French Relative Pronouns: All You Need to Know About Pronoms Relatifs
Talk in French
Shares

French Relative Pronouns: All You Need to Know About Pronoms Relatifs

the french relative pronouns

In this lesson, we'll talk about French relative pronouns or pronoms relatifs.

A Review of Relative Pronouns in English

Are you still familiar with relative pronouns in English? If you can no longer recall all those grammar lessons in school, don't worry, this topic is fairly easy. Plus I'm pretty sure you use relative pronouns in your daily speech.

In English, relative pronouns are the words who, which, that, whom and where. These types of pronouns serve several purposes:

  • To point out clearly or properly identify the person or thing being referred to (example: The girl who passed by a while ago was my best friend in grade school.)
  • To supply more information about the person or thing being talked about (example: The building, which was built in the 1800s, is said to be haunted by ghosts.)
  • List Element

To talk about it in grammar-y technical terms, relative pronouns are also used:

  • To connect the dependent clause or relative clause to the main clause.
  • To replace the subject, direct object, indirect object, or preposition.

French Relative Pronouns

When it comes to French, relative pronouns work the same way. These are the words qui, que, lequel, auquel, duquel, dont and où. 

1. qui and que 

Qui and que can both be used to refer to persons or things. The main difference is, qui is used for the subject (or indirect object for persons) while que is for the direct object. Qui is also being used after a preposition (à, de or pour)

Qui (subject) could mean who, which, or that.

Que (direct object) could mean who, whom, which, or that.

A few examples:

Mon frère, qui a vingt ans, est à l'université. (My brother, who's twenty, is at university.)

*Est-ce qu'il y a un bus qui va au centre-ville? (ls there a bus that goes to the town centre?)

Les amis que je vois le plus sont Léa et Mehdi.  (The friends that I see most are Lea and Mehdi.)

Voilà la maison que nous voulons acheter.  (That's the house which we want to buy.)

la personne à qui il parle  (the person he is speaking to)

les enfants pour qui j'ai acheté des bonbons (the children I bought sweets for)

*Kindly note that que is shortened to qu' if it precedes a word that starts with a vowel or most words that begin with a letter h.

Quick reminder

Here's a major difference between English and French relative pronouns: in English, who, which and that are often being interchanged in daily use. In French, however, this in not the case. Qui and que strictly have separate uses for each.

2. lequel

Lequel is the French relative pronoun counterpart for “which” and it is used for indirect objects. It follows the prepositions à, de or pour and only used when referring to things (never about people). In addition, it has to agree with the noun's gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural).

Masculine singular

lequel

Feminine singular

laquelle 

Masculine plural 

lesquels

Feminine plural

lesquelles

All four means “which”

Some examples:

le livre pour lequel elle est connue   (the book she is famous for)

la table sur laquelle j'ai mis mon sac   (the table I put my bag on)

Aside from having to agree with the noun's gender and count, you also need to consider the combinations of words which, in turn, creates an altogether new word.

For example: 

  • à + the definite article le becomes au.
  • de + the definite article le becomes du.
  • à + the definite article les becomes aux.
  • de + the definite article les becomes des.

Similarly, lequel changes into different words when combined with the preposition à and de.

à + lequel

auquel

à + laquelle

à laquelle (remains the same)

à + lesquels

auxquels

à + lesquelles

auxquelles

de +  lequel

duquel

de +  laquelle 

de laquelle (remains the same)

de +  lesquels

desquels

de + lesquelles

desquelles

3. dont

Another French relative pronoun is dont. When translated in English, it means whose, of whom, of which. It may be used to refer to persons or things. The good news is, it does not change its form, nor does it have to agree with anything!

Let's see some examples:

Plural noun: les films dont tu parles  (the films you are talking about)

Singular noun: la femme dont la voiture est en panne  (the woman whose car has broken down)

4. où

This French relative pronoun is used for places and times. Its English counterpart could either be where, when or even which and that, depending on how it is used.

Où is also used as the question word where (see article on ASKING QUESTIONS IN FRENCH) and the way it is used as an interrogative pronoun is basically the same as its use as a relative pronoun. There is an added function however, and that is to refer to a time something occurred.

In short, it covers both place and time in its relative pronoun function and takes the job of “when” as well, aside from “where”.  (Note: the interrogative pronoun “quand” is not as multifunctional as où and cannot be used as a relative pronoun.)

Some examples: 

Paris est la ville on peut manger les meilleurs escargots. (Paris is the city where we can eat the best snails.) 

C'est l'année ils ont gagné la coupe du monde.  (That's the year they won the world cup.)

In addition,  can also be used after prepositions.

La ville d'elle vient… The city (where) she's from...

Quick Recap on French Relative Pronouns

  • check
    Relative pronouns in English are the words who, which, that, whom and where. In French, we have qui, que, lequel, auquel and duquel.
  • check
    Qui is used for the subject while que is for direct objects and after a preposition. Both can refer to persons or things.
  • check
    Lequel is used to refer to a thing and has to agree with the noun it refers to. It is used for indirect objects.
  • Dont suggests possession and it can refer to both persons or things. It never changes in form.
  • Où indicates the place and time and can mean where, when, which or that, depending on how it is used.

Your turn!

Can you try making your own sentences using the French relative pronouns you learned in this lesson? Share it with us in the comments section!

About the Author Frederic Bibard

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +

follow me on: