Qui vs Que: How to Never Mix These Two up Ever Again

Qui and  que are French relative pronouns that are often confused for each other.

Qui is often translated as “who” and que as “what.” However, these meanings can be reversed or even be completely different depending on the context.

If that last part gave you a headache, don’t worry. There are actually a few tricks that can help you remember which you should use when.

In this post, we’re going through the main distinctions between qui and que and other uses each word has.

Let’s settle the qui vs. que debate once and for all!


How to Use Qui in French

In English, “who” can refer to people, while “that” or “which” refers to objects. In French, qui may be used for either one, but what matters is the role the word plays in the sentence.

Qui is used to stand for the subject of a subordinate clause.

Remember that the subject is the person or thing that does the action of the verb, while a subordinate clause is a phrase that adds information to a sentence but cannot stand on its own.

For example:

J’ai un nouveau ami. Il vient d’Israël. (I have a new friend. He is from Israel.)

Here, you have two full sentences. From those, you could build a more complex sentence by keeping the first sentence and making the second a subordinate clause.

J’ai un nouveau ami qui vient d’Israël. (I have a new friend who is from Israel.)

In the above example, qui is part of the subordinate clause, standing in for the original subject, il (he).

Let’s take another example.

Elle a acheté un ordinateur. Il marche bien. (She bought a computer. It works well.)

Once again, let’s combine these sentences by turning the second sentence into a subordinate clause and replacing the subject il (it) with qui.

Elle a acheté un ordinateur qui marche bien. (She bought a computer that works well.)

Qui often means “who” when employed as part of a question.

Usually, but not always, if you’re using qui in a question, chances are it means “who.”

Qui a écrit cet email ? (Who wrote this email?)

Qui parmi vous est français ? (Who among you is French?)

Qui is used in prepositional phrases.

À qui (to whom, whose) may be used to indicate possession.

À qui est ce portable ? (Whose cellphone is this?)

Pour qui (for whom) is used in pretty much the same way as its English equivalent.

Pour qui as-tu acheté ce cadeau ?  (For whom did you buy this gift?)

Avec qui  (with whom) is also quite simple.

Avec qui allez-vous au musée ? (With whom are you going to the museum?)

How to Use Que in French

As mentioned earlier, que is often translated as “what,” but—surprise, surprise—that’s not what it always means in context! It could also mean “who” or “that.” Similar to qui, you have to look closely at the role que plays in a sentence.

Que is used to stand for the object of a subordinate clause.

If the subject is the actor, the object is the one being acted on. Whenever you refer to the latter, use que.

Again, let’s take these two complete but related sentences.

J’ai mangé un croissant. Il était délicieux ! (I ate a croissant. It was delicious!)

They can easily be combined into one sentence, but let’s do it a bit differently from last time.

Le croissant que j’ai mangé était délicieux ! (The croissant that I ate was delicious!)

In this case, que is used because it refers to le croissant , the direct object (receiving the action of being eaten).

But if you’re using qui instead, you could say something like:

J’ai mangé un croissant qui était délicieux ! (I ate a croissant that was delicious!)

Just like before, qui is used here because it represents the subject of the subordinate clause.

Que means “what” when used in a question.

Just as qui generally means “who” in a question, que means “what” in the same context.

Que pensez-vous ? (What do you think?)

Note that que is changed to qu’ before a vowel, as in the very helpful phrase,  qu’est-ce que (what is it that). This phrase often opens “what” questions such as:

Qu’est-ce que vous étudiez ?  (What are you studying?)

Que can also mean “only.”

You’ve probably heard that the French word for “only” is seulement . But there’s another common way native speakers express “only”—namely, the phrase ne… que, with a verb in between.

Vous n‘avez lu que les dix premières pages ?  (You only read the first ten pages?)

Using Que in the Passé Composé

If you’re using que and the  passé composé (perfect tense), the participe passé (past participle) in your sentence must agree with the direct object.

In other words, if the direct object is feminine, add an “-e” to the participe passé. If it’s plural, add an “-s.” There’s no change for masculine singular objects.

La chanson que j’ai écoutée s’agit de l’amour. (The song I listened to deals with love.)

Using Qui in the Passé Composé

As for qui, you only need to make changes if the passé composé is formed with être (to be). In this case, the agreement is with the subject. The endings are the same: “-e” for feminine and “-s” for plural.

Les étudiants qui sont venus l’année dernière étaient génials. (The students who arrived last year were great.)

Where to Practice Qui and Que

Try these practice resources to reinforce what you’ve just learned in this post.

  • Tex’s French Grammar has an online review section where you can see more examples of how each word is used. You can then take a quiz at the end.
  • Columbia University also has a quiz on the use of qui and que. This is a great resource because it has in-depth explanations for each answer.

And if you want to see more examples of qui and que in action, switch on the subtitles on the language learning platform FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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There you have it! It was a pleasure introducing you to qui vs. que. I hope it’s now clear how these two differ from each other and that you can use both of them with confidence!

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FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:


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