Using ‘Que’ and Other Relative Pronouns in Spanish

They are the equivalent of words such as ‘which’ and ‘that’

man sitting on high rock overlooking canyon
Es un hombre que prefiere vivir peligrosamente. (He is a man who prefers to live dangerously. This photo was taken near San Rafael, Argentina.).

Fabian Schmiedlechner / EyeEm / Getty Images 

Relative pronouns are pronouns that are used to introduce a clause that provides more information about a noun. In the phrase "the man who is singing," the relative pronoun is "who"; the clause "who is singing" provides further information about the noun "man." In the Spanish equivalent, el hombre que canta, the relative pronoun is que.

Common relative pronouns in English include "that," "which," "who," "whom," and "whose," although these words also have other uses. In Spanish, by far the most common relative pronoun is que.

In Spanish, some relative pronouns are made up of two-word phrases such as lo que.

How To Use Que

As can be seen in the following sentences, que usually means "that," "which," "who," or , less often,"whom."

  • Los libros que son importantes en nuestra vida son todos aquellos que nos hacen ser mejores, que nos enseñan a superarnos. (The books that are important in our lives are all those that make us be better, which teach us to improve ourselves.)
  • Compré el coche en que íbamos. (I bought the car in which we rode.)
  • El politeísmo es la creencia de que hay muchos dioses. (Polytheism is the belief that there are many gods.)
  • Mi hermano es el hombre que salió. (My brother is the man who left.)
  • La primera persona que vi fue a mi hermana. (The first person whom I saw was my sister.)

In many cases, sentences using que as a relative pronoun can be translated with an optional relative pronoun in English. An example is the final sentence above, which could have been translated as "The first person I saw was my sister." This omission of the relative pronoun in English is especially common when the verb following the relative pronoun is translated as a gerund:

  • Necesitamos la firma de la persona que ayuda al paciente. (We need the name of the person who helps the patient. We need the name of the person helping the patient.)
  • No conozco a la niña que duerme en la cama. (I don't know the girl who sleeps in the bed. I don't know the girl sleeping in the bed.)

Other Relative Pronouns

If you're a beginning Spanish student, you likely won't need to use the other relative pronouns of Spanish, but you certainly will come across them in writing and speech. Here they are with examples of their usage:

quien, quienes—who, whom—A common mistake by English speakers is to use quien when que should be used. Quien is most commonly used following a preposition, as in the first example below. It can also be used in what grammarians call a nonrestrictive clause, one separated by commas from the noun it describes, as in the second example. In that second example, que also could be used instead of quien.

  • Es el médico de quien le dije. (He is the doctor whom I told you about.)
  • Conozco a Sofía, quien tiene dos coches. (I know Sophia, who has two cars.)

el cual, la cual, lo cual, los cuales, las cuales—which, who, whom—This pronoun phrase must match the noun it refers to in both number and gender. It is used in formal writing more often than in speech.

  • Rebeca es la mujer con la cual vas a viajar. (Rebeca is the woman with whom you are going to travel.)
  • Conozca los principales riesgos a los cuales se enfrentan las organizaciones en la era digital. (Know the main risks which organizations are facing in the digital age.)

el que, la que, lo que, los que, las que—which, who, whom—This pronoun phrase must match the noun it refers to in both number and gender. It is often interchangeable with el cual but is more informal in usage.

  • Rebeca es la mujer con la que vas a viajar. (Rebeca is the woman with whom you are going to travel.)
  • Hay un restaurante en los que los meseros son robots. (There is a restaurant in which the waiters are robots.)

cuyo, cuya, cuyos, cuyas—whose—This pronoun functions something like an adjective and must match the noun it modifies in both number and gender. It is used more in writing than in speech. It normally isn't used in questions, where de quién is used instead, as in ¿De quién es esta computadora? for "Whose computer is this?"

  • Es la profesora cuyo hijo tiene el coche. (She is the teacher whose son has the car.)
  • El virus se autodistribuye a los contactos del usuario cuya computadora ha sido infectada. (The virus spreads itself to the contacts of the user whose computer has been infected.)

donde—where—The Spanish and English words as relative pronouns are used in much the same way.

  • Voy al mercado donde se venden manzanas. (I'm going to the market where apples are sold.)
  • En la ciudad donde nosotros vivimos existen muchas iglesias. (There are many churches in the city where we live.)

Key Takeaways

  • A relative pronoun is a type of pronoun used in both Spanish and English to introduce a clause.
  • The most common Spanish relative pronoun is que, which usually means "that," "which," or "who."
  • Because of differing sentence structures, Spanish relative pronouns are sometimes optional in translation to English.