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French Relative Pronouns

Instructor: Romain Chareyron

Romain teaches university French and has a PhD in French culture and cinema.

This lesson will introduce you to the most common French relative pronouns. We'll also explain the differences between them, and how to use them correctly in a sentence.

How to Choose the Correct Relative Pronoun

Alain and Philippe are roommates at the university. They both study economics. One evening, Philippe comes back to their place late and sees Alain still working. When he asks Alain why he is working so late, Alain replies:

  • Je lis l'article que je présente en cours demain. ('I am reading the article (that) I'll be presenting in class tomorrow.')


Translation: I am reading the article (that) I will be presenting class tomorrow.
text book text added


In the sentence, the word que is a relative pronoun. Before we look at the different relative pronouns, it's important to understand the grammar behind them. The purpose of a relative pronoun is to link a relative or dependent clause (je présente demain en cours) to a main clause (Je lis l'article).

Que is one of the most common relative pronouns in French. The other common pronouns are qui, dont, and . You'll see that each of these pronouns doesn't have one exact English translation; instead, the meaning depends on the context of the sentence. These relative pronouns are also never omitted in French.

When deciding how to choose the correct relative pronoun, there are two elements to take into consideration: (1) whether the pronoun refers to people or things (2) whether the pronoun has the grammatical function of subject or object in the sentence.

Note

These rules only apply to the relative pronouns qui and que, as dont and are more straightforward in the way they're used and more closely related to their English equivalents, as we'll see in a little while.

The table clarifies when to use qui and que:

Refers to people Refers to things
Has the function of subject Qui Qui
Has the function of object Que Que

Qui

Qui (pronounced: kee) refers to people or things and has the function of subject of the dependent clause. Since it has the function of subject, qui will always be followed by a conjugated verb. The conjugated verbs must always agree with the antecedent it refers to.

  • Mon ami apprécie les personnes qui aiment voyager. ('My friend appreciates people who like to travel.') → Here, the verbe aimer ('to like/love') agrees with the noun les personnes ('people'). Since the noun is plural, we need to use the 3rd person plural of aimer.
  • C'est une voiture qui est très rapide. ('It's a car that is very fast.') → Here, the verb être ('to be') agrees with the noun voiture ('car'). Since the noun is singular, we need to use the 3rd person singular of être.


Translation: It is a car that is very fast.
lamborghini text added


Que

Que (pronounced: kuh) also refers to people or things, but has the function of object in the dependent clause. As a consequence, que is always followed by a subject, not by a verb.

Note that, unlike qui, with que you need to make an elision when it is directly followed by a vowel and remove the final -e, as shown in the next example.

  • Le français est une langue qu'il aime beaucoup. ('French is a language (that) he likes a lot.') → Notice how we changed que il for qu'il here.
  • Marie est une amie que je connais depuis dix ans. ('Marie is a friend (whom) I have known for ten years.')

Notes

Que used with the passé composé

When the verb following the pronoun que is in the passé composé, the past participle of the verb needs to agree in gender and number with the noun in the main clause:

  • La bague que j'ai achetée est très chère. ('The ring that I bought is very expensive.') → La bague is feminine singular, which means that the past participle of the verb acheter ('to buy') must end with -e, which is the mark of the feminine in French.


Translation: The ring that I bought is very expensive.
diamond ring text added


As the English translations hinted at, relative pronouns can often be omitted in English, but never in French.

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