Relative pronouns in French: qui, que etc

The term relative pronoun is usually used for words like that, who, which in cases like the following:

the guy (that/who) I met yesterday
the guy that/who sold me the furniture
the furniture (that/which) I bought yesterday
the furniture that/which fell to bits
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In these sentences, the part in bold is usually described as a relative clause. In other words, a clause ("sentence inside a sentence") that expresses "which thing/person you're talking about". (In more formal terms, we might say that the clause acts as an adjective or in some cases adverb.) Notice that:

  • in some cases, you can omit the relative pronoun in English— for example, you can say the guy I met instead of ...that I met;
  • in general, the cases where you can omit the relative pronoun are where it would function as the object of the verb in the relative clause (the "thing being bought", the "person being met" etc);
  • where it is used, the choice of possible relative pronoun does not usually depend on it being the subject/object (e.g. that can be either subject or object, as can who and which);
  • the choice does depend on humanness: who usually refers to a human, which to a non-human (and that to either).

In both French and English, and in many European languages, the range of words used as relative pronoun is very similar to those used as question words1. However, there are some subtle differences.

qui and que

In French, the words qui and que generally cover the function of that, which etc in the sentences above. However, in French:

  • qui is used as the subject of the verb in the relative clause;
  • que is used as the object of the verb in the relative clause;
  • French does not omit the relative pronoun;
  • in general, the choice does not depend on whether the referent is human or non-human (or animate or non-animate).

The last point means that relative clauses are therefore a little different to questions (where qui generally refers only to a human). Here are some examples:

la personne qui m'aide
the person who/that helps me
qui represents subject or "person doing the helping"
un ordinateur qui m'aide
a computer that/which helps me
qui is still the subject: it doesn't matter that it's not a person
l'ordinateur que j'ai acheté
the computer which/that I bought
que represents object or "thing that was bought"
l'homme que j'ai vu hier
the man who/that I saw yesterday
que is still the object: doesn't matter that it is human
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In other words, it is not true that qui means "who" and que means "that":

  • The choice depends on whether qui/que is the subject or object of the verb in the relative clause.
  • It does not depend on being a thing or person, unlike the choice in English.

How to tell the difference between subject and object?

See here for tips on the difference between subject and object.


1. For a (fairly technical) discussion of the development of interrogatives into relative pronouns and their status as a characteristic of European languages, see Heine & Kuteva (2006), "The Changing Languages of Europe", OUP, ch. 6.

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