Relative Pronouns in Spanish

       

Relative Pronouns

When you were three years old you spoke in short, choppy sentences:

I have a car. The car goes fast!

Now that you're older, you can convey the same information in longer, more complex sentences:

I have a car that goes fast!

The way you can do this is by using what's called a "relative pronoun." In English a relative pronoun is a word like "that," "which," "who," "whom," or "whose." These words are "relative" in that they relate one clause to another. They are pronouns because they simplify the sentence by taking the place of a noun and eliminating repetition. For example:

Bumblebee is a robot. The robot becomes a car.
She knows an author. The author writes travel books.
I have a cell phone. I take pictures with my cell phone.

become…

Bumblebee is a robot that becomes a car.
She knows an author who writes travel books.
I have a cell phone with which I take pictures.

Easy enough. But in order to use Spanish relative prounous correctly, we first need to know what an "antecedent" is.

Antecedents

An antecedent is the noun to which the relative pronoun refers. In the previous examples the antecedents are "robot," "author," and "cell phone" because it's the robot that becomes a car, the author who writes travel books, and the cell phone that takes pictures. Notice the difference between the subjects ("Bumblebee," "She," and "I") and the antecedents. This will become important later on.

Following are all the Spanish relative pronouns you should know.

Que

There are many situations in Spanish where one English word could be translated several different ways, but the opposite is true of the relative pronoun que. The pronoun que can refer to people, places, or things which means that it can be translated "that," "which," or "who." That means that 90% of the time, you can get by simply using que.

Bumblebee es un robot que se hace un coche.
Ella conoce a una autora que escribe libros de viaje.
Tengo un teléfono celular con que saco fotos.

It doesn't matter whether the antecedent is a person or a thing; you can use que for either.

So what about the other 10% of the time?

Quien / Quienes

Note: Quién (with the accent) is the question, "who?"

While que can refer to just about anything, quien may only refer to people and is translated "who" or "whom." Quien is preferred if the antecedent is separated from its pronoun by a comma or a short preposition like a, con, de, en, para, por, and sin. Use quienes if the antecedent is plural (you don't need to worry about gender).

Él tiene una amiga a quien manda mensajes de texto.
He has a friend to whom he sends text messages.

Tengo muchos amigos con quienes juego tenis.
I have many friends with whom I play tennis.

Su amiga, quien escribió el informe, es muy inteligente.
His friend, who wrote the report, is very intelligent.

Hay un niño para quien necesitamos comprar un regalo.
There is a boy for whom we need to buy a gift.

Note: You may not use quien to refer to things.

Using a form of quien (rather than que) after con, para, por, and sin helps us avoid inadvertently creating the conjunctions conque (so then), para que (so that), porque (because), and sin que (without).

El Que / El Cual

Forms of el que and el cual are translated "that," "which," "who," and "whom." Though they aren't very common, you may hear or see them in formal situations. Each pronoun needs to agree in gender and in number with its antecedent which means that each has four forms:

 

singular:

plural:

masculine:

el que

los que

feminine:

la que

las que

 

singular:

plural:

masculine:

el cual

los cuales

feminine:

la cual

las cuales

You are most likely to see el que or el cual in clauses set off by commas or following longer prepositions like acerca de (about), al lado de (beside), cerca de (near), debajo de (underneath), delante de (in front of), dentro de (inside), detrás de (behind), and por encima de (on top of):

El hotel, cerca del que hay una playa, es muy bonito.
The hotel, near which there is a beach, is very beautiful.

Los hombres, con los cuales trabajaban los hijos, eran muy fuertes.
The men, with whom the children worked, were very strong.

La mesa, debajo la que juegan los niños, es vieja.
The table, beneath which the children play, is old.

In general, the more separation there is between the antecedent and the relative pronoun, the more likely you are to use a form or el que or el cual. When the relative pronoun directly follows the antecedent, you should use que. Compare:

Los libros que leímos habían desaparecidos.
The books that we read had disappeared.

Los libros, acerca de los cuales hablábamos, habían desaparecidos.
The books, about which we were talking, had disappeared.

Once again, using a form of el que or el cual (rather than que) following the certain prepositions helps us avoid accidentally creating conjunctions. Also, if a sentence has more than one possible antecedent (and they happen to be different genders), using a form of el que or el cual can help clear up any confusion. For example:

La primera sección del examen, que es muy difícil, se trata de gramática.
The first section of the test, which is very difficult, is grammar.

In this sentence it's not apparent whether the entire test is difficult or just the first section. While we can't do anything in English to make it clear, we can in Spanish. Notice how each relative pronoun indicates a different antecedent.

La primera sección del examen, la cual es muy difícil, se trata de gramática.
La primera sección del examen, el cual es muy difícil, se trata de gramática.

Proverbs

Many proverbs and other practical sayings (like those found in Chinese fortune cookies) will start with "He who" or "Those who." To express that idea, use a form of el que or quien.

El que busca encuentra.
He who seeks finds.

El que madruga coge agua clara.
The one who wakes early collects clean water.
(The early bird gets the worm.)

El que a hierro mata, a hierro muere
The one who kills by iron, dies by iron.
(He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.)

Quien vacila está perdido.
He who hesitates is lost.

Lo Que / Lo Cual

In order to use a form of el que or el cual we need to know the gender and number of the antecedent. Sometimes this is impossible, however, because the antecedent is unknown or it is an abstract concept which doesn't have gender or number. In these cases we would use the neuter forms lo que and lo cual.

No quiero decirte lo que oí esta mañana.
I don't want to tell you what I heard this morning.

Note: When translating, if you need to say "what" and you're not asking a question, you should probably use lo que.

In this example the antecedent has not been established (was it a joke, a story, people yelling?) so we don't know its number and gender. Therefore we use the neuter lo que.

Consider this sentence:

El precio de petróleo aumentó rápidamente lo cual causó problemas económicos.
The price of oil rose rapidly which caused economic problems.

In this sentence the antecedent isn't the price or the oil, but rather the idea that oil prices rose quickly. The fact that oil prices rose rapidly does not have a number or a gender so we use the neuter lo cual for our relative pronoun.

Cuyo

One situation in which we cannot use que (or quien or el que or el cual) is the relative pronoun "whose." For that we use cuyo. There are four forms of cuyo, so we need to make sure the pronoun agrees in gender and in number with its antecedent.

 

singular:

plural:

masculine:

cuyo

cuyos

feminine:

cuya

cuyas

For example:

Vimos a una estudiante cuyo brazo estaba roto.
We saw a student whose arm was broken.

Vimos a un estudiante cuya mochila era anaranjada.
We saw a student whose backpack was orange.

El cantante, cuyas canciones eran muy populares, se hizo famoso.
The singer, whose songs were very popular, became famous.

Please note in the examples above, the form of cuyo does not agree with the subject of the sentence, but rather with its antecedent. In the first sentence the student is feminine, but it's her (masculine) arm that is being referred to, so we use cuyo. In the second sentence the student is masculine, but cuya agrees with his (feminine) backpack. In the third sentence the singer is a man, but his (feminine) songs are the antecedent, therefore we use cuyas.

De Quién / De Quiénes

If you're asking a "whose" question, use de quién. Use de quiénes if you expect the answer to be plural:

¿De quién es este libro?
Whose book is this?

¿De quiénes son estos coches?
Whose cars are these?

Cuando, Donde

Cuando (when) and donde (where) can also function as relative pronouns. In this case we're stating "when" and "where," rather than asking. For example:

El verano, cuando no tengo clases, trabajaré.
In the summer, when I don't have classes, I will work.

Ésta es la tienda donde compré mi camiseta.
This is the store where I bought my shirt.

As with que, cual, and quien, we don't add accent marks to cuando or donde when using them as pronouns.

¡Ojo!

There are a few things to look out for when working with relative pronouns. First of all, remember that we can't end Spanish sentences with prepositions:

Él necesita un amigo que puede jugar con.
Él necesita un amigo con quien puede jugar.
He needs a friend that he can play with.
(He needs a friend with whom he can play.)

And secondly, we can't omit relative pronouns in Spanish like with often do in English:

¡Mira el teléfono compré!
¡Mira el teléfono que compré!
Look at the phone (that) I bought!

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