Spanish Relative Pronouns

The Relative Pronouns in Spanish are a type of pronoun used to refer to a person, animal or thing that has already been named previously, and the pronoun is used in order to avoid repetition. The Relative Pronouns are also used to connect two sentences together, where the second clause qualifies the subject of the first.

The words that, which, and who are not just used in questions. They are used in statements, too. Examples include:

  • My coat, which is blue, is hanging in your closet.
  • Mrs. Castle, who is a music teacher, knows how to play the piano.
  • The highway that extends to the north is the one you want to take.

When these words are used in statements, they are called relative pronouns. In this lesson, we’ll look at the many ways in which you can use these words. In addition to que and quien, which you already know, we’ll take a look at some new words: lo que, el cual, and el que.

Resources for further reading:

Using Relative Pronouns

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Juan tiene dos perros que son negros.

Juan has two dogs that are black.

La hija de Juan, quien tiene dos hijos, se llama Marcela.

The daughter of Juan, who has two children, is called Marcela.

The most common relative pronoun is que. Notice that the relative pronoun que does NOT have an accent mark over the é like the question ¿qué? does.

Get used to using que. It has a variety of meanings, including that, which, who and whom. Whereas we often drop the word that in English, it must ALWAYS be included in Spanish. For example, in English you can say,

  • I bought the shoes she wanted.
  • We brought the car you asked for.
  • Luisa followed the road you told her to follow.

Can you see where the word that should be inserted into each of the following sentences to be able to translate them precisely into Spanish?

  • Compré los zapatos que ella quería.
  • Trajimos el auto que pediste.
  • Luisa siguió el camino que usted le dijo que siga.

Once you get used to inserting that into your sentences, you’ll find it easy to use que. Look at the following examples:

María devolvió el libro que pidió prestado.

Maria returned the book that she borrowed.

La persona que te saludó es tu nuevo jefe.

The person that greeted you is your new boss.

El hotel que tiene el techo rojo es nuestro.

The hotel that has the red roof is ours.

QUE with Prepositions

Que can also be used together with the prepositions a, con, de, or en to form phrases like at which, in which, to which.

  • a que - to which
  • con que - with which
  • de que - of which, about which
  • en que - in which, at which

To use these expressions properly, you need to have a basic understanding of English grammatical rules governing prepositions. Spanish has a much more rigid grammatical structure than English in many cases. When it comes to prepositions, you can’t just let them dangle in Spanish. Compare the sentences below.

Informal structure Formal structure
The person I went with was late. The person with whom I went was late.
The restaurant we went to was busy. The restaurant to which we went was busy.
The topic we talked about was boring. he topic about which we talked was boring.

In Spanish, you MUST use the formal structure. It is impossible to form sentences in Spanish using the informal structure in the first column.

Look again at the first pair of sentences above. Compare these two direct translations into Spanish.

Informal structure Formal structure
La persona fui con estaba atrasada. La persona con quien fui estaba atrasada.

The first sentence makes no sense in Spanish. The second sentence is correct.

If you usually speak grammatical English, you’ll find this quite easy. If you’re an ordinary English speaker, you may find that learning how to use prepositions properly in Spanish is a bit difficult at first. If it seems a bit confusing, remember that a similar grammatical rule governs the construction of questions in Spanish.

Informal structure Formal structure Spanish
Who am I speaking to? To whom am I speaking? ¿Con quién hablo?
Who are you going with? With whom are you going? ¿Con quién vas?
Where are you going to? To where are you going? ¿A dónde vas?

Again, Spanish always uses the formal structure, and as a result, you’ll never find a Spanish sentence that ends with a preposition.

Por ejemplo (for example):

El lago en que nadaron ustedes está contaminado.

The lake at which you swam is polluted.

El árbol del que estamos hablando es muy viejo.

The tree about which we are talking is very old.

La playa a que fuimos el sábado está muy lejos.

The beach to which we went Saturday is far away.

Talking about Who and Whom

Quien is used to refer to people. It can mean who, whom, or that and is often used with the prepositions a, con, and de.

  • a quien - who, whom, to whom
  • con quien - with whom
  • de quien - about whom, that

Remember that quien reflects the quantity of the subject to which it refers. If its object is plural, quien becomes quienes.

Por ejemplo:

Juan, a quien le regalé los zapatos, está muy contento.

Juan, to whom I gave the shoes, is very happy.

Las personas con quienes salimos anoche no han regresado.

The people with whom we went out last night have not returned.

Looking at LO QUE

In the previous examples, que and quien have both referred to specific nouns (e.g. Carmen, la señora, las personas, or el profesor). When what you are talking about ISN’T a particular noun but rather an idea, a wish, a situation, or something that happened in the past, you will need to use lo que. Lo que can mean that, what, or that which.

Por ejemplo:

Aprendí todo lo que sé de computadoras en la escuela.

I learned all that I know about computers at school.

Lo que quise decir es que tienes razón.

What I meant to say is that you're right

About CUAL

The word cual can be used in statements as well as in questions, as long as it has a definite article (el, la, los, or las) in front. When used in statements rather than questions, it can mean that, who, and whom.

El cual and its forms (la cual, los cuales, las cuales) are used in very specific circumstances:

After prepositions of more than one syllable, e.g.,

  • El pueblo, el cual visité ayer por bus, se llama Conocoto. The town that I visited yesterday by bus is called Conocoto.

When the person or thing to which the relative pronoun refers is unclear, e.g.,

  • El empleado de la compañía Vereda, la cual estaba en las noticias, va a dar una conferencia de prensa. The employee of the Vereda company, who was in the news, is going to give a press conference. (If you said, “el que estaba en las noticias,” it would mean that the employee had been in the news, not the company.)

When the clause contains information that is NOT essential, e.g.,

  • Los hermanos Torres, los que me gustan, vienen a La Paz el catorce de febrero. The Torres brothers, those whom I like, are coming to La Paz the 14th of February.

Note that el que and its forms la que, los que, and las que can also be used to talk about the one(s) or that one(s) when you are clarifying which person or thing you are referring to.

Examples of sentences that would require the use of a form of el que are:

  • "Mi amigo, el que es actor, viene mañana." My friend, the one who’s an actor, is coming tomorrow.
  • "Quiero que tomes el auto, el que está estacionado en el garaje." I want you to take the car, the one parked in the garage.
  • "¿Hiciste el trabajo, el que te pedí que hicieras?" Did you do the job, that one I asked you to do?

Here are some more examples:

La playa a la cual fuimos ayer es muy famosa.

The beach to which we went yesterday is very famous.

Mi primo—el que nos vendió la camisa—va a tener una fiesta.

My cousin—the one who sold us the shirt—is going to have a party.

That's all on Spanish relative pronouns! Looking for more? Here are more lessons on Spanish pronouns.

See you soon! ¡Hasta pronto!

Mauricio Evlampieff: Rocket Spanish

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