italian-relative-pronouns

It’s All Relative: Italian Relative Pronouns That Will Awaken Your Italian Muse

When you set out on this learning adventure, you weren’t exactly pining for the day that you’d take on Italian relative pronouns.

Maybe you dreamed that you’d be snuggled in a Neapolitan hammock in the arms of your lover—let’s call her, I don’t know, Raffaella—whispering romanticherie (sweet nothings) like ti amo, half drunk on a Puglian red…

But life is more complicated than that, and so is Italian.

You might get by on simple sentences for a while, but before long you’ll have to expand beyond the basics.

And one important intermediate lesson you’ll need to learn is the concept I mentioned before: Italian relative pronouns.

In this post I’ll cover:

  • The most common relative pronouns.
  • What to do when a relative pronoun comes after certain prepositions.
  • How to translate the English “whose” as a relative pronoun.
  • Some of the trickiest relative pronouns for Italian learners.

And, at the end of all this, we’ll enjoy a well-deserved a little song.

Ready?
 


 

What Are Italian Relative Pronouns and Why Do They Matter?

When we want to string together thoughts more complex than “ti amo,” we often need relative pronouns (in bold below):

Raffaella è la ragazza che mi ha spezzato il cuore.
Raffaella is the girl who exploded my heart.

(A great Italian expression for the destructive power of love if ever there was one!)

Those bolded relative pronouns in Italian and English serve as links, introducing the relative clause that provides more information on the thing (or Italian bombshell) in question.

In English, you might recognize them as “who,” “which,” “to whom,” “that” and other similar connecting words and phrases.

Just be careful: Relative pronouns can quickly get out of hand:

Gli animali che io sogno sono enormi.
The animals that I dream about are enormous.

As a question of style, we should probably simplify that and avoid the relative pronoun if possible, in both Italian and English:

Sogno animali enormi.
I dream of enormous animals.

So, while we’ll have to head into this with a bit of caution, we do need relative pronouns a lot.

Before We Begin: What You’ll Need to Know

As we dig into intermediate Italian, it’s wise to take a moment to really understand when and how to use each pronoun.

I can’t possibly cover every single possible Italian relative pronoun in this article, but I’ll endeavor to explain the most common ones, as well as those that tend to cause learners the most trouble.

This assumes a knowledge of basic elements of the language—you need to be able to form clauses before you can connect them. You will need to already have a good grasp of basic vocabulary, present tenses, past tenses, and the Italian subjunctive.

You should also already have a good understanding of the (non-relative) Italian pronouns, Italian articles and their relationship with gender and number, as those same issues will come into play again here.

Finally, you’ll want to have at least some understanding of Italian prepositions and how they combine with articles.

The best way to really hone your Italian grammar skills is by listening to real Italian conversations. Make sure you have the basics down by watching the authentic videos on FluentU

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. FluentU is about so much more than videos: You also get access to interactive flashcards and vocab lists, annotated subtitles and personalized quizzes that evolve as you learn.

You can use FluentU in your web browser or on your iOS or Android device.

It’s All Relative: Italian Relative Pronouns That Will Awaken Your Italian Muse

Learn a foreign language with videos

The Most Common Relative Pronouns in Italian

Che

The hero of Italian relative pronouns is che, as it’s the most flexible: It can be both a subject and an object, as well as a person and a thing.

Che is also invariable in gender and number—it doesn’t change its form depending on its surroundings—making him/it/she/whatever a really approachable new friend.

Here’s che first as an object, and then a subject:

Quello è il treno che ho preso ieri.
That is the train that I took yesterday. (Che is the object of ho preso.)

Quello è il treno che va a Roma.
That is the train that goes to Rome. (Che is the subject for the verb va.)

Jack-of-all-trades che can also refer to people, as we saw in the introductory example. Here’s another one with my completely undeserving muse Raffaella:

Ma è Raffaella che amo.
But it’s Raffaella whom I love.

Il quale

Next up is the relative pronoun il quale. It means the same thing as che when used as a relative pronoun but the situations in which it can be used are more limited.

Il quale is only used as the relative pronoun subject (not the object). That is to say, if you’re a stickler for the dying who vs. whom English grammar distinction, you can think of il quale as replacing the English “who” but not replacing the English “whom” when it’s a direct object.

Here it is as a subject:

L’uomo il quale vende le rose nel mio quartiere
The man who sells roses in my neighborhood

Che would be just fine to use here, too. You could say:

L’uomo che vende le rose nel mio quartiere
The man who sells roses in my neighborhood

On the other hand, you cannot use il quale when the referent is a direct object, and you must instead use che:

La donna che ho invitato a ballare
The woman whom I invited to dance

Il quale fits more comfortably (tends to sound better) for talking about people rather than about physical objects, for which it can sound a bit odd.

Quello è il treno il quale va a Roma.
That is the train that goes to Rome. (This sounds a little bit off; it would better to use che here.)

Il quale isn’t as user-friendly as our dear che: It changes according to the gender and number of the thing it refers to, using usual Italian articles and endings: il quale, la quale, i quali, le quale.

Sure, this aspect of il quale complicates things, but it can also be quite useful for clarifying what exactly is being referred to.

For instance:

La madre del ragazzo, il quale prende il treno a Roma
The mother of the guy who is taking the train to Rome…

In the above example, we know that il ragazzo himself is on the train.

La madre del ragazzo, la quale prende il treno a Roma
The mother of the guy, who is taking the train to Rome…

In this second example, though, we know that it’s la madre on the train.

Neat trick, huh? The gender, il quale or la quale, tells us which referent we’re talking about in the second clause (the guy or the mother, respectively).

If we were to use the word che instead, that would be perfectly correct, but we’d either be left in the dark or have to guess who exactly is on that train from outside context:

La madre del ragazzo che prende il treno a Roma
??? (We have no idea whether it’s the mother or the guy who’s taking the train.)

Thus, in some situations the gender/number modified version of il quale is preferable in order to avoid ambiguity.

English is much more likely to be unclear in such cases than Italian, since we have no similar modification of relative pronouns like “who.” So as much as we suffer and curse when learning about Italian grammatical gender, this does finally show us one of its few advantages.

What to Do When Prepositions Come Before Relative Pronouns in Italian

The relative pronouns that we’ve seen above, che and il quale, undergo some changes when they follow prepositions.

When following adadiinsucon and per, the relative pronoun che transforms into cui. These prepositions are altered according to the verb in the relative clause.

La donna a cui ho regalato la rosa
The woman to whom I gave a flower

È il ragazzo a cui ho dato il biglietto.
He’s the guy to whom I gave the ticket.

Il Paese in cui vivo
The country in which I live

La dea in cui credo è vendicativa!
The goddess I believe in is vindictive!

Note how sometimes, like here, the relative pronoun “disappears” in English. It’s always necessary in Italian. You could also translate this as “The goddess in whom I believe is vindictive!”

I musicisti con cui suono
The musicians with whom I play

Sono i clienti con cui parlo tutti i giorni.
They are the clients with whom I speak every day.

Il macellaio da cui mi servo è molto bravo.
The butcher whom I frequent is very good. (Literally, “from which I serve myself”)

È il vicino di cui so sempre tutti i gossip.
He is the neighbor about whom I always know all of the gossip.

Sono i clienti di cui parlo tutti i giorni.
They are the clients about whom I speak every day.

Il cliente per cui scrivo
The client I write for (Literally, “for whom I write”)

La donna per cui lavoro
The woman I work for (Literally, “for whom I work”)

Prepositions can also be used with il quale, in which case the standard modifications will apply: combinations of prepositions and articles, and modifications for gender and number.

The following are examples of il quale and friends with a variety of prepositions and in different gender and number combinations.

È il ragazzo al quale ho dato il biglietto.
He’s the guy to whom I gave the ticket.

La donna alla quale ho regalato la rosa
The woman to whom I gave the rose

Le donne alle quali ho regalato le rose
The women to whom I gave the roses

Il Paese nel quale abito
The country in which I live

Il cliente per il quale scrivo
The client I write for (Literally, “for whom I write”)

La donna per la quale lavoro
The woman I work for (Literally, “for whom I work”)

Sono i clienti con i quali parlo tutti i giorni.
They are the clients with whom I speak every day.

Sono i clienti dei quali parlo tutti i giorni.
They are the clients about whom I speak every day.

Notice in the above examples how the meaning doesn’t change whether we used the prepositions plus cui or the same prepositions plus il quale. Both relative pronouns are fine.

Translating the English “Whose” into Italian

When you want to tack on a description about a possession, as you would with the word “whose” in English, you have two sets of options:

  • il cui, la cui, i cui, le cui
  • del quale, della quale, degli quali, delle quali

Here’s how they’d look in context:

Raffaella, il cui zaino è molto bello, è arrabbiata.
Raffaella, whose backpack is very beautiful, is angry.

Raffaella, lo zaino della quale prendo in prestito, è arrabbiata.
Raffaella, whose backpack I’m borrowing, is angry.

Notice that il quale must come after the noun (zaino) whereas il cui always comes before.

As in the previous section, il quale can sometimes be clearer since it specifies the gender and number of the thing being referred to.

Other Italian Relative Pronouns

There are plenty of other Italian relative pronouns that you’ll learn as you experience the language. Here, we’ll focus on a few that are either quite common or that tend to be difficult for learners to grasp.

First up, we generally use il che to refer to an entire previous concept or action, and not just a simple noun as we saw in the previous sections.

Loro si sono lasciati, il che mi rende triste.
They broke up, which makes me sad.

Both ciò che and quello che serve a similar function, and are literally like “that which” in English. But to the Italian ear, they don’t sound as awkward as the English construction.

Gli scioperi sono quello che causa più problemi con i treni.
The strikes are what cause (“that which causes”) more problems with the trains.

Non mi piace ciò che fanno i brasiliani.
I don’t like what (“that which”) Brazilians do.

When the concept being referred back to has an idea of quantity, the word quanto can be used instead.

Mi ha sorpreso quanto hai pagato per il biglietto.
It surprised me how much you paid for the ticket.

Non mi ha sorpreso quanto abbiamo aspettato per il treno.
It didn’t surprise me how much we waited for the train.

The constructions tutto quello che and tutto ciò che literally mean “all that which” and function a bit like “whatever,” “anything” or “everything.”

“Posso farti una domanda?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Chiedimi tutto quello che vuoi.”
“Ask me whatever you want.”

“Vuoi vedere un film?”
“Do you want to see a film?”
Tutto quello che vuoi, ma non Sylvester Stallone.”
Anything you want, but not Sylvester Stallone.”

“Posso prepararti qualcosa?”
“Can I cook something for you?”
“Sí! Fa’ tutto ciò che vuoi, ma non le cose piccanti.”
“Yes! Make whatever you want, but nothing spicy.”

To refer to a bunch of people, use tutti quelli che instead.

Tutti quelli che hanno problemi, mi chiamano.
All those who have problems call me.

To refer to an “everyman,” anyone or “he who,” we can use chi.

Chi è senza peccato scagli la prima pietra.
May he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Those who wish to sound a bit more pompous and literary may use colui instead of chi to get the same meaning:

Colui che è senza peccato scagli la prima pietra.

And, finally, chi can also be used to mean “some people.” In this case, it’s coupled with a second phrase starting with chi to describe what, meanwhile, “some others” were doing.

“Che faceva la gente ieri alla festa?”
“What were people doing at the party yesterday?”
Chi chiacchierava, chi ballava.
Some were chatting; others were dancing.”

Learn Italian Relative Pronouns with a Song

You’ve made it to the promised song!

Rino Gaetano is about to take the above Italian chi … chi habit to an extreme, using it in nearly every line of his lyrics.

You can this follow along with the translation, which may be helpful for understanding some of the more complex vocabulary—but since you now know the proper meaning of chi … chi, you’d of course know better than to render it as “who” if you were doing the translation yourself.

So, what’s Gaetano really trying to say here with chi?

The singer’s idea is that “some people” do blah blah blah, “others” whatever else… but the sky is always bluer, isn’t it?

Practicing Italian Relative Pronouns

Now that you’ve examined the undercarriage of Italian relative pronouns, it’s time to hop on yourself and go for a ride.

What related phrases can you hook together about your Raffaellas, your mothers of friends on trains and your butchers?

Relating the grammar constructions to your own life will make them much more memorable and useful.

Also, if you enjoyed practicing this grammar point through the video, you can do many more carefully guided activities with native Italian videos by signing up for FluentU. These videos help you practice not just relative pronouns but also all sorts of other grammar and vocabulary concepts in a fun, addictive way.

For a more complete look at relative pronouns, my top pick is the textbook “Soluzioni: A Practical Grammar of Contemporary Italian,” which has an entire chapter on the subject. If you don’t want to shell out the ridiculous college-student-new-book prices, look for a previous edition and used tomes for sale or at campus bookshops.

Other websites, like Learn Italian Daily and Iceberg Project, explain relative pronouns less expansively than in this article, but the straightforward simplification there could be quite useful for making sure you really got the concept.

And if you’re up for it, you can read about relative pronouns in Italian at Treccani, Zanichelli and Iluss.

 

Whatever learning approach you take, may the relative pronouns not give you the blues. And may you find your own Raffaella!


An avid traveler of Italy, Mose Hayward has also penned a guide to Italian trains.

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