Relative Pronouns in Spanish

Overview

Relative pronouns are used to refer back to something, usually a noun, that was talked about previously. The noun, pronoun, or phrase to which the relative pronoun refers is called an antecedent. Relative pronouns are often used to connect two short sentences.

Individual SentencesSentence with Relative Pronoun
Juan te prestó un libro. El libro es mío.
 
Juan te prestó un libro que es mío.
 
Juan lent you a book. The book is mine.Juan lent you a book that is mine.
La casa tiene un techo rojo. La casa está allá.
 
La casa que tiene un techo rojo está allá.
 
The house has a red roof. The house is over there.The house that has a red roof is over there.

Que and Quien

Que and quien are two relative pronouns that you'll use a lot.

  • Que can refer to a person, place, or thing and mean that, which, who, or whom.
  • Quien can only refer to a person and means who or whom.
  • Quien must match its antecedent (the who it refers to) in number. if the antecedent to which it refers is singular, you use quien; if it is plural, you use quienes.

Note that the relative pronouns que and quien are spelled the same as the interrogative words qué and quién, minus the accent over the e.

Que vs. Quien

In general, relative pronouns are used according to their length and the distance between them and their antecedent. The farther the relative pronoun is from the antecedent, the longer the relative pronoun is (the more letters it has).

Que

Que, being the shortest relative pronoun, is used when the relative pronoun comes immediately after the antecedent. Nothing separates the relative pronoun from the antecedent, not even a comma.

La mujer que vive allí es mi tía.
The woman that/who lives there is my aunt.
 
El hombre que ves en la foto es mi hermano.
The man (whom) you see in the photo is my brother.
 
El café que te gusta está allá.
The café (that) you like is over there.
 
El libro que prestaste es mío.
The book (that) you borrowed is mine.
 

As you can see in the examples above, relative pronouns are often optional in English. This is not the case in Spanish!

Que can also be used after a very short separation from the antecedent when referring to places or things. However, if the relative pronoun follows a preposition and refers to a person, you must use quien.

Ésta es la casa en que crecí.
This is the house in which I grew up.
 
¿Has ido al café del que hablaba?
Have you been to the café (that) I was talking about?
 
No es la mujer con quien hablé.
She isn’t the woman (whom) I talked to.
 

Que is not used after the prepositions sin, por, or para because such combinations could be confused with the adverbial conjunctions sin que, porque, and para que.

Quien

Quien (and its plural form quienes) is used when the antecedent refers to a person and there is also a short distance between the antecedent and relative pronoun (usually a comma or a one or two syllable preposition). It's also used after certain prepositions, like para and con.

¿Dónde están los niños a quienes les conté el cuento?
Where are the children to whom I told the story?
 
Mi tía, quien es doctora, me va a visitar hoy.
My aunt, who is a doctor, is going to visit me today.
 
¿Alguien ha visto a María, de quien está enamorado Samuel?
Has anyone seen Maria, whom Samuel is in love with?
 

Quien is not used when the relative pronoun immediate follows the antecedent, even if it refers to a person. Que is used instead.

El que and El cual

El que and el cual (and their other forms) are not very common in speech, but are much more so in written Spanish. They each have four forms that much with the antecedent in number and gender.

El que

El que and its other forms (la que, los que, las que) must agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. El que is generally used when there is more distance between the antecedent and the relative pronoun, such as a comma or a one-word preposition. It can be used with the prepositions sin, por, and para instead of just plain que to help avoid confusion with sin que, porque, and para que.

Los plátanos, los que son maduros, son deliciosos.
Bananas, those which are ripe, are delicious.
 
¿Recuerdas las playas de las que hablamos ayer?
Do you remember the beaches that we were talking about yesterday?
 

El cual

El cual and its accompanying forms (la cual, los cuales, las cuales) also must match the antecedent they refer to in number and gender. They're used when there is the more distance between the antecedent and the relative pronoun, such as when a compound preposition is used.

Mi hermano está poniendo la mesa, por encima de la cual hay un florero.
My brother is setting the table, on top of which is a vase of flowers.
 
Cerré la puerta, detrás de la cual la fiesta continuaba.
I shut the door, behind which the party continued.
 
Caminamos por el parque cerca del cual está un café muy bueno.
We walked through the park near which there is a good café.
 

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