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How to use the relative pronouns 'qui', 'que', 'dont', 'où'?

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A relative pronoun is used to link two sentences together that have some words in common to avoid repetition. Unlike in English, relative pronouns in French cannot be omitted. Choosing the correct relative pronoun depends on whether you’re replacing the subject (qui), the object (que), the object of a preposition (dont, lequel), or an expression of time or place (). Keep reading to  find out how to use them. If you want to brush up on the meaning of “subject” and “object” in grammar, head to the bottom of the article!

What is a relative pronoun?

This post is about “relative pronouns” but what are they? As mentioned above, relative pronouns are words used to replace a common element in two or more sentences to avoid repetition. For example:

  • I am reading a book.
                              ⤷ object 

  • The book is interesting.
             ⤷ subject

The word “book” is common in both examples above. Both sentences are correct but if we want to avoid repetition and be more concise, we can combine these two sentences like this:

  • The book that I am reading is interesting.

In the new sentence, the common element “book” appears only once and it has been replaced by “that”: “that” is a relative pronoun!

What is the difference between que and qui?

Relative pronouns que and qui can both be translated by that, which, or even who in English. The big difference between the two is the part of the sentence they can replace: either the subject or object of the sentence.

que links the object of one sentence to another 

 
  1. Je vais lire un magazine.

  2. Le magazine est en français. 

→  Le magazine que je vais lire est en français.

  1. I’m going to read a magazine. 

  2. The magazine is in French.

→ The magazine which I’m going to read is in French.

 

 

→ Here, magazine is the object of sentence 1. If you want to combine sentences 1 & 2, you could start with sentence 2 and insert sentence 1 after magazine. Because magazine is the object of sentence 1, you need to replace it with que. 

 

 

 
  1. J’ai rencontré mon voisin hier. 

  2. Je cherche mon voisin.

→ Je cherche mon voisin que j’ai rencontré hier.

  1. I met my neighbor yesterday.

  2. I’m looking for my neighbor.

→ I’m looking for my neighbor who I met yesterday. 

 

 

→ Here, mon voisin is the object of sentence 2 (Reminder: objects can be people). As above, you could start the combined sentence with sentence 2 and insert sentence 1 after mon voisin. Because voisin is the object in sentence 1, you need to replace it with que.

 

 

 

⤷TIP: Memorize the following pattern when using the relative pronoun que:

noun + QUE + [subject + verb]

 

qui links the subject of one sentence to another

 
  1. J’ai un collègue

  2. Mon collègue est colombien.

→ J’ai un collègue qui est colombien.

  1. I have a coworker. 

  2. My coworker is Colombian. 

→ I have a coworker who is Colombian.

 



→ Here, collègue is the subject of sentence 2. You start the combined sentence with sentence 1 and you insert sentence 2 after collègue. Because collègue is the subject in sentence 2, you need to replace it with qui.

 

 
  1. La réunion est à 10h.

  2. Je prépare la réunion

→  Je prépare la réunion qui est à 10h. 

  1. The meeting is at 10am.

  2. I am preparing a meeting.

→ I am preparing a meeting which is at 10am.

 



→ Here, la réunion is the subject of sentence 1. In this example, you start the combined sentence with sentence 2 and you insert sentence 1 after la réunion. Because réunion is the subject in sentence 1, you need to use qui.



 

⤷TIP: Memorize the following pattern when using the relative pronoun qui:

noun + qui + verb

These sentences can also be combined in another order: you could start with 1 and insert 2. Just keep in mind the role of the noun you replace with qui or que. In this different order, the noun réunion is the object of sentence 2 and therefore, you will replace it with que when you link it to sentence 1.

La réunion que je prépare est à 10h.
The meeting which I am preparing is at 10am.

 

  IMPORTANT:

Que can become qu’ with a noun starting with a vowel but qui can’t.

Les biscuits sont bons. Il a mangé des biscuits. 
→ Les biscuits qu'il a mangés sont bons. 

The cookies are good. He ate the cookies. 
The cookies (that) he ate are good. 

Je mange un biscuit. Le biscuit est bon. 
→ Je mange le biscuit qu’est bon => qui est bon.

I am eating a cookie. The cookie is good. 
I am eating a cookie (that) is good. 

When do I use dont?

The pronoun dont can be translated as whose, of whom, or of which and expresses the possession when a French verb is used with the preposition de.

  • dont like whose in English, introduces a noun which belongs to someone or something that was mentioned before. Good news, it works exactly the same in both languages!

Le garçon dont le frère est dans ma classe s’appelle Julien. 
The boy whose brother is in my class is called Julien.

  • Just like qui and que, the relative pronoun dont is used to link two sentences that have a noun in common and to avoid repetition. It works a bit like que except it is used when verbs have the preposition de. Check our list of verbs followed by de!

rêver de 

Je rêve d’une maison. La maison est grande.
La maison dont je rêve est grande.

to dream of

I dream of a house. The house is big. 
The house of which I dream is big.

 

avoir besoin de 

J’ai besoin dun stylo. Le stylo est sur la table. 
Le stylo dont j’ai besoin est sur la table.

to need 

I need a pen. The pen is on the table.
The pen (that) I need is on the table.

Pronouns que, qui, and dont can be used in combination with demonstrative ce, check out this short article to find out how. While you’re there, also learn about relative pronouns lequel, duquel, and auquel which are combined with prepositions.

When do I use ?

The pronoun replaces places and time. When you use where and when in English, you’ll use in French.

PLACES           Voici la ville j’ai grandi. - Here is the town where I grew up. 
TIME                C’est l'année nous nous sommes rencontrés. - This is the year (when) we met. 
                                                TIP: Remember not to omit the pronoun!

IN BRIEF: 4 useful tips and combos to remember

  1. Don’t omit relative pronouns in French!

  2. Remember that qui and que work for both people and things.

  3. Learn some verbs which need the preposition de; it will enable you to know if you need to use dont.

  4. Remember some combos (see table below) and try our exercises!

Screen Shot 2021-07-22 at 12.12.25 PM

Unpacking the grammar

The subject of a sentence is what/who does the action. 
The object of a sentence is what undergoes the action. 

Both can be people, animals, things or places.

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