Les pronoms relatifs always seem difficult for our students who are not sure how and when to use them. These pronouns are connectors, and they link one relative clause (a subject and a verb that can’t stand alone without the main clause) to a main clause (which can make sense on its own).
Example of a relative clause with a main clause:
Complete sentence: Le smartphone que tu as acheté est sur ton bureau (the smartphone that you bought is on the desk)
Main clause: Le smartphone est sur ton bureau.
Relative clause: que tu as acheté.
In this first article, we’ll focus on the pronoms relatifs simples: qui, que, dont and où, followed by ce que, ce qui and ce dont. They exist to avoid repetition in a sentence, like their English equivalent: which, whom, of which, etc. Our next article will focus on the pronoms relatifs composés: lequel, duquel, auquel, etc.
Both QUE and QUI can be translated as: “which” or “that.”
Qui can also mean “who” or “whom.”
QUE(QU’) replaces the direct object (COD – complément d’objet direct) in the sentence.
Le vélo est rouge. Nous avons acheté le vélo. = The bike is red. We bought the bike.
Let’s make one sentence out of these 2 clauses to avoid repeating le vélo. In that second sentence Nous avons acheté le vélo: “vélo” is not the subject, it’s not doing the action, the subject is “nous.” Vélo is the direct object (COD). To end up with a single sentence, you need to replace le vélo with the relative pronoun que:
Le vélo que nous avons acheté est rouge.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If the COD we are replacing with a relative pronoun is feminine or plural, the verb needs to agree with it. For example, if we use la voiture instead of le vélo, then you will need to make the past participle of the verb acheter agree with that COD:
La voiture que nous avons achetée est rouge (the car that we bought is red). Notice that an “e” was added to the past participle of the verb.
QUI is used to replace a subject in the sentence.
Let’s look at the bike example from above:
Le vélo est rouge. Nous avons acheté le vélo.
Let’s make one sentence out of these 2 clauses with Nous avons acheté le vélo as the main clause. To avoid repeating vélo, you can use the relative pronoun qui:
Nous avons acheté le vélo qui est rouge.
Note that both versions of that sentence mean exactly the same thing, there are just 2 different ways of constructing it.
QUI also replaces an indirect object (COI – complément d’objet indirect) after a preposition such as à.
Tu parles avec une femme. C’est ma copine.
In order to make one sentence, you can link the two clauses together with avec qui:
La femme à qui tu parles est ma copine. = The woman to whom you’re talking with is my friend.
Une ville que j’aimerais visiter en France est Marseille. = A city that I’d like to visit in France is Marseille.
Tu as vu la robe qui est en soldes ? = Did you see the dress that is on sale?
J’ai choisi les fleurs qu’elle préfère. = I’ve chosen the flowers she prefers.
J’ai oublié qui a emprunté ma boîte à outils. = I forgot who has borrowed my toolbox.
A SIMPLE AND USEFUL TRICK
to help in choosing QUI or QUE:
Since the correct use of these relative pronouns is complicated, many French teachers opt for this simple and straightforward explanation: qui is always followed by a verb whereas que is followed by a subject before a verb:
QUI + verb
La femme qui parle est ma voisine. = The woman who is speaking is my mother. Note that the verb follows qui.
QUE + subject + verb
La femme que je connais est ma voisine. = The woman I know is my neighbor. In this case, since there is already a subject before the verb, you need to choose que instead of qui.
- Le pain que nous avons acheté aujourd’hui n’est pas très bon. = The bread that we bought today isn’t very good. In this sentence, le pain is the COD, while the subject is nous, therefore the relative pronoun is que.
- Aujourd’hui, nous avons acheté un pain qui n’est pas très bon. = Today, we bought a loaf of bread that/which isn’t very good. Here, un pain is the subject of the relative clause. The pronoun to use is qui.
- Regardez cette femme qui nous suit ! Vous la connaissez ? = Look at this woman who’s following us! Do you know her? Here, the subject of the relative clause is cette femme.