Relative pronouns (que, quien, el que, el cual)

Overview

Relative expressions are something you are probably very familiar with and just never thought about the grammar behind them. Relative pronouns in English (that, which, who, and whom) are commonly used to refer back to an expression or clause that preceded it. The noun, pronoun, or phrase to which the relative pronoun refers is called an antecedent. In English, the relative pronoun is sometimes omitted (The book (that) you borrowed is mine), but it is always required in Spanish (El libro que prestaste es mío.) Relative pronouns are used to connect two short sentences.

  • Juan prestó un libro. El libro es mío. -> Juan prestó un libro que es mío.
  • La casa tiene un techo rojo. La casa está allá. -> La casa que tiene un techo rojo está allá.

Que and Quien

The first two relative pronouns that are the simplest and most common to use are que and quien. You will notice these pronouns are spelled the same as the interrogative words qué and quién, but without the tildes. While 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 when following a preposition.) Quien must also match its antecedent in number; if the antecedent to which it refers is singular, you use quien, and if it is plural, you will use quienes.

  • que: that, which, who, whom
  • quien/quienes: who (whom after a preposition)

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. Que is used for people, places, and things and can mean that, which, who, or whom.

  • La mujer que vive allí es mi tía. (The woman that/who lives there is my aunt.)
  • El hombre que ves es muy guapo. (The man (whom) you see is very handsome.)
  • El café que te gusta está allá. (The café (that/which) you like is over there.)
  • El libro que prestaste es mío. (The book (that) you borrowed is mine.)

Que can also be used with a very short separation from the antecedent, such as a comma or a short (one syllable) preposition. However, if the relative pronoun follows a preposition and refers to a person, you must use quien. After a preposition, que is only used to refer to places or things.

  • 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 the 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.

  • ¿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 very useful to know since they each have four forms. This separation of gender and number is helpful when you need to distinguish between multiple possible antecedents.

El que

El que and its other forms (la que, los que, las que) must agree in gender and number with the noun it modifies. 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 que to help avoid confusion with sin que, porque, and para que.

  • Necesito los libros sin los que no puedo escribir el ensayo. (I need the books without which I can’t write the essay.)
  • Los plátanos, los que son maduros, son deliciosos. (The plantains, which are ripe, are delicious.)
  • ¿Recuerdas las playas de las que hablamos ayer?(Do you remember the beaches about which we were talking about yesterday?)

You can also use el que (and its other forms) as you would the neuter relative pronoun, but when you are referring to something more specific.

  • Las que dan a luz dan esperanza al mundo. (Those that have children give hope to the world.)
  • No me gusta esta comida. La que comimos ayer fue mejor. (I don’t like this food. That which we ate yesterday was better.)

El cual

El cual and its accompanying forms (la cual, los cuales, las cuales) also must match in gender and number to its antecedent. It is used when there is the most 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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