Relative pronouns are often used to connect sentences or phrases. For example, the first set of examples in each of the pairs below show individual sentences, while the second set shows the previous sentences joined by a relative pronoun to form a single sentence.
Let's take a look at some very common relative pronouns you're likely to come across in Spanish.
Que and Quien
- Que can refer to a person, place, or thing and means 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 antecedents. The farther the relative pronoun is from the antecedent, the longer the relative pronoun is (the more letters it has).
Que, 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.
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.
Quien (and its plural form quienes) is used when the antecedent refers to a person and is separated from the antecedent (usually by a comma or preposition). It's commonly used after prepositions like para and con.
El Que and El Cual
El que and el cual (and their related forms) are not very common in speech, but are much more so in written Spanish. They each have four forms that match the antecedent in number and gender.
El queand its related forms (la que, los que, las que) must agree in gender and number with the nouns 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.
El cualand its related 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 more distance between the antecedent and the relative pronoun, such as when a compound preposition is used.