Using 'Que' and Other Relative Pronouns

Spanish for Beginners

red car
Compré el coche en que íbamos. (I bought the car in which we rode.). Ben/Creative Commons.

Relative pronouns are pronouns that are used to introduce a clause that provides more information about a noun. Thus 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. As can be seen in the following sentences, it usually means "that," "which" or "who."

  • 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.)
  • Mi hermano es el hombre que salió. (My brother is the man who left.)

In some cases, que isn't translated as a relative pronoun in English because the two languages structure the sentence differently:

  • Necesitamos la firma de la persona que ayuda al paciente. (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 sleeping in the bed.)

Other Relative Pronouns

As a beginner, you likely won't need to use the other relative pronouns of Spanish, but you certainly will come across them in writing and speech.

At this point, you don't need to learn the rules of their usage, but you should recognize them when you see or hear them. Here they are with examples of their usage:

  • quien, quienes — who, whom — 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.) — 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. 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.
  • el cual, la cual, lo cual, los cuales, las cuales — which, who, whom — Rebeca es la mujer con la cual vas a viajar. (Rebeca is the woman with whom you are going to travel.) — 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.
  • el que, la que, lo que, los que, las que — which, who, whom — Rebeca es la mujer con la que vas a viajar. (Rebeca is the woman with whom you are going to travel.) — This pronoun phrase must match the noun it refers to in both number and gender. It is often interchangeable with el cual but is somewhat more informal in usage.
  • cuyo, cuya, cuyos, cuyas — whose — Es la profesora cuyo hijo tiene el coche. (She is the teacher whose son has the car.) — 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?"
  • donde — where — Voy al mercado donde se venden manzanas. (I'm going to the market where apples are sold.)