Relative Pronouns

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Relative pronouns are tricky.  The big grammar books have all sorts of charts and examples and lots of grammar speak about when to use which relative pronoun.  They make my head spin.  My effort here is to try to keep it very simple.  I’m probably oversimplifying it, but this gives you the basics of when to use what.

Relative pronouns introduce a relative clause, a clause that modifies part of the main idea of the sentence. They fall under two categories,

1. that / which / who / whom


2. what

In French the relative pronoun that one uses is NOT determined by what you’re saying (that/which/who/whom), but by the words around it.  This will make more sense in a minute.

1. To start, we’ll tackle that/which/who/whom

a.  the basic that/which/who/whom will either be qui or que. 

*qui will be followed by a verb or a verb phrase
*que will be followed by a noun or a subject pronoun
Je vois la femme qui vous a parlé.
Tu as parlé à quelqu’un qui t’a beacoup encouragé.
Voici la Tour Eiffel qui est le symbole de Paris.
J’aime la robe que tu as achetée.
C’est une entreprise que je connais bien.
Voici une voiture que j’aime.
Les pièces qui m’intéressent le plus sont celles que Molière a écrites.
For the full write up of qui versus que, click on this link.

b.  then there’s dont.  Dont means that/which/who when combined with de.

De + Que = Dont.

The idea is that, like in English, French sentences cannot end in a preposition.  De counts as a preposition.  It happens with specific verbs (avoir envie de, avoir envie de, s’inquiéter de, etc.), and can also be used in the context of ‘about’ or ‘of’.  In proper English, one would say ‘of whom, of which’.  In French, this equals ‘dont’.

Où est le livre dont tu as besoin? – Where is the book of which you have need?

Elle a le sac dont j’ai envie – She has the bag of which I want – because in this context to want is ‘avoir envie de’

C’est un évenement dont tout le monde parle.  – This is an event about which everyone is talking.  To talk about = parler de

Mes voisins, dont j’ai déjà fait la connaissance, sont très sympathiques. – My neighbors of whom I’ve already made the acquaintance, are very nice.   To make the acquaintance of – faire la connaissance de

Ali a une amie dont la famille habite à Londres.  – Ali has a friend whose family lives in London.

For the full explanation of Dont, click on the following links

c.  lequel in all its forms is used to mean that/which/who/whom when following a preposition, or with specific verbs that end in à or de. Like in English,  in French a sentence cannot end in a preposition.  Instead of saying,

This is the pen that I write with. – Voici le stylo que j’écris avec.

one should say,

This is the pen with which I write.  – Voici le stylo avec lequel j’écris.

When following a preposition Qui / Que changes to lequel.  Lequel matches the gender and number of the noun that it replaces.

m.s. lequel lesquels
f.s. laquelle lesquelles

When combined with à or de, the normal contractions take place. (à +lequel = auquel, à+lesquels = auxquels, de+lequel = duquel, de+lesquelles = desquelles, etc.)

 More lequel examples
* C’est un travail sans lequel je ne peux pas vivre. This is a job without which I cannot live.
* La raison pour laquelle je vous ai dit cela est très simple. The reason for which I told you this is very simple.
* Les lettres auxquelles je dois répondre sont entassées sur mon bureau. The letters to which I have to respond are piled on my desk.
*J’ai perdu la boîte dans laquelle j’ai mis tous les verres. I lost the box in which I put all the glasses.
*Elle va préparer le dîner, après lequel nous prendrons un digestif. (after which)
*Voilà le lac au milieu duquel j’ai attrapé plusieurs poissons. (au milieu de = in the middle of)
* Il y a des choses auxquelles on n’aimes pas penser. (penser à = to think about)

2.  What

As a relative pronoun, what literally translates to “that which” or “the thing which” = ce qui, ce que, ce dont, or ce à quoi.  Ce qui, ce que, and ce dont follow the same rules as qui, que, and dont, but instead of meaning that/which/who/whom, the addition of the ‘ce’ changes the meaning to ‘what’.

a.  ce qui vs ce que

     Ce qui is followed by a verb or a verb phrase.

    Ce que is followed by a noun or a subject pronoun.

*Ma grand-mère me dit toujours ce qui est bon et ce qui est mauvais.  Ce n’est pas toujours ce que je veux entendre.

*Cet enfant ne sait pas ce qu’il veut.

*Ce qui semble important un jour est oublié le lendemain.

*Elle ne sait pas ce qu’elle doit faire.

*Je ne sais pas ce qui lui a fait peur.

b.  Ce dont happens when ce que combines with de.

* Nous n’avons plus ce dont tu as besoin.

*C’est exactement ce dont j’avais besoin.

*Tu veux me donner ce dont j’ai envie.

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