Relative pronouns stand for a noun or another pronoun previously mentioned, allowing us to combine two sentences into a single one. The noun or pronoun referred to is called the antecedent. Spanish relative pronouns follow their antecedent immediately and, contrary to English, cannot be omitted. The Spanish relative pronouns are que (who, that, which), quien(es) (who), el que (who, that, which), el cual (who, that, which), and lo que, lo cual (what/which). Besides relative pronouns, Spanish also uses relative adverbs and adjectives to talk about place, time, and possession.
Ready to know more? Let’s analyze some examples next!
How do relative pronouns work?
Relative pronouns are used very frequently, as they allow us to combine two sentences that have something in common into a single one. For instance:
The instructor teaches literature.
The instructor is Colombian.
What do these two sentences have in common? Right, they both have the same subject: the noun el profesor. What can we do to combine these two sentences into a single one? We can substitute the second subject with a relative pronoun.
Sentences 1 and 2 combined:
El profesor que es colombiano enseña literatura.
The instructor, who is Colombian, teaches literature.
In the previous example, the relative pronoun que refers to the noun that immediately precedes it (el profesor). Thus, el profesor is the antecedent of que.
The relative pronoun que introduces a relative clause, a group of words having a subject and a verb (que es colombiano), which gives us additional information about the antecedent; it informs us which instructor exactly teaches literature (the one who is Colombian).
Since relative pronouns refer to nouns or pronouns, they can hold the same variety of grammatical functions that nouns can; they can be the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, or the object of the preposition that precedes it.
Check out this great summary of the different relative pronouns in Spanish, the antecedents they work with, and their grammatical function.
And, to learn more about Spanish relative clauses head over to “How to build relative clauses in Spanish?”
In the meantime, let’s focus on the relative pronouns in Spanish and when they are used.
Relative pronouns in Spanish
Que (what, who, which) is by far the most common relative pronoun in Spanish, but we also use quien and quienes (who), el que (who, that, which), el cual (who, that, which), and lo que, lo cual (what, which).
How to use ‘que’?
Que is very helpful since it’s used to refer to objects, ideas, and people of any gender or number (singular or plural). Yes! Que is used for people as well! One of the most common misconceptions I heard from students over the years is the belief that que is equivalent to English “that” or “which” and only refers to objects or abstract things. As previously mentioned, que is used for all kinds of antecedents: people, objects, or abstractions:
People: Este es el actor que vimos en la última película de Gaspar Noé.
This is the actor (that=who) we saw in Gaspar Noé’s latest film.
Never use quien(es) in this context! (Este es el actor
quien vimos en la última película de Gaspar Noé is incorrect!). We’ll see when to use quien(es) very soon!
Objects: No me puedo permitir el coche que quiero.
I can’t afford the car (that=which) I want.
things: El amor que tiene por su perro no es normal.
The love (that=which) he has for his dog is not normal.
Another great feature of que is that it doesn’t change; you don’t need to remember different endings depending on which kind of noun que refers to (masculine, feminine, singular, or plural). Compare the following two sentences:
singular: El vuelo que viene de Nueva York tiene retraso.
The flight that (=which) arrives from New York is delayed.
plural: Las jugadoras que fueron nominadas asistieron a la ceremonia.
The players that (=who) were nominated made it to the ceremony.
Regardless of the antecedent’s gender and number, the relative pronoun que remains unchanged.
Finally, the wonderfully multipurpose que is used after some prepositions — a (to), de (of, from), en (in, on, at), and con (with) — when the antecedent is not human. For instance:
La computadora con que teletrabajo todos los días es nueva.
The computer with which I telework every day is new. (= The computer I telework with every day is new.)
Ending a sentence with a preposition is common in English, but not allowed in Spanish. For instance, “This is the chair I sat on” is disallowed in Spanish (
Esta es la silla que me senté en is incorrect!). Instead, the preposition and the relative pronoun it’s linked to must be together: Esta es la silla en que me senté.
How to use ‘quien’ and ‘quienes’?
We’ve just seen that que works for both non-human and human antecedents. If que, not quien(es), works for human antecedents, you may be wondering what we need quien(es) for. The answer is simple: quien(es) is only used in three very specific contexts:
1. After a preposition, when the antecedent is human. Make sure to match quien and quienes with a singular and plural antecedent respectively. For instance:
No sé cómo se llama la mujer con quien hablé ayer.
I don’t know the name of the woman with whom I spoke yesterday. (=I don’t know the name of the woman I spoke with yesterday.)
No sé cómo se llaman las mujeres con quienes hablé ayer.
I don’t know the names of the women with whom I spoke yesterday. (=I don’t know the names of the women I spoke with yesterday.)
2. Quien(es) doesn’t have to have an actual antecedent. In such cases, it can be translated with “he/she who” or “those who”:
Quien quiera venir conmigo, que levante la mano.
Those who want to join me, raise your hand.
⤷TIP There are some sayings that use quien(es) like this:
Quien no aventura no gana. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Quien paga manda. The customer is king. Literally: Who pays, rules.
3. Quien and quienes can appear alongside que in non-defining relative clauses, delimited by commas, that give us some additional information about the antecedent. For instance:
Los atletas, quienes/que están cansados, pueden regresar a casa.
The athletes, who are tired, can head back home.
The relative clause simply tells us the athletes are tired. In contrast, let’s take a look at the following sentence, very similar but written without commas:
Los atletas que están cansados pueden regresar a casa.
The athletes who are tired can head back home.
The relative clause tells us that only the athletes who are tired can head back home (the other athletes who are not tired can’t). In this case, the relative clause is giving us essential information: it’s specifying who (within a larger group) exactly can go home. In what is known as defining relative clauses like the previous example, the use of quien(es) is not permitted.
It’s important not to confuse relative que and quien(es) with Spanish interrogative pronouns qué and quién(es) (spelled with an accent mark), used in interrogative and declarative sentences:
¿Qué quieres? What do you want?
Dime quiénes son estos chicos. Nunca los había visto.
Tell me who these guys are. I had never seen them before.
How to use ‘el que’ and ‘el cual’?
The relative pronouns el que (and its variants: la que, los que, and las que) and el cual, (and its variants: la cual, los cuales, and las cuales) can be used with human and non-human antecedents. With these relative pronouns, the definite article (el, la, los, las) that accompanies them has to match the gender and number of the antecedent. They are used in the following contexts.
El que can be used in non-defining relative clauses, after ser (to be), and after prepositions.
Mi amiga, la que vive en Madrid, se va a casar.
↳In this example la que is used to specify a certain friend out of a potential group of friends.
My friend, who lives in Madrid, is going to get married.
Juan es el que me regaló el anillo.
Juan is the one who gave me the ring.
Esta película es la que me gusta.
This movie is the one (that) I like.
Estos libros son los que quiero vender.
These books are the ones (that) I want to sell.
- El que can be used with all prepositions (including a, de, en, and con) in both defining (no commas) and non-defining clauses (between commas).
Este es el profesor del que te había hablado.
This is the professor I had spoken to you about.
El cuchillo, con el que corté el pan, necesita ser afilado.
The knife, with which I cut the bread, needs sharpening.
When used before a verb in the subjunctive mood, el que (and variants) means “who(m)ever”:
El que gane este juego, gana el campeonato.
Whoever wins this game, wins the championship.
El cual (and variants) are used in non-defining relative clauses and after prepositions in both defining and non-defining clauses.
Los atletas, los cuales están cansados, pueden regresar a casa.
The athletes, who are tired, can head back home.
Este es el cuchillo con el que/cual corté el pan.
This is the knife with which I cut the bread.
El cuchillo, con el que/cual corté el pan, necesita ser afilado.
The knife, with which I cut the bread, needs sharpening.
⤷TIP El que and el cual (and variants) can be very useful when distinguishing a particular person or object in the main clause. For instance,
El amigo de Ana, el cual estudió conmigo, es periodista.
↳refers to the friend
El amigo de Ana, la cual estudió conmigo, es periodista.
↳refers to Ana
Ana’s friend, (the one) who studied with me, is a journalist.
In the previous example, if we used only que/quien then we wouldn’t quite know who of the two people went to school with me.
After a preposition, anytime que or quien can be used they can be replaced with el que or el cual. Therefore, previous examples could be rewritten like this:
= La computadora con la que/cual teletrabajo todos los días es nueva.
The computer with which I telework every day is new (=The computer I telework with every day is new.)
= No sé cómo se llama la mujer con la que/cual hablé ayer.
I don’t know the name of the woman with whom I spoke yesterday (=I don’t know the name of the woman I spoke with yesterday.)
How to use ‘lo que’ and ‘lo cual’?
Invariable lo que and lo cual can be used instinctively when the antecedent is an entire clause. For instance:
Juan llegó tarde, lo que/lo cual es muy inusual.
Juan was late, which is very unusual.
In the previous example, the antecedent is an unusual occurrence: the entire previous clause (the fact that Juan was late).
A clause can be just one word, as we can see in the following example:
Llueve, lo que/lo cual me encanta.
It’s raining, which I love.
Lo que is equivalent to English “what” in non-interrogative sentences and can be used at the beginning of a sentence, with no antecedent. For instance:
Lo que dijo en el juicio no es verdad.
What he said in the courtroom is not true.
Lo que followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood means “whatever.” For instance:
Si apruebas el examen, te compraré lo que quieras.
If you pass the test, I’ll buy you whatever you want.
Relative adverbs and adjectives in Spanish
Spanish also has relative adverbs and adjectives used to link two phrases together. Let’s go over them next!
Donde is a relative adverb; it’s invariable and it means “where.” For instance:
Esta es la casa donde yo nací.
This is the house where I was born.
The interrogative “where?” is translated as dónde (Notice the accent mark!):
¿Dónde está tu hermano? Where’s your brother?
No sé dónde dejé las llaves. I don’t know where I left my keys.
Cuando is a relative adverb; it’s invariable and it means “when.” For instance:
Me puse muy feliz cuando me enteré.
I was very happy when I found out.
The interrogative “when?” is translated with cuándo (Notice the accent mark!):
¿Cuándo es la fiesta? When’s the party?
No sé para cuándo esté listo. I don’t know when it will be ready.
Cuyo is a relative adjective used to indicate possession. It means “whose.” Make sure it agrees with the noun referring to the possessor, not the possessed element. For instance:
Este es el libro cuyas autoras vimos en la conferencia.
This is the book whose author we saw at the conference.
The interrogative “whose?” is translated with ¿De quién(es)?:
¿De quién es este libro? Whose is this book?
In this post, we’ve seen how relative pronouns stand for a noun or another pronoun previously mentioned (the antecedent), which allows us to link two sentences together. Let’s recap the main points:
For a summary of Spanish relative pronouns, adverbs and adjectives check out this table!
This concludes our journey of relative words, but as you probably already know, relative pronouns are not the only type of pronouns in Spanish. To learn about other types of Spanish pronouns, head over to our posts on:
The direct object of a sentence is what undergoes the action.
Comió una manzana. He ate an apple.
The indirect object of a sentence is the recipient of an action.
Juan me dio un regalo. Juan gave me a present.
The object of a preposition is the noun or pronoun that follows a preposition in a sentence.
Hablaré con ellos. I will speak to them.
Prepositions are short words like “in,” “at,” “from” used to complement an adjective, adverb, noun, or pronoun.
Non-defining relative clauses give extra information and are delimited by commas.
My cousin, who lives in Japan, teaches English.
Defining relative clauses give essential information to the clause and are needed in order to understand the full sentence.
Only the students who attended the event will get extra credit.