Spanish without relative pronouns is like Snow White without the Seven Dwarfs.
It’s like an extended family get-together without your human relatives.
In other words, it’s boring.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the paragraph below.
When I have free time, I take a book and I go to the park. The park is near my grandma’s house. My grandma’s name is Luisa. She is 87 years old. She likes cooking my favorite dish. My favorite dish is lasagna. Lasagna is from Italy. Italy is a beautiful country. It is in Europe…
I could go on and on, and on, writing hundreds and hundreds of one-verb, simply-formed sentences separated by periods, but you would just become more and more bored, to the point where you wouldn’t even want to finish reading a couple of paragraphs.
Who talks like this? No one! Not even small children!
Thankfully, there is a tool that you can use to make these sentences more interesting and fluid, and that tool is the relative pronoun.
Before I explain exactly what a relative pronoun is, let’s have a look at the following lines:
When I have free time, I take a book and go to the park that is near my grandma’s house. My grandma, whose name is Luisa, is 87 years old. She likes cooking my favorite dish, which is lasagna. Lasagna is from Italy, which is a beautiful country in Europe…
I know, this is still a boring story. But isn’t it much more fluid and easy to read than the first time around? Of course, yes!
Why? Because it makes use of relative pronouns.
Relative pronouns are present in Spanish, too, and boy, do we like to use them.
In the following paragraphs, I will teach you what a relative pronoun is, what the main ones in Spanish are and how to use each of them. I will give you a lot of examples, and by the end of this post, you will be more than ready to use them in your own everyday conversations.
So let’s go!
What Is a Relative Pronoun?
Simply put, a relative pronoun is an expression in Spanish or another language that refers back to a noun, called the antecedent. In English we normally use “that,” “which,” “who(m)” and “whose,” while in Spanish we have que, el que, quien, cuyo, etc.
Have a look at some examples:
Ella es la mujer que quiero. (She is the woman [that] I love.)
La carta que me enviaste era muy fácil de leer. (The letter [that] you sent me was very easy to read.)
Él es el hombre que vino ayer. (He is the man who came yesterday.)
Mi vecino, cuya mujer rompió mi coche, se negó a pagar. (My neighbor, whose wife broke my car, refused to pay for it.)
As you can see from some of these examples, there is one main difference between English and Spanish relative pronouns: You cannot omit the relative pronoun in Spanish!
It doesn’t matter how weird it seems to you, you simply cannot do it. Here you have three sentences that would be perfectly correct in Spanish if the relative pronouns hadn’t been omitted (notice that the literal English translations without the relative pronouns are correct):
El ordenador compré ayer es muy rápido.* (The computer [that] I bought yesterday is very fast.)
He comprado la pizza te gusta.* (I have bought the pizza [that] you like.)
El hombre acabas de ver es mi vecino Pedro.* (The man [who] you have just seen is my neighbor Pedro.)
Another difference between English and Spanish relative pronouns is a difference in quantity. In Spanish, we have a much bigger choice than in English. You will see this in the following paragraphs, but for the sake of exemplification, let me show you a few more sentences first:
Este no es el teléfono desde el que te llamé. (This is not the phone from which I called you.)
Esa es la canción durante la cual me enamoré de ti. (That is the song during which I fell in love with you.)
Los licores con los que te emborrachaste son muy caros. (The liquors with which you got drunk are very expensive.)
One last difference worth mentioning is the fact that in Spanish you cannot split the relatives like in English. It might sound awkward and difficult to handle at the beginning, but I can assure you it is much better to have a fixed position, because there is no possibility of making a mistake.
Here you have a couple of sentences and their possible translations into English. Remember, the Spanish option is the only one you can use!
El parque al que vamos es muy grande. (The park to which we are going is very big. / The park we are going to is very big.)
El hombre con el que comí ayer es mi hermano. (The man with whom I dined yesterday is my brother. / The man I dined with yesterday is my brother.)
You will notice that I tend to use the English translations that don’t strand the preposition. This is just for the sake of consistency, so you can clearly see how the sentence is built in Spanish. However, you will probably notice that this makes some of the sentences sound less natural in English.
Apart from these differences, relative pronouns function very similarly both in Spanish and English. They even have one thing in common! Both of them have a multipurpose relative pronoun, which can be used for almost anything. In English, this pronoun would be “that,” while in Spanish it would be que:
El libro que quiero cuesta 50 dólares. (The book that I want costs $50.)
Esas son las cervezas que le encantan a Sandra. (Those are the beers that Sandra loves.)
El hombre que conocí ayer es de Japón. (The man that I met yesterday is from Japan.)
In the following sections, you will find all the main Spanish relative pronouns. I have tried to add as many examples of each of them as possible, so you can really see them “in action.”
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And now, let’s enjoy this relative ride!
7 Spanish Relative Pronouns That You’ve Gotta Stop Hiding From
1. Multi-purpose que
As I mentioned earlier, que is practically universal in Spanish. It can refer to people, animals and things, both in the singular and in the plural. Although it can be translated as “which” and “who,” que can be better compared to “that” in English because of its universality:
Aquellos alumnos que no vinieron ayer tienen que hacer el examen hoy. (Those students that didn’t come yesterday have to sit the exam today.)
El coche que te compraste es muy lento. (The car that you bought is very slow.)
Los libros que encargaste acaban de llegar. (The books that you ordered have just arrived.)
El perro que ves allí es mío. (The dog that you see over there is mine.)
Remember, you can omit relative pronouns in English, but they are compulsory in Spanish!
2. Quien / quienes
Quien and its plural form quienes are used to refer back to people. These are the Spanish equivalents of the English pronoun “who(m).”
During my 15 years of teaching Spanish, I have heard a lot of people using quien wrongly. Almost every student tends to think that quien works like “who,” and that you can use it in Spanish any time you have a personal antecedent, but that is not completely true.
If you use it exactly like “who,” you could end up having a lot of ungrammatical sentences, like the following:
El hombre quien amo no me conoce.* (The man I love doesn’t know me.)
Estas son las niñas quienes vinieron ayer.* (These are the girls who came yesterday.)
No conozco a nadie quien sepa hablar chino.* (I don’t know anybody who can speak Chinese.)
These sentences seem to be correct, but they aren’t. Yes, you have a personal antecedent and the relative quien, but these are not grammatically valid in Spanish.
When I have to explain this relative pronoun to my students, I always repeat the same thing: “Always use que, even with people, unless you have a preposition. When you have a preposition, then you can start getting nervous.”
Use quien when you have a one-word preposition (or para) before the relative pronoun and the antecedent is a person. You need to have both, the preposition and the person, or the sentence will be ungrammatical. Here you have some grammatically correct examples:
La mujer de quien hablas es mi prima. (The woman you are talking about is my cousin.)
Los hombres con quienes está María han venido a verte. (The men María is with have come to see you.)
Las chicas a quienes regalé rosas son hermanas. (The girls I gave roses to are sisters.)
3. El que / la que / los que / las que
El que, la que, los que and las que are almost as universal as que. They can be used with people, animals and things, and as you may have already guessed, they agree in gender and number with the antecedent.
However, there is a little difference between que and the el que forms. El que forms need a preposition (any preposition) to appear in a sentence.
El que and quien also mean the same thing, and they both need a preposition as well, but remember that while quien needs a one-word preposition (or para), el que can make use of any preposition in the Spanish language.
Let’s have a look at some examples:
El libro del que te hablé es “Alicia en el País de las Maravillas.” (The book I told you about is “Alice in Wonderland.”)
La mujer con la que tuvimos la entrevista es Rosa. (The woman we had the interview with is Rosa.)
Los niños para los que estamos construyendo este hospital tienen cáncer. (The children for whom we are building this hospital have cancer.)
Estas son las cosas sobre las que suelo leer. (These are the things I used to read about.)
Remember that if you have a one-word preposition (or para) and a personal antecedent, you can use quien instead of an el que form. We can transform two of the previous examples this way:
La mujer con quien tuvimos la entrevista es Rosa.
Los niños para quienes estamos construyendo este hospital tienen cancer.
4. El cual / la cual / los cuales / las cuales
The el cual group means exactly the same thing as the el que group. We can use it with people, animal and things, and depending on whether you have a feminine, masculine, singular or plural antecedent, you will have to choose a different form.
El cual forms also need a preposition to appear in a sentence, so we can safely say that you can use the el que and el cual groups interchangeably. Nice!
There are, however, two little things you need to remember. Firstly, el cual is nowadays used almost exclusively in formal language. When you are talking with your friends, at the disco, when shopping, etc., there is no need to use el cual. You can just choose el que. When you are giving a formal speech, writing a formal letter, giving a presentation, etc., try to use the formal form.
Secondly, even though both el que and el cual groups work with any Spanish preposition, there is a tendency to use el cual when dealing with so-called compound prepositions.
It would be impossible to mention all the compound prepositions in the Spanish language here, but I leave you some examples so that you can see the el cual group at work:
Este es el libro acerca del cual te hablé ayer. (This is the book about which I told you yesterday.)
Esta es la ventana a través de la cual saltó el ladrón. (This is the window through which the robber jumped.)
Las chicas junto a las cuales está mi esposa son mis hijas. (The girls to whom my wife is close are my daughters.)
Los coches delante de los cuales has aparcado son de Francia. (The cars in front of which you have parked are from France.)
5. Lo que / lo cual
Lo que and lo cual are neuter relative pronouns. We do not have neuter nouns in Spanish, so lo que and lo cual will not refer to any specific masculine or feminine antecedent, but to a situation, a concept or a whole sentence.
Before I tell you the difference between the two, let me give you a couple of examples:
Lo que dices no tiene sentido. (What you say is nonsense.)
Llegamos muy tarde, lo cual preocupó a mamá. (We came back very late, which worried Mom.)
No puedo decirte lo que quieres oír porque sería una mentira. (I cannot tell you what you want to hear because it would be a lie.)
When it comes to their difference, it is very simple. You can (or rather have to) use lo que when you don’t have an antecedent in the sentence (like the first example above). In this case, it is forbidden to use lo cual, or else the sentence would be ungrammatical:
Lo cual dices no tiene sentido.*
If you already have an antecedent in the sentence, you can use either of them, and both will be correct:
Llegamos muy tarde, lo que preocupó a mamá.
Me gusta el invierno, lo que / lo cual para algunos es algo extraño. (I like winter, which for some is something strange.)
6. Cuyo / cuya / cuyos / cuyas
I have included cuyo (whose) in this post because it is a relative. However, cuyo is not a relative pronoun but a relative adjective. As every adjective in Spanish, then, it has to agree in number and gender with a noun.
But (and please pay attention because this is utterly important) cuyo and its forms don’t agree with the antecedent, but with the noun they modify. Please, remember this!
Here you have some examples:
En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme… (In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind…)
Esta es la mujer cuya hija trabaja en Londres. (This is the lady whose daughter works in London.)
La casa cuyas ventanas son verdes es de mi hermano. (The house of which the windows are green is my brother’s.)
Este es Mario, cuyos libros han sido vendidos en todo el mundo. (This is Mario, whose books have been sold worldwide.)
There is yet another little thing you have to take into account: Unlike English, where you use “whose” or “which” also to ask about the owner of an object or the relation of a person with another, you cannot make questions in Spanish by using cuyo.
Instead, you will need to use ¿De quién?
Have a look:
¿De quién es este paraguas? (Whose umbrella is this?)
¿De quién son estos libros? (Whose books are these?)
¿De quién puede ser esta bici? (Whose bike can this be?)
7. Cuando and donde
As it happens in English, cuando (when) and donde (where) can also be used as relatives.
You need to remember that cuando and donde when working as relative pronouns are not question words, so you cannot use the accent mark. Have a look:
No recuerdo el momento cuando te vi por primera vez. (I cannot remember the moment when I saw you for the first time.)
Esta es la escuela donde enseñaba mi madre. (This is the school where my mom used to teach.)
If you want, you can substitute cuando and donde for en el que/la que/los que/las que, much as you would substitute “when” and “where” for “in/on which” in English:
No recuerdo el momento en el que te vi por primera vez. (I cannot remember the moment in which I saw you for the first time.)
Esta es la escuela en la que enseñaba mi madre. (This is the school in which my mom used to teach.)
I really hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Now you can say you are ready to start building relative sentences and using them in conversations with your Spanish friends!
Remember that using a relative is very helpful because it connects sentences and makes speech and writing more fluid.
Using relatives is a sign that you are not a beginner any longer, so I hope this post will help you take the next step down your road to fluency.
If after reading this post, you want even more on relative pronouns, you can find some interesting exercises here and here.
Finally, all learners unafraid of facing a challenge should definitely visit this site.
Good luck, and see you next time!
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