Relative clauses in French grammar

What is a relative clause?

A relative clause (une proposition subordonnée relative) provides more information about a noun or pronoun from the previous clause without having to begin a new sentence. In French as in English, there are two types of relative clauses: non-defining (set off by commas) and defining (written without commas).

Learn more about relative clauses in French grammar with Lingolia, then put your knowledge to the test in the free interactive exercises.

Example

Ce sont les amis avec lesquels je passe mon temps. Lucas, que je connais depuis longtemps, est très drôle. Antoine, qui porte des lunettes, est dans ma classe. Et Léonie, dont le sourire est magnifique, danse très bien.

Advertisement

How to use relative clauses in French

Usually, relative clauses are placed directly after the noun or pronoun to which they refer, which can be in the middle or at the end of the main clause. Deciding which relative pronoun to use depends on its grammatical function:

subject:
Antoine, qui porte des lunettes, est dans ma classe.Antoine, who wears glasses, is in my class.

Antoine porte des lunettes. – Qui? (Who?)

possessive:
Léonie, dont le sourire est magnifique, danse très bien.Léonie, whose smile is magnificent, can dance very well.

Le sourire de Léonie est magnifique. – Le sourire de qui? (Whose?)

with a preposition:
Ce sont les amis, avec lesquels je passe mon temps.They are the friends with whom I spend my time.

Je passe mon temps avec ces amis. – Avec qui? (With whom?)

direct object:
Lucas, que je connais depuis longtemps, est très drôle.Lucas, whom I’ve known for a long time, is very funny.

Je connais Lucas depuis longtemps. – Qui? (Whom?)

Defining and Non-Defining Relative Clauses

In French as in English, we differentiate between defining and non-defining relative clauses. If the information in the relative clause is necessary to the meaning of the sentence, it is a defining relative clause, and written without commas. If the information in the relative clause is only additional or extra, it is a non-defining relative clause and written between commas.

Defining Relative Clauses

Defining relative clauses (les relatives restrictives) are written without commas. They are defining because they identify (or define) exactly what or whom we are talking about.

Example:
Le garçon qui porte des lunettes est Antoine.The boy who wears glasses is Antoine.

There are two boys in the picture, so the relative clause is necessary to distinguish between them.

Non-Defining Relative Clauses

Non-defining relative clauses (les relatives non restrictives) are set off by commas. They are non-defining because they are not required in order to define what we are talking about: even without the relative clause, we would still know what or whom is being discussed.

Example:
Lucas, que je connais depuis longtemps, est très drôle.Lucas, whom I’ve known for a long time, is very funny.

Generally, a person’s name identifies them sufficiently that we don’t need the relative clause to tell us which person is being discussed. It merely provides additional information about Lucas. (If both boys were named Lucas, the relative clause would become necessary to explain which Lucas we were talking about.)

Writing relative clauses in French

Relative clauses are constructed by using relative pronouns or relative adverbs.

Relative Pronouns and Relative Adverbs

The relative pronouns in French are qui, que, quoi and dont. There’s also the relative adverb . The relative pronoun or adverb replaces the noun or pronoun that it is referring to. Which pronoun we use depends on whether it is replacing a subject or an object (see the table below).

Replacing… Person Thing/Idea
Subject qui qui
Direct Object que/qu' que/qu’
(preposition +) Indirect Object (preposition +) qui (preposition +) quoi, lequel, auquel, …
de + noun dont dont
Time or Place
Examples:
Antoine porte des lunettes. → Antoine, qui porte des lunettes, …Antoine, who wears glasses, …
Antoine porte des lunettes. → Les lunettes qu’Antoine porte…The glasses that Antoine wears…
Les lunettes d’Antoine sont neuves. → Antoine, dont les lunettes sont neuves, …Antoine, whose glasses are new, …
Antoine a acheté ses lunettes dans un magasin. → Le magasin Antoine a acheté ses lunettes…The shop where (in which) Antoine bought his glasses…

Word Order

  • If qui is replacing a subject, the following word order is correct: relative pronoun + verb + object.
    Example:
    Lucas et Antoine, qui jouent toujours ensemble, …Lucas and Antoine, who always play together, …
  • In all other cases, the following word order is correct: relative pronoun + subject + verb.
    Examples:
    Les lunettes qu’Antoine porte…The glasses that Antoine wears…
    Les lunettes que tu portes…The glasses that you wear…
    Les lunettes dont Antoine est fier…The glasses that Antoine is proud of…
    Les lunettes dont il est fier…The glasses that he is proud of…

The relative pronoun lequel and its forms

There are additional relative pronouns that are constructed using the word lequel. They agree with the noun or pronoun and are used after prepositions and/or to clarify meaning when the usual pronoun is not specific enough.

  • lequel – laquelle – lesquels – lesquelles
    Example:
    Les amis avec lesquels je joue…The friends with whom I play…
  • à + lequel = auquel – à laquelle – auxquels – auxquelles
    Example:
    La fille à laquelle Léonie donne un biscuit…The girl to whom Léonie gives a biscuit…
  • de + lequel = duquel – de laquelle – desquels – desquelles
    Example:
    Le frère de Léonie duquel je t’ai parlé…The brother of Léonie, the one I was telling you about…
    If we used dont here, one might think we were talking about Léonie instead of her brother.

The subjonctif in relative clauses

Sometimes we have to use the subjunctive mood in a relative clause. This is the case when the relative clause…

  • comes after a negation
    Example:
    Il n’y a pas d’amie qui me comprenne comme Léonie.I don’t have any other friend who understands me like Léonie does.
  • comes after a superlative or after the expressions le premier, le dernier, le seul
    Example:
    Elle est la seule à qui je puisse parler sans crainte.She’s the only one I can talk to without feeling scared.
  • expresses a wish, purpose, or result
    Example:
    Je voudrais un vélo qui me permette de lui rendre visite.I wish I had a bicycle so that I could visit her.