Que-stions, Anyone? When to Use Qui vs. Que in French
Word-for-word translation does not work.
J’ai dû aller au supermarché pour acheter du beurre et des fraises, mais comme j’ai trouvé les fraises si chers, je ne les ai achetées pas.
I had to go to the grocery store for to buy of the butter and some strawberries, but as I found the strawberries so expensive, I not them did buy not.
A more helpful translation would be: I had to go to the grocery store to buy some butter and strawberries, but since the strawberries were so expensive, I did not buy them.
Even if you just started studying French, you probably already know that you cannot simply swap in English words to say what you want. Part of the reason is that one French word may have several meanings in English, or vice versa.
The elusive (but very important) French relative pronouns qui and que are stellar examples of this.
Although you will often find qui translated in a dictionary or textbook as “who” and que as “that” or “what,” in context, these meanings may be reversed or may be totally different.
Qui might very well mean “that” and que may designate “who.”
Do not give up yet, though. There is actually a simple pattern to the usage of each one of these words.
Here, we will teach you the main distinction between qui and que, as well as other uses each word has.
Where to Practice Qui and Que
Try these practice resources to see how much you already know about qui and que, then try them again after this guide to reinforce what you have learned.
- Tex’s French Grammar has an online review where you can see more examples of how each word is used and take a quiz.
- Columbia University has another quiz on the use of qui and que. This is a great resource because it has in-depth explanations for each answer.
Who? What? The French Learner’s Guide to Qui vs. Que
How to Use Qui in French
Qui is usually translated as “who,” but could also mean “that.”
Whereas in English, “who” can refer to people and “that” or “which” refers to objects, French may use qui for either one. In French, what matters is the role the word plays in the sentence.
Qui in Subordinate Clauses
Qui is used if it stands for the subject of a subordinate clause. This is true whether the subject is a human being or an object.
The subject is the person or thing that does the action of the verb. A subordinate clause is a phrase that adds information to a sentence but could not stand on its own.
Here is how it works.
J’ai un nouveau ami. Il vient d’Israël. (I have a new friend. He is from Israel.)
These are two full sentences. However, we 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.)
What role is qui playing here? It is now part of the subordinate clause, standing in for the original subject (il).
Here is another example.
Elle a acheté un ordinateur. Il marche bien. (She bought a computer. It works well.)
To combine these sentences, we will once again need to turn the second sentence into a subordinate clause and replace its subject, il. That means we need qui.
Elle a acheté un ordinateur qui marche bien. (She bought a computer that works well.)
Qui in Questions
Although we just explained why qui is not always the French equivalent of “who,” when qui is employed as part of a question, it almost always is.
Qui a écrit cet email? (Who wrote this email?)
Qui parmi vous est français? (Who among you is French?)
Qui with Prepositions
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 much the same way that the English phrase would be.
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
Que is most often translated as “what,” but—surprise, surprise—that is not always what it means in context! It could quite easily mean “who” or “that.” Again, it all depends on the role it plays in the sentence.
Que in Subordinate Clauses
Que represents the object in a subordinate clause. The object receives some type of action or is acted upon.
Do not worry. We will walk through an example with you.
J’ai mangé un croissant. Il était délicieux! (I ate a croissant. It was delicious!)
We can easily make this into one sentence, but let us do it differently than 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).
However, one could equally say:
J’ai mangé un croissant qui était délicieux! (I ate a croissant that was delicious!)
Just like before, we are using qui because it represents the subject of the subordinate clause.
Qui in Questions
Just as qui generally means “who” in a question, que means “what” when used in a question.
Que pensez-vous? (What do you think?)
Que is changed to qu’ before a vowel, as in the very helpful phrase, qu’est-ce que (literally, what is it that). This phrase often opens “what” questions such as:
Qu’est-ce que vous étudiez? (What are you studying?)
When Que Means “Only”
You have probably learned about seulement (only). But there is another common way to express “only” that you will hear native speakers use often: 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 Qui and Que in the Passé Composé
The grammatical agreement police are always around the corner!
If you are using que and the passé composé (compound past tense), do not forget that the participe passé (past participle) in your sentence must agree with the direct object.
This means that if the direct object is feminine, we will add an “-e” to the participe passé. If it is plural, we add an “-s.” There is 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.)
As for qui, you only need to worry about this if the passé composé is formed with être. 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 came last year were great.)
There you have it! It was a pleasure introducing you to who (or is it “what?”) qui and que are.