Difficulty Debunked! The Relatively Easy Guide to French Relative Pronouns
Surprise French learning check-in!
How’s it going?
Have you managed to get the gist of formal French?
Mastered pronouncing the tricky u and ou sounds?
Got a system for memorizing new words?
Well, look at you, French expert.
But what’s this? It appears we’re missing something. Have you been using pronouns in sentences? Relative pronouns specifically?
Stumped? Don’t stress!
It’s relatively easy. Just follow this guide.
Relatively confused? Understanding the purpose of relative pronouns
Okay, I’m sorry. Enough with the puns (though if learning your French homophones sounds like fun, there are a lot worse ways you could spend your time). Let’s stop playing around and get to work.
Relative pronouns connect two ideas, or clauses, without a conjunction like “and” or “but.” Now, what the heck does that mean?
Well, let’s look at an example:
J’aime le livre qui a la couverture rouge. (I like the book that has the red cover.)
In this case, there are two ideas. The first is J’aime le livre (I like the book). The second is a la couverture rouge (has the red cover). This phrase has a verb—a from the verb avoir (to have)—and an object—la couverture rouge—but it also has an invisible subject: le livre (the book), which is understood to have a red cover.
So, how do we connect these two ideas without a conjunction?
You guessed it! With a relative pronoun (in this case, qui).
Relative pronouns can replace subjects, direct objects, indirect objects and prepositions.
The translations to English are not exact for each pronoun, so instead of trying to link relative pronouns to English words, this blog post will explain where and why each is used.
Your basic relatives: Introducing qui and que
Qui and que are two of the most common relative pronouns, and they roughly translate to the English word “that.” Remember, roughly.
The relative pronoun que replaces a direct object whereas qui replaces the subject. But what the heck does that mean? Check out these explanations.
Take a look at these two sentences:
Tu as le livre. J’aime ce livre. (You have the book. I like that book.)
In order to connect the two sentences, we must use a relative pronoun. By using one, we’ll replace the redundant usage of livre in the second clause. In other words, we’ll use the relative pronoun que to replace the direct object (an object of the verb without a preposition):
Tu as le livre que j’aime. (You have the book that I like.)
Unlike que, qui is used to replace a subject.
Check out this example:
Elle achète le livre. Ce livre a 900 pages. (She buys the book. That book has 900 pages.)
In this example, we’ll still use the relative pronoun to replace the redundant use of the noun livre in the second sentence. In this case, however, the noun livre in the dependent clause is not a direct object—it’s a subject. Because of this, we use the relative pronoun qui.
Elle achète le livre qui a 900 pages. (She buys the book that has 900 pages.)
Relatives and friends: Replacing indirect objects
Up until now, the majority of this post has talked about replacing subjects and direct objects. Well, what about indirect objects (objects that come after a preposition)? Let’s just say you have some rules to follow.
Qui, part II
The relative pronoun qui can also replace an indirect object after a preposition—with the exception of the pronoun de (of)—in most cases. However, it can only replace indirect objects that are people.
Check out this example:
Monique est une femme. Je travaille avec Monique. (Monique is a woman. I work with Monique.)
In the second sentence, the noun Monique is the indirect object of the verb travailler (work) because it’s connected to the verb with the preposition avec (with). To avoid repetition of the word Monique and to connect the two sentences, we move the preposition avec to the spot between the two phrases and add the relative pronoun qui:
Monique est une femme avec qui je travaille. (Monique is a women who I work with.)
Lequel and its friends
Lequel and its variants replace an indirect object after a preposition much in the same way qui does (again, de is a bit of an exception—we’ll get there). The main difference here is that lequel is more commonly used with things than people. Secondly, it has variants: It changes its form depending on the gender and number of the indirect object.
Check out these examples:
Je vois le bureau sur lequel j’ai mis mon stylo. (I see the desk on which I put my pen.)
The indirect object bureau is masculine singular, so we use the relative pronoun lequel.
Je vois la cuillère avec laquelle je mange la soupe. (I see the spoon with which I eat the soup.)
The indirect object cuillère is feminine singular, so we use the relative pronoun laquelle.
Je vois les bureaux sur lesquels j’ai mis les stylos. (I see the desks on which I put the pens.)
The indirect object bureaux is masculine plural, so we use the relative pronoun lesquels.
Je vois les cuillères avec lesquelles nous mangeons la soupe. (I see the spoons with which we eat the soup.)
The indirect object cuillères is feminine plural, so we use the relative pronoun lesquelles.
Ready for more rules? Not only do these relative pronouns change depending on the gender and number of the indirect object, but they also merge with the prepositions à (at) and de (of).
Check it out:
à + lequel = auquel (to which)
à + lesquels = auxquels
à + lesquelles = auxquelles
de + lequel = duquel (of/from which)
de + lesquels = desquels
de + lesquelles = desquelles
- The feminine singular of the indirect objects do not merge with the prepositions à and de: à laquelle and de laquelle do not merge.
- Duquel and its partners are only used when de is part of a prepositional phrase such as in the case of à côté de (beside) and près de (near). If it’s on its own, we use dont.
Still with me? That was a lot to take in. Let’s look now at two other relative pronouns that are a little easier to follow.
I feel like after every mention of relative pronouns replacing an indirect object I’ve always said “with the exception of de.” Well, now it’s time for de to shine!
The relative pronoun dont replaces the preposition de and its indirect object.
Check out this example:
Où est le livre ? J’ai besoin du livre. (Where is the book? I need the book.)
Où est le livre dont j’ai besoin ? (Where is the book that I need?)
Ready for a straightforward one? Où replaces locations. It also means “where.”
Check this out:
Voici la banque. Je travaille à la banque. (There is the bank. I work at the bank.)
Voici la banque où je travaille. (There is the bank where I work.)
Simple as pie!
Mysterious relatives: Indefinite relative pronouns
Unlike the other relative pronouns I’ve already discussed that replace definite pronouns—ones introduced by a definite article like le, la or les (the), there are relative pronouns that can replace nouns with indefinite pronouns. This means that these relative pronouns do not reference a specific noun that they replace.
Check them out:
Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la langue française. (What interests me is the French language.)
Ce qui is the indefinite relative pronoun for the subject position. It literally translates to “that which.”
Sais-tu ce que j’ai fait ? (Do you know what I did?)
Ce que is the indefinite relative pronoun for the direct object position.
Sais-tu ce dont Louis parle ? (Do you know what Louis is talking about?)
Ce dont is the indefinite relative pronoun for indirect objects with the preposition de.
Relative pronouns practice
That’s all a lot to take in, isn’t it?
Well, they say practice makes perfect.
You can try some quizzes that look at specific types of relative pronouns, like indefinite relative pronouns, and then try your hand at some that test both at the same time.
Columbia and Language Guide have some more great ones.
Keep at it, and theory will become practice in no time!