Relative pronouns in French grammar

What are relative pronouns?

Relative pronouns (les pronoms relatifs) introduce relative clauses. They replace a noun or pronoun from the previous sentence to avoid repetition

Learn all about relative pronouns in French grammar with Lingolia’s quick and easy examples, then put your knowledge to the test in the free exercises.

Example

Julien, qui roulait trop vite, a eu un accident avec la voiture que son père lui a prêtée. Il ne sait pas ce qui s’est passé et ne se rappelle pas vraiment de ce qu’il a fait. Il a raconté tout ce dont il se souvient.

Il a cherché un garage faire réparer la voiture avec laquelle il a eu l’accident. Comment va-t-il annoncer la nouvelle à son père? C’est une terrible histoire à laquelle il faut faire face.

When to use qui, que, qu’, dont in French

The relative pronouns qui, que and dont can refer to people, animals, concepts or things. They are invariable, which means that we don’t have to worry about the number or gender of the noun that the pronoun is replacing in the sentence.

  • Qui is used for the subject of the sentence. It corresponds to the English who.
    Example:
    Julien, qui roulait trop vite, a eu un accident.Julien, who was driving too fast, had an accident.

    Who was driving too fast?

  • Que is used for the object of the sentence. Watch out! In English, we can leave out who, which or that in a relative clause. However, in French we can’t leave out que.
    Example:
    Il a eu un accident avec la voiture que son père lui avait prêtée.He had an accident in the car (that) his father had lent him.

    Whom/What did his father lend him?

  • Dont indicates possession or belonging (similar to whose) and is used with words that take the preposition de.
    Example:
    Il a eu un accident avec la voiture dont les freins étaient cassés.He had an accident in the car whose brakes were not working.
    les freins de la voiture
    Le père de Julien est content car il peut s'acheter la voiture dont il a toujours rêvé. Julien’s father is happy because he can buy the car that he always dreamed of.
    rêver de qqch

The relative adverb (where) is used with reference to place or time.

Example :
Il a cherché un garage faire réparer la voiture.He looked for a garage where his car could be repaired.

Exceptions

  • When the relative pronoun que comes before a mute h or a vowel, we use qu’ instead. This is known as elision.
    Example:
    Il a eu un accident avec la voiture qu’il avait reçu de son père.He had an accident in the car that he had received from his father.
  • Relative pronouns can be used after prepositions. In the case of qui and que, however, there are some exceptions:
    Without a preposition, qui can refer to both people and things.
    Example:
    Est-ce que tu connais Julien qui a heurté un panneau avec sa voiture?Do you know Julien, who hit a sign with his car?
    Est-ce que tu as vu la voiture qui a heurté un panneau?Did you see the car that hit a sign?
    With a preposition, qui can only refer to people, not to things.
    Example:
    Est-ce que tu connais Julien avec qui j'ai acheté une nouvelle voiture?Do you know Julien, with whom I bought a new car?
    Est-ce que tu as vu la voiture avec qui il a heurté un panneau?
  • If the relative pronoun que is used with a preposition, it becomes quoi.
    Example:
    Il ne savait pas à quoi il pensait.He didn’t know what he was thinking of.

How to use ce qui, ce que and ce dont in French

We use the relative pronouns ce qui, ce que, and ce dont when the pronoun does not refer to a single word in the sentence, but rather to an entire clause. Each form is used differently according to its function in the relative clause.

  • Ce qui is used for a grammatical subject.
    Example:
    Il ne sait pas ce qui s’est passé.He doesn’t know what happened.
  • Ce que is used for a direct object.
    Example:
    Il ne sait pas ce qu’il a fait.He doesn’t know what he's done.
  • Ce dont is used with verbs, adjectives and nouns that normally take the preposition de .
    Example:
    Il a raconté tout ce dont il se souvient.He explained everything he remembered.(se souvenir de)

When to use lequel in French

The relative pronoun lequel is variable, which means it agrees in number and gender with the word it refers to. It can be translated with the English the one (which/that) or which one.

Example:
Il nous a montré le panneau qu’il a heurté. Il nous a montré lequel il a heurté.He showed us the sign that he hit. He showed us the one he hit.
Il nous a montré la voiture qu’il a cassée lors de l’accident. Il nous a montré laquelle il a cassée lors de l’accident.He showed us the car that he wrecked in the accident. He showed us the one he wrecked in the accident.
Singular Plural
Masculine lequel lesquels
Feminine laquelle lesquelles

The relative pronoun lequel can be used with a preposition. When lequel is used with à or de, the pronoun and preposition are usually combined into one word, as shown in the table below.

Preposition Masculine Feminine Masc. plural Fem. plural
à auquel à laquelle auxquels auxquelles
de duquel de laquelle desquels desquelles

The relative pronoun lequel is used:

  • with a preposition
    Example:
    C’est la voiture avec laquelle il a eu un accident.This is the car with which he had an accident.
  • when the word being referred to is a thing, not a person
    Example:
    C’est une terrible histoire à laquelle il faut faire face.It’s a terrible story that we have to face.
  • with entre and parmi
    Example:
    Voici les deux nouveaux modèles de voiture entre lesquels vous avez le choix.Here are the two new models of car that you can choose between.
    Voici les nouveaux modèles de voiture parmi lesquels vous avez le choix.Here are the two new models of car that you can choose between.

Dont and duquel

The relative pronouns dont and duquel are used with words that take the preposition de, but in different cases:

  • We use dont with verbs, nouns and adjectives that are formed with de.
    Example:
    Voici le tableau dont je vous ai parlé.Here is the painting I’ve told you about. (parler de)
  • Duquel and its variations (de laquelle for the feminine singular, desquels for the masculine plural and desquelles for the feminine plural) are used with prepositions or prepositional phrases (à cause de, autour de, au bout de, à partir de, au milieu de, à côté de, près de, à la fin de, au bord de…)
    Example:
    Les chiens à côté desquels je me suis assis n’étaient pas contents.The dogs next to which I sat weren’t very happy.
  • and when the relative pronoun is not the first word in the relative clause.
    Example:
    Il avait un petit appartement sur les murs duquel il y avait des moisissures.He had a small apartment the walls of which were mouldy.
    The first words of the relative clause are sur les murs, not the relative pronoun