French Relative Pronouns

Relative Pronouns - Pronoms relatifs

Cat coming out of hole in wall
"Trouvez le chat qui habite dans la cave." (Find the cat that lives in the basement.). Csaba Tokolyi / Contributor / Getty Images

Before you can use French relative pronouns correctly, you first need to understand the grammar behind them. Like its English counterpart, a French relative pronoun links a dependent or relative clause to a main clause. If the previous sentence makes no sense to you, learn about clauses before working on this lesson. Also, since relative pronouns may replace a subject, direct object, indirect object, or preposition, click to learn about these grammar concepts if you aren't sure what they are.

Once you understand the above grammar terms, you're ready to learn about the French relative pronouns que, qui, lequel, dont, and . There are no one-to-one equivalents for these words; depending on context, the English translation may be who, whom, that, which, whose, where, or when. Note that in French, relative pronouns are required, whereas in English, they are sometimes optional.

The following table summarizes the functions and possible meanings of each relative pronoun; click the pronouns to read detailed lessons.

Pronoun  Function(s)Possible Translations
Indirect object (person)  
who, what
which, that, whom
QueDirect objectwhom, what, which, that
LequelIndirect object (thing)what, which, that
Object of de
Indicate possession
of which, from which, that
Indicate place or timewhen, where, which, that

Note: ce que, ce qui, ce dont, and quoi are indefinite relative pronouns

Qui and Que

Qui and que are the most often confused relative pronouns, probably because one of the first things French students learn is that qui means "who" and que means "that" or "what." In fact, this is not always the case. The choice between qui and que as a relative pronoun has nothing to do with the meaning in English, and everything to do with how the word is used; that is, what part of the sentence it is replacing.

Que replaces the direct object (person or thing) in the dependent clause.

   J'ai acheté le livre. Ma sœur l'a écrit.
   > J'ai acheté le livre que ma sœur a écrit.

   I bought the book (that) my sister wrote.

   Où habite le peintre? Je l'ai vu aujourd'hui.
   > Où habite le peintre que j'ai vu aujourd'hui?

Where does the painter (whom) I saw today live?

Qui replaces the subject (person or thing) in the dependent clause.

   Je cherche l'artiste. Il étudie à Paris.
   > Je cherche l'artiste qui étudie à Paris.

   I'm looking for the artist (who is) studying in Paris.

   Trouvez le chat. Il habite dans la cave.
   > Trouvez le chat qui habite dans la cave.

   Find the cat that lives in the basement.

Qui also replaces an indirect object referring to a person* after a preposition,** including prepositions which are required after a given verb or expression.

   Je vois une dame. Je travaille avec cette dame.
   Je vois une dame avec qui je travaille.

   I see a woman with whom I work. (I see a woman I work with.)

   La fille à qui j'ai parlé est très sympathique.
   The girl to whom I spoke is very nice. (The girl [that] / [whom] I spoke to...)

   L'étudiant contre qui je me suis assis...
   The student next to whom I sat...

(The student [that] I sat next to...)

*If the object of the preposition is a thing, you need lequel.

**Except if the preposition is de, in which case you need dont.


Lequel or one of its variations replaces an indirect object referring to a thing* after a preposition,** including prepositions which are required after a given verb or expression.

   Le livre dans lequel j'ai écrit mon nom...
   The book in which I wrote my name...

   Les idées auxquelles j'ai pensé... 
   The ideas that I thought about...

   La ville à laquelle je songe... 
   The town about which I'm dreaming...

   Le cinéma près duquel*** nous avons mangé... 
   The theater near which we ate..., The theater (that) we ate near...

*If the object of the preposition is a person, you need qui.

**Except de - see  dont

***How do you know whether to use dont or duquel?

You need dont when the preposition is de by itself. You need duquel when de is part of a prepositional phrase, such as près deà côté deen face de, etc.


Dont replaces any person or thing after de:

   Où est le reçu? J'ai besoin du reçu.
   > Où est le reçu dont j'ai besoin?

   Where is the receipt (that) I need?

   C'est la dame. J'ai parlé de cette dame.
   > C'est la dame dont j'ai parlé.

   That's the woman about (whom) I talked. (That's the woman [that] / [whom] I talked about.)

Dont can indicate possession:

   Voici l'homme. J'ai trouvé la valise de cet homme.
   > Voici l'homme dont j'ai trouvé la valise.

   That's the man whose suitcase I found.

   Je cherche le livre. Tu as arraché une page de ce livre.
   > Je cherche le livre dont tu as arraché une page.

   I'm looking for the book out of which you tore a page, the book (that) you tore a page out of.

Dont can refer to part of a group:

   J'ai lu plusieurs livres la semaine dernière. J'ai lu le tien.
   > J'ai lu plusieurs livres la semaine dernière, dont le tien. 
I read several books last week, including yours.

   Il a écrit trois livres. Deux de ses livres sont des best-sellers.
   > Il a écrit trois livres, dont deux sont des best-sellers.

   He has written three books, two of which are best sellers.

What's the difference between dont and duquel? You need dont when the preposition you're replacing is de by itself. You need duquel when de is part of a prepositional phrase, such as près deà côté deen face de, etc.

You probably already know that as an interrogative pronoun means "where," and that it often means "where" as a relative pronoun as well:

   La boulangerie  j'ai travaillé est à côté de la banque.
   The bakery where I worked is next to the bank. (The bakery [that] I worked at...)

   Rouen est la ville  j'habite depuis 5 ans.
   Rouen is the town where I've lived for 5 years.

 can also be used after prepositions.

   Le pays d' il vient...
   The country (where) he's from...

   Je cherche le village jusqu' nous avons conduit.

   I'm looking for the village to which we drove.

But as a relative pronoun,  has an additional meaning - it refers to the moment in time something happened: "when." This can be tricky, as French students tend to want to use the interrogative quand here. You can't, because quand is not a relative pronoun. You must use the relative pronoun .

   Lundi, c'est le jour  nous faisons les achats.
   Monday is the day (that) we do our shopping.

   Le moment  nous sommes arrivés...
   The moment (that) we arrived...

   C'est l'année  il est parti
   That's the year (that) he left, That's when he left.