I grew up.

    • Use (when) as a relative pronoun to talk about times:

      C’est l'année nous nous sommes rencontrés.

      This is the year (when) we met.

      Tip

      Although in English we often omit the relative pronoun “when” in informal speech, remember not to omit the relative pronoun in French!

      C’est l'année nous nous sommes rencontrés.

      lit. This is the year we met.

      C’est l'année où nous nous sommes rencontrés.

      This is the year when we met.

    Before we wrap up, let’s review one more set of relative pronouns in French.

    What are ‘lequel,’ ‘duquel,’ and ‘auquel’ in French?

    Lequel, duquel, and auquel are composed relative pronouns, meaning they are used — and sometimes fused with — prepositions. They only replace things and not people. They are used to replace an object preceded by one of the prepositions in the following table:

    Preposition / Gender and Number
    Masculine Singular
    Feminine Singular
    Masculine Plural
    Feminine Plural

    with sur, pour, dans, avec

    lequel

    laquelle

    lesquels

    lesquelles

    with à

    auquel*

    à laquelle

    auxquels*

    auxquelles*

    with près de, à côté de, auprès de, en face de, à cause de

    duquel*

    de laquelle

    desquels*

    desquelles*

    *French relative pronouns which contract with a preposition (see below):

    • L’ordinateur est neuf. Je travaille sur mon ordinateur.

      The computer is new. I work on my computer.

      L’ordinateur sur lequel je travaille est neuf.

      The computer on which I work is new.

    • L’appartement était bien placé. Je pense à cet appartement.

      The apartment was well located. I’m thinking of this apartment.

      L’appartement auquel je pense était bien placé.

      The apartment of which I am thinking was well located.

    • Le magasin vend des produits bio. J'habite près de ce magasin.

      The shop sells organic products. I live next to this shop.

      Le magasin près duquel j’habite vend des produits bio.

      The shop next to which I live sells organic products.

    Important

    Remember, lequel, lesquels, and lesquelles only stand for objects, not people. If you need to refer to people, you'll use qui after the preposition instead.

    Les étudiants sont américains. Il travaille avec ces étudiants.

    The students are American. He works with these students.

    Les étudiants avec lesquels il travaille sont américains.

    Instead say:

    Les étudiants avec qui il travaille sont américains.

    The students he works with are American.

    ces étudiants are people!

    There you have it! Let’s recap.

    To sum up

    Let’s review the relative pronouns in French. First, some rules to remember:

    • Don’t omit relative pronouns in French!

    • Remember that qui and que work for both people and things.

    • Learn some French verbs which need the preposition de; it will enable you to know if you need to use dont.

    • Remember that you can combine the demonstrative ce with que, qui, and dont to say "what" or "the thing" about something unspecified.

    To review each of the French relative pronouns, take a look at the recap table below:

    Relative Pronoun
    How to use it?
    Patterns to memorize
    qui

    To replace a subject

    noun + qui + verb

    que

    To replace an object

    noun + que + [subject + verb]

    dont

    To replace an object with a verb followed by de

    noun + dont + [subject + verb]

    To replace a place or period of time

    place or time + + [subject + verb]

    lequel

    To replace an object preceded by a preposition

    noun + preposition + lequel + [subject + verb]

    auquel

    noun + preposition + auquel + [subject + verb]

    duquel

    noun + preposition + duquel + [subject + verb]

    That’s it for relative pronouns. Don’t forget to check out our exercises to practice French relative pronouns to put your new skills to practice!

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