Relative pronouns in French can be difficult for native English speakers because relative pronouns have numerous possible translations depending on how they are used. For example, in your first French lessons, you probably learned that in questions, qui refers to a person, and que refers to a thing. For this reason, when putting relative pronouns into their speech and writing, students often follow that convention. The truth is that qui and que can both refer to people as relative pronouns. There is no one-to-one translation for relative pronouns; however, there are very few exceptions in the rules for relative pronouns. If you learn the idea behind each pronoun, you'll never make mistakes.
The Relative Pronouns in French
In French there are five relative pronouns. They replace either a subject, direct object, indirect object or preposition. In French, they are obligatory. In English, relative pronouns are often omitted because they are not obligatory. For example, many people would say "the apple I ate" instead of the full "the apple that I ate". In French, the first option is ungrammatical-the relative pronoun 'that' must be used.
Qui is used to replace a subject in a relative clause and can be translated as who or what. Examples:
- L'ami qui m'a donné ces fleurs. (The friend who gave me these flowers.)
- La voisine qui habitait en face de nous est morte hier soir. (The neighbor who lived across the street from us died last night.)
Que is used to replace a direct object in a relative clause and is generally translated as whom, what, which or that. Que is also used to replace direct objects that are not people.
- L'homme que je n'ai jamais aimé. (The man 'who I never loved.)
- La pomme que j'ai mangé. (The apple that I ate.)
- Le cours que j'ai suivi. (The class that I took.)
The relative pronoun où is like the word où, which means 'where'; however, it is used to refer to both place and time in a relative clause. For example, the translation would be 'the day where I was married' and not when.
- La ville où j'habite. (The city where I live.)
- Le jour où je t'ai vu pour la première fois. (The day that I saw you for the first time.)
- Le moment où elle est arrivée. (The moment when she arrived.)
This relative pronoun requires that you know which phrases in French have the preposition de. Anything that is followed by the preposition de will take the relative pronoun dont in a relative expression.
- L'auteur dont j'ai lu tous les livres. (The author of whom I've read all the books.)
- Est-ce que tu peux m'acheter les fromages dont j'ai besoin? (Can you buy me the cheeses that I need?)
This relative pronoun (masculine or feminine) is used when you have to replace an object of a preposition (and it's not a person…). Since verbs have fixed prepositions in French, this relative pronoun is more common than you might think.
- La chanson à laquelle je pensais. (The song that I was thinking of/had in mind.)
- Le classeur dans lequel tu vas le trouver. (The folder in which you'll find it.)
While it may seem like a daunting task to learn the relative pronouns in French, with a little online pronoun practice and referring back to the proper usage of each relative pronoun each time you get a question wrong, you'll master the pronouns in no time.