Relative Clauses in Spanish

Instructor: Janet Long

Janet has taught college Spanish and English courses and has master's degrees in Spanish literature and TESOL.

Do you know that hombre (man)? Can you hand me the cosa (thing)? How do we know what 'man' or 'thing' we are talking about? We can use a relative clause to make our ideas clearer and easier to understand. This lesson will show you how.

Using Relative Clauses

Have you ever had a conversation like this?

John: Hey, do you know José?
Ann: No, who's José?
John: He's in our English class.
Ann: I can't remember him.
John: He's the guy who is always in a good mood.
Ann: Oh, yeah! I know José!

At first, Ann can't remember who José is, but John helps her remember by saying ''He's the guy who is always in a good mood.'' The description, ''who is always in a good mood'', helps Ann remember who José is. This type of description is called a relative clause.

A relative clause is a group of words that describes a noun, just like an adjective. Because of this, relative clauses are also sometimes called adjective clauses. They always come after the noun that they describe in a sentence, and in Spanish they always start with a relative pronoun. If you need a refresher on Spanish relative pronouns, then check out some of our lessons that cover them in greater detail.

Let's look at the example sentence in Spanish. Here, the relative clause in both sentences is in bold:

Él es el chico que siempre está de buen humor. He is the guy who is always in a good mood.

Notice that the relative clause describes the noun chico (guy), so it comes right after it in the sentence.

There are two things that you can use a relative clause for in Spanish: to specify or to explain. Let's take a look at each of these and see how they are different.

Relative Clauses That Specify

Whatever you are talking about usually begins with a a general noun, like chico (guy) or cosa (thing), that can describe many different possible things. A relative clause can describe the specific thing or person in a group that you are talking about.

You can add the relative clause after the noun to give a description that tells specifically which person or thing you are talking about.
people group

This description could tell how that person or thing is different from other possibilities. To help understand this better, let's look at an example:

El chico que habla con Ann es John. The guy who is talking with Ann is John

The sentence starts with the general noun el chico (the guy). Since this a general noun that can be used for many different people, we need to describe which specific chico we are talking about. To do this, we use a relative clause - que habla con Ann (who is talking with Ann). By adding this description, we help our listener understand exactly who we are talking about.

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