Adjective Clauses in Spanish

Instructor: Elena Sacramento Lechado

Elena has a PhD in linguistics from University of La Laguna (Spain). Currently, she teaches Spanish as a foreign language and creates teaching resources.

In this lesson, you'll learn how adjective clauses work in Spanish. Knowing how to adequately form and use them will make you sound more natural and give flow to your conversations with native speakers.

What Are Adjective Clauses?

As in English, adjective clauses are groups of words that function as adjectives; that is, they modify a noun (or pronoun) or add more information about it. In Spanish, the most frequently used adjective clauses are those introduced by the relative pronoun que, which means 'that' or 'who.'

Take a look at this example. Can you spot the adjective clause?

  • Busco a la profesora que habla español. (I'm looking for the teacher who speaks Spanish.)

If you answered que habla español, you're right! The adjective clause is the part of the sentence that we could replace with a simple adjective. For example, we coud have just said:

  • Busco a la profesora española. (I'm looking for the Spanish teacher.)

Española is an adjective of nationality. But instead of using this adjective, we have added a clause introduced by que. So what we do with adjective clauses is add detail about something or someone by using a verb.

Now, let's say that you've asked someone about this Spanish teacher, but they have no idea of who you're talking about. You could be more specific:

  • Busco a la profesora que tiene el pelo castaño y rizado y lleva gafas con la montura negra. (I'm looking for the teacher who has curly brown hair and wears glasses with a black frame.)

Again, the adjective clause contains all the extra information and it is introduced by que.

Translation: I am looking for the teacher who has curly brown hair.

Now that you're familiar with adjective clauses, let's focus on their main types. We'll analyze different real-life examples and observe a conversation in a shopping context.

Types of Adjective Clauses in Spanish

Now that you're able to recognize what an adjective clause is, we need to comment on a few things about its structure:

  • When the information is certain, definite, or known by the speaker, we use a verb in the indicative after que.
  • When the information added is vague, indefinite, or not real, we use the subjunctive.

Let's see this with some examples.

  • Busco a un chico que es pelirrojo y habla francés. (I'm looking for a boy who is red-haired and speaks French.)
  • Busco a un chico que sea pelirrojo y hable francés. (I'm looking for a boy who is red-haired and speaks French.)

Can you tell the difference between these two sentences? At first sight, or in an oral context, these two sentences might seem identical, but be careful! The scenario is completely different.

Translation: I am looking for a boy who is red-haired and speaks French.

  1. When we use the indicative (es, habla), we're expressing that we're looking for a boy we DO know, who has red hair and who can speak French. We were probably talking to each other yesterday, but I can't remember his name, and now I'm asking someone else if they have seen him.
  2. If we use the subjunctive (sea, hable), it means that we DON'T know a person with these characteristics. In fact, we're expressing that we're looking for someone, an ideal boy who has ginger hair and speaks French. For example, imagine two friends talking about their ideal romantic partners.

So pay attention to the use of the indicative or the subjunctive in this type of sentences. As you can see, a single letter can change the meaning of a whole sentence!

Sample Conversation

To keep practicing the use of adjective clauses, let's hear Laura, who is shopping today. She's looking for a nice purse and has decided to look around one of the local stores:

Clerk: ¡Buenos días! (Good morning!) ¿Puedo ayudarla? (May I help you?)

Laura: ¡Hola! (Hi!) Estoy buscando un bolso que sea colorido y práctico. (I'm looking for a purse that is colorful and comfortable.)

Clerk: Tenemos varios que son suaves y prácticos. (We have several that are soft and practical.) Por ejemplo, este. (For example, this one.)

Laura: Es bonito, pero necesito un bolso que tenga espacio suficiente para mi tableta. (It's nice, but I need a purse that has enough space for my tablet.)

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