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.
Now let’s do the same thing using French relative pronouns instead of English ones.
5 French Relative Pronouns: qui, que, où, 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, où, 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.
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.
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.
Ma femme a un frère qui habite à Londres.
My wife has a brother who lives in London.
Mon petit-fils prend le train qui départ à 15h20.
My grandson is taking the train that leaves at 3:20 pm.
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.
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.”)
Elle connaît le professeur que tu aimes.
She knows the teacher who you like.
J’adore la voiture que tu achètes.
I love the car that you’re buying.
In my opinion, the word où 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.
The word où means “where.” It replaces places. (Say that five times fast.)
Voilà la piscine où je travaille.
Here’s the pool where I work.
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.)
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.
Voici le stylo dont j’ai besoin.
Here’s the pen that I need.
Il adore le film dont tu parles.
He loves the movie that you’re talking about.
lequel / laquelle / lesquels / lesquelles
The word lequel means “which” and follow prepositions such as sur, avec, and pour. It replaces grammatical objects. Use it with things, not people.
Je prends le couteau avec lequel on va couper le steak.
I’m taking the knife with which we’re going to cut the steak.
Elle comprend la raison pour laquelle il doit partir.
She understands the reason for which he has to leave.
Voici les ballons avec lesquels l’équipe va jouer.
Here are the balls with which the team is going to play.
Tu vois les tables sur lesquelles on va mettre les cartes?
Do you see the tables on which we’re going to put the maps?
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.