What are relative clauses? In this article, I'll write about the definition of relative clauses and also share with you several examples so you can have a clearer idea about how to use relative clauses in French.


The Definition of Relative Clauses

Relative clauses allow you to expand upon the main idea or ideas in a sentence. We call these relative clauses because they relate to a sentence’s main clauses, allowing us to add more information to them. Typically, relative clauses expand upon a noun, pronoun, or nominal phrase. For instance, we can expand upon the sentence “Les enfants mangent des bonbons”, which is a simple sentence involving a subject, verb, and object, by saying “Les enfants qui entrent dans la salle mangent des bonbons qu’on leur a offerts tout à l’heure”. The relative clauses, “qui entrent dans la salle” and “qu’on leur a offerts tout à l’heure” give us more details about where the children are and how the children have procured the candy they are eating. These subordinate clauses are introduced by the relative pronouns qui and que, which show their relationship to the nouns enfants and bonbons in the main clause.

We use the relative pronoun qui in the above sentence to refer to les enfants, the qui taking on the role of subject in the subordinate clause. We use qu’, an elided form of que in the above phrase to refer to les bonbons, the que (or qu’ ) taking on the role of the object in the second subordinate clause. Notice the plural masculine form of the past participle offerts, which agrees with the preceding direct object que, which takes on the gender and number of its antecedent bonbons.        

In French, we use quite a few relative pronouns and it is important to keep these straight. The words qui, que, laquelle, dont, and où, and are all used to connect relative clauses to the main ideas that are being expressed in a sentence. They introduce subordinate clauses, clauses that can be removed from a sentence without leaving the sentence incomplete. It is important to look at the verb in the relative clause to determine the grammatical function of the relative pronoun, which will indicate which one to use.

The 5 Relative Pronouns in French

1- The pronoun qui

The pronoun qui is used to replace a subject in the subordinate clause. In the phrase “Nous donnons des bonbons aux enfants qui sonnent à la porte” the subordinate clause is “qui sonnent à la porte”. The antecedent of the word qui is les enfants, the les being contracted with à in this sentence to form aux. The qui takes on the plural role of the enfants and the verb in the subordinate clause is conjugated accordingly. We could eliminate the subordinate clause from the sentence entirely and still have a complete sentence, but this would not work the other way around.

2- The pronoun que

The pronoun que is used to replace a direct object in a subordinate clause. In the sentence “Les costumes que les enfants portent nous font rire”, the relative clause, “que les enfants portent”, can be eliminated entirely, leaving us with a complete sentence. The que refers to the antecedent les costumes. Notice how a noun immediately follows the que, which is a clue that the clause already contains a subject, leaving the role of direct object for the que to fill.

3- The pronoun laquelle

The pronoun laquelle actually has four forms, since it changes according to the gender and number of its antecedent. Thus we have lequel, lesquels, and lesquelles in addition to laquelle. We use a form of laquelle with verbs that govern a complement with any preposition besides de.

La rue par laquelle on passe a beaucoup de décorations.

Les arbres derrière lesquels les enfants se cachent jettent de longues ombres.

Elle porte un panier dans lequel elle met tous ses bonbons.

Les blagues desquelles on rit donnent une ambiance spirituelle à la fête.

Notice in the last sentence the way lesquelles contracts with the preposition that precedes it, i.e., de + lesquelles becomes desquelles. The same thing occurs with other forms, e.g. duquel, desquels; with the feminine singular form there is no contraction, i.e., de laquelle. The same thing occurs with the preposition à, giving us à laquelle, auquel, auxquelles, and auxquels.

4- The pronoun dont

The pronoun dont can be the object of a verb or a verbal expression involving the preposition de, e.g., avoir peur de, être content(e) de, parler de, and rire de. We may use it instead of de + laquelle in many cases. The final sentence of the four above can also read “Les blagues dont on rit donnent une ambiance spirituelle à la fête”. Dont systematically replaces de qui as well, e.g., “Le clown dont mon amie rit fait peur a mon petit frère”. Dont cannot, on the other hand, replace composite prepositions such as autour de, à côté de, au centre de, à la fin de, etc. + a noun. For these types of prepositions, we must use a form of laquelle, e.g., “L’enfant déguisé ressemble à la statue à côte de laquelle il se met”.

Dont can be translated several ways. Take a look at these French phrases and their English translations:

Est-ce que la maison dont les enfants ont peur est hantée ? Is the house [that] the children are afraid of haunted?
On admire l’enfant dont le déguisement est magnifique. We’re admiring the child whose costume is magnificent.
Voilà la lanterne d’Halloween incroyable dont tout le monde parle ! Here is the incredible jack o’lantern everyone’s talking about!
Quatre enfants sortent ensemble dont un connaît bien le quartier. Four children go out together, of whom one knows the neighborhood well.

Here we have translations whose, of whom, that, or ø [nothing] – in the first and third sentences using that is optional, which we show in sentence #1.

5- The pronoun où

The pronoun où refers to time or place. When designating a place, it may replace à laquelle, sur laquelle, dans laquelle, etc... Où can also replace pendant laquelle or dans laquelle when these refer to time. In the sentence “La ville où les enfants se promènent librement a l’air agréable”, the clause “où les enfants se promènent librement” can be eliminated entirely to leave a complete sentence. The où refers to the antecedent la ville, replacing it along with a preposition, such as dans. We see that the subordinate clause already has a subject, verb, and direct object, which points to the presence of another nominal phrase. Think of the sentence above being broken down into two sentences.

La ville a l’air agréable.

Les enfants se promènent librement dans la ville.

An alternate sentence for the long sentence above is: “La ville dans laquelle les enfants se promènent librement a l’air agréable”.        

We can use où in the following sentence as well: “Je me souviens de l’époque où je me déguisais pour Halloween”. In this sentence, “où je me déguisais pour Halloween” is the subordinate clause and can be eliminated entirely, leaving a complete sentence. As with the previous example, the subordinate clause contains elements of a complete sentence along with the relative pronoun, in this case a subject, an intransitive verb, and a nominal phrase. The word où replaces à + l’époque. Break this sentence into two sentences and you get:

Je me souviens de l’époque.

Je me déguisais pour Halloween à l’époque.

You could also say “Je me souviens de l’époque pendant laquelle je me déguisais pour Halloween”.        


Relative clauses are quite useful, as they allow you to expand upon ideas expressed in sentences and to give them more rhythm and flow. Recognizing relative pronouns and how they structure a sentence or paragraph is a great help to approaching French texts, which do not shy away from using these to create long, elliptical phrases, and it is important to be able to keep track of the different elements of such phrases by being familiar with relative pronouns and their uses.

🇫🇷 Resources to Learn How to Use Relative Clauses Right in French

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