French Relative Pronouns, Simply Explained (with Examples)

It’s not hard to master French relative pronouns. In fact, once you know their meanings and the role that they play in sentences, you can start building French sentences that sound more natural.

Before we get started, here’s a key point that you should etch into your grammar-lovin’ brain: pronouns replace nouns. That may seem overly simple, but that’s really what it comes down to.

In fact, half the battle of figuring out how to use French relative pronouns is realizing that a pronoun simply takes the place of a noun in a sentence.

To see why pronouns are incredibly useful, consider the following example in English:

Jake bought a car. The car has snow tires.

While short sentences are often easier to read than long ones, the repetition in the sentence (“the car”) is ugly.

Enter the relative pronoun. We can use that to replace “the car” in our example to make a sentence that sounds more natural:

Jake bought a car that has snow tires.

car that has snow tires, french relative pronouns

Now let’s do the same thing using French relative pronouns instead of English ones.

5 French Relative Pronouns: qui, que, , dont, lequel

Relative pronouns in French are easy to understand if you home in on the words that you want to replace.

In the toggle panes below are explanations of the French relative pronouns qui, que, , and dont, as well as lequel and its forms.

In each of the examples below, you’ll see a pair of sentences that we can combine into one.

Words that you should focus on are in bold, while relative pronouns and the words they’ve replaced are in green.

qui

Of the five French relative pronouns I’m discussing here, qui and que are the ones that you’ll probably use the most often. Think of qui as a “sentence combiner” that replaces a subject.

What does qui mean?

As a relative pronoun, the word qui means “who” or “that.” It replaces grammatical subjects. In French, you can use qui for both people and things.

Example sentences with qui

Ma femme a un frère. Son frère habite à Londres.

Ma femme a un frère qui habite à Londres.

My wife has a brother. Her brother lives in London.

My wife has a brother who lives in London.

 

Mon petit-fils prend le train. Le train départ à 15h20.

Mon petit-fils prend le train qui départ à 15h20.

My grandson is taking the train. The train leaves at 3:20 pm.

My grandson is taking the train that leaves at 3:20 pm.

Note: If you use qui as a relative pronoun, then you need a verb after it.

que

Just like qui, the word que is one of the most common relative pronouns in French. It lets the beginning speaker combine two sentences into one.

What does que mean?

The French relative pronoun que means “who” or “that.” It replaces grammatical objects. Like qui, the word que is a replacement word for both people and things.

(English grammar purists, you might prefer “whom” over “who” in the first translation below, but most English speakers would say “who.”)

Example sentences with que

Elle connaît le professeur. Tu aimes le professeur.

Elle connaît le professeur que tu aimes.

She knows the teacher. You like the teacher.

She knows the teacher who you like.

 

J’adore la voiture. Tu achètes la voiture.

J’adore la voiture que tu achètes.

I love the car. You’re buying the car.

I love the car that you’re buying.

Note: If you use que as a relative pronoun, then you need a noun after it. In addition, you can omit the words who and that in the English translations above. But you can’t do that in French!

In my opinion, the word  is easier to use than the others in this list. In fact, as French relative pronouns go, c’est de la tarte !

Use it to avoid having to name locations a second time.

What does mean?

The word  means “where.” It replaces places. (Say that five times fast.)

Example sentence with

Voilà la piscine. Je travaille à la piscine.

Voilà la piscine  je travaille.

Here’s the pool. I work at the pool.

Here’s the pool where I work.

dont

When I first learned French grammar, the word dont intimidated me. I avoided it like the plague.

But then I learned that you use it only if it’s replacing something plus de. (Not an elegant way of putting it, I know, but that’s how I remembered it.)

What does dont mean?

The word dont can mean many things. For example, it can mean “that,” “whose,” “of which,” and “from which.” It replaces grammatical objects and always fills in for de.

I used to tell my students to think of the verb phrase avoir besoin de (to need) because it comes up a lot in French.

Example sentences with dont

Voici le stylo. J’ai besoin de ce stylo.

Voici le stylo dont j’ai besoin.

Here’s the pen. I need this pen.

Here’s the pen that I need.

 

Il adore le film. Tu parles du film.

Il adore le film dont tu parles.

He loves the movie. You’re talking about the movie.

He loves the movie that you’re talking about.

Note: The word dont is used in the same way as que (it replaces a grammatical object), but it has de built into it.

lequel / laquelle / lesquels / lesquelles

What does lequel mean?

The word lequel means “which” and follow prepositions such as sur, avec, and pour. It replaces grammatical objects. Use it with things, not people.

Example sentences with lequel and its forms

Je prends le couteau. On va couper le steak avec le couteau.

Je prends le couteau avec lequel on va couper le steak.

I’m taking the knife. We’re going to cut the steak with the knife.

I’m taking the knife with which we’re going to cut the steak.

 

Elle comprend la raison. Il doit partir pour cette raison.

Elle comprend la raison pour laquelle il doit partir.

She understands the reason. He has to leave for this reason.

She understands the reason for which he has to leave.

 

Voici les ballons. L’équipe va jouer avec les ballons.

Voici les ballons avec lesquels l’équipe va jouer.

Here are the balls. The team is going to play with the balls.

Here are the balls with which the team is going to play.

 

Tu vois les tables? On va mettre les cartes sur les tables.

Tu vois les tables sur lesquelles on va mettre les cartes?

Do you see the tables? We’re going to put the maps on the tables.

Do you see the tables on which we’re going to put the maps?

Note: If you use lequel or one of its forms, then you need to check the grammatical gender and number of object it replaces.

French relative pronouns let you avoid repetition. In addition, they help you to begin speaking like the French speak. (If you’re not easily offended, then read about French swear words.)

If you like word origins, then take a look at these words that we get from other languages. Last, check out these interesting facts about language.