Getting to Know The French Relative Pronouns (Pronoms Relatif)
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Getting to Know The French Relative Pronouns

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Reading time:  4 minutes

Difficulty: Intermediate
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.)

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.

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 quil 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

Examples source: Collins Easy Learning French Grammar

*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.


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 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          Masculine plural – lesquels

Feminine singular – laquelle       Feminine plural – lesquelles

All four means “which”

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 becomes auquel

à + laquelle is still à laquelle (remains the same)

à + lesquels becomes auxquels

à + lesquelles becomes auxquelles

de +  lequel becomes duquel

de +  laquelle is still de laquelle (remains the same)

de +  lesquels becomes desquels

de + lesquelles becomes desquelles

 

 

3. dont

Another 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!

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

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

4. où

This 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…

A QUICK RECAP OF THE TOPIC

  • Relative pronouns in English are the words who, which, that, whom and where. In French, we have qui, que, lequel, auquel and duquel.
  • Qui is used for the subject while que is for direct objects and after a preposition. Both can refer to persons or things.
  • 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.

About the Author Frederic

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 +

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