French relative pronouns

Les pronoms relatifs

Salut, and welcome to our lesson about French relative pronouns at Language Easy! Indeed, they are a part of French grammar that sooner or later you will have to master if you want to speak Fluently. The good news is that it’s not that complicated, if you understand well how they work, rapidly you’ll increase your French skills.

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What are the French relative pronouns ?

Que sont les pronoms relatifs ?

Relative pronouns (les pronoms relatifs) introduce a relation between two propositions, i.e. two parts of the sentence. The relation is of explanation : the two propositions actually could be two different sentences, but they are put together with a relative pronoun because the second one explains the first one.

Technically, they replace a noun that is introduced by a relative adjective :

  • J’ai vu un homme, lequel homme est grand → J’ai vu un homme qui est grand.
    I saw a man who is tall.

But it’s better that you think of it in terms of relation. In our example, the second part of the sentence is related with the first part of the sentence because it’s explaining why we are talking about this man at all. This proposition “qui est grand” is called relative subordinated proposition (proposition subordonnée relative).

There are two types of relative pronouns :

  • The simple relative pronouns, which are invariabe : qui, que, quoi, dont, où.
  • The compound relative pronouns, which vary according to the gender and number of the referent : lequel, duquel, auquel

I remember that they had me learn the simple ones by heart in this exact order as a child 🙂

The French relative pronoun Qui

Le pronom relatif Qui

Qui is used when it is the subject of the subordinated proposition. It can apply to both people or things.

Let’s give two examples :

  • Cette femme est belle → C’est une femme qui est belle. (subject)
    She’s a woman who is pretty.
  • La fête arrive → La fête qui arrive s’annonce bien ! (subject)
    The party that is coming will be good!

Alternatively, it can be also be used when it is an indirect object complement (COI), e.g. as an object complement with a preposition, when referring to a person. Note that he preposition is always preserved.

Here is an example :
  • Je parle à cette femme → C’est la femme à qui je parle. (COI)
    I´m talking to this woman This is the woman (whom) I’m talking to.

The French relative pronouns Que / Quoi

Les pronoms relatifs Que / Quoi

The pronoun que is used when it replaces an attribute or a direct object complement (COD) of a verb.

As always, let´s state a few examples :

  • J’ai construit cette maison → Voici la maison que j’ai construite. (COD)
    I built this house This is the house that I built.
  • Je suis docteurLe docteur que je suis te dit de te reposer. (attribute)
    I´m a doctor → The doctor that I am is telling you to rest.

The pronoun quoi is used when it is an indirect object complement (COI) of the verb, when referring to an object that is vaguely defined (but not a person). For example, in questions, or with words like rien (nothing), quelque-chose (something), ce (this)

We can also say that quoi is the form that que takes when it is preceded by a preposition.

Here are the usual examples :
  • Tu as besoin de quelque choseDe quoi as-tu besoin ? (COD)
    You need something What do you need ?
  • Tu vis pour l’argent.→ Dis-moi pour quoi tu vis. (COI)
    You´re living for money Tell me what you’re living for.

On the contrary, in sentences where the antecedent is defined, we would use instead the relative pronoun dont (or a compound pronoun, like lequel):

  • Je passe au travers de ce jardin  → ce jardin au travers de quoi au travers duquel je passe souvent
    This extraordinary garden through which  I’m often crossing.
  • Je me souviens de ce jour-là → Le jour de quoi dont / duquel je me souviens
    I remember that day The day that I remember

The French relative pronoun Dont

Le pronom relatif Dont

Dont is used to express an indirect relation, e.g. the thing we are talking about is not the referent itself. Instead, it can be one of its possessions, characteristics, a manner, a means… In other words, we can say that it replaces a complement introduced by the preposition de.

Certainly, a few examples will help understand better :
  • Mon pays est fier de sa culture → La culture dont mon pays est fier. (complement)
    The culture which my country is proud of.
  • Les murs de la maison sont en paille → La maison dont les murs sont en paille. (complement)
    The house which walls are of straw
  • Il danse sensuellement / de façon sensuelle → La façon dont il danse (complement)
    The way (that) he dances

Dont can be also used when it is an indirect object complement (COI) introduced with the preposition de, as an alternative to the pronoun qui.

It is the case in sentences like this one :

  • Je parle de cette fille → J’aime la fille dont je parle / la fille de qui je parle. (COI)
    I love the girl (whom) I’m talking about.

However, the use of the pronoun dont is more usual.

The French relative pronoun

Le pronom relatif Où

is used to give any kind of indication of a place (or sometimes, of a moment in time). It replaces geographical and temporal complements.

For instance, in these two examples :
  • Je suis allé à cat endroit → L´endroit je suis allé.
    I was at that place → The place where I was.
  • Tu te rappelles sûrement l’année tu as eu ton BAC ?
    You certainly remember the year (when) you graduated?

The compound relative pronouns

Le pronom relatif Lequel

To put it simply, the compound French relative pronoun lequel (along with auquel, duquel and all their variations in gender and in number) is an alternative to the pronouns qui / que / quoi. It is generally used when the referent is something that is defined and that we oppose to the rest of the objects or persons of the same category.

Generally it occurs in cases like these :

  • Mon chien est noirj’ai un chien qui est noir. / j’ai un chien, lequel est noir.
    My dog is black → I have a dog that is black.
  • Tu travailles pour ton patron → L’homme pour qui tu travailles. / L’homme pour lequel tu travailles.
    You work for your boss → The man for whom you work.

However, if the pronoun is a COI and the referent is not a person,  then it is mandatory to use the compound pronoun.

As in this example :

  • Tu chantes pour le concert. → Le concert pour quoi pour lequel tu chantes.
    You sing for the concert The concert for which you sing.

Agreement and contraction of lequel

The pronoun Lequel must agree in number and gender with its referent. Also, it is contracted as auquel when used with the preposition à, and duquel when used with the preposition de.

Think of lequel like the contraction of the article le with the adjective quel. In the light of this, you can make the agreements separately in your head, and then join them again into one word : for example, la+quelle = laquelle.

Additionally, remember that the article le has two contracted forms when before the preposition à (à+le = au) or de (de+le = du, de+les = des), and you’ll have it completely covered.

Here is the extended reference table for the different forns of lequel :

lequel lequel laquelle lesquels lesquelles
à + lequel auquel à laquelle auxquels auxquelles
de + lequel duquel de laquelle desquels desquelles

Of course, let’s see some examples :

  • Je tiens à ma chattej’ai une chatte à qui je tiens beaucoup.  / j’ai une chatte à laquelle je tiens beaucoup.
    I have a cat to which I’m very attached.
  • Tu es fan de ces acteurs → Les acteurs de qui tu es fan. / Lees acteurs desquel tu es fan.
    The actors of whom you’re a fan.

By the way, if you remember well, the pronoun dont can be used instead of “de qui” which gives us one more correct way to express our second example :

  • Tu es fan de ces acteurs → Les acteurs dont tu es fan

What’s next?

C’est quoi, la suite ?

Et voilà, we reached the end of our lessons about French relative pronouns.

Allez, à bientôt !

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