French Relative Pronouns Qui vs Que

Overview

A relative pronoun is a word that is used to link the second half a sentence to a previously mentioned person or thing. The man who works a lot. The bike that I use. When used as relative pronouns, qui doesn’t necessarily mean who and que doesn’t always mean that; depending on the context, either one can mean either one. Que replaces the direct object in a relative clause, whether it’s a person or a thing. Qui, on the other hand, replaces the subject of the subordinate clause, whether it’s a person or a thing.

Who is it

In English, a relative pronoun translates to words like “that,” “who,” or “which.”

The dog that barks the loudest is named Max.

I bought a dress that you are going to like. 

In the first sentence, the relative pronoun (“that”) is the subject of the verb in the sentence. It connects the subject of the whole sentence (the dog) to an action that it does (barks). In the second sentence, the same relative pronoun (“that”) is the object of the verb in the sentence.

It connects a phrase (“I bought a dress”) with what the relative pronoun refers to (dress) in the other phrase. Notice how the second phrase contains a subject and verb combination as well (“you are”).

I​​n French, the words qui and que are the relative pronouns that mean “that,” “who.” or “which.” Choosing between the two depends on the two cases explained above:

  • qui is used as the subject of the verb in the relative clause.
  • que is used as the object of the verb in the relative clause.

What is a relative clause?

A relative clause is “a sentence inside a sentence.” In the example sentences above, the relative clauses are “…barks the loudest” and “…you are going to like.” They are typically in the second half of a whole sentence.

To determine whether to use qui or que, we need to analyze these relative clauses. If you can answer the questions “Who?” or “What” to the apparent relative clause using one part of the sentence, you are most likely missing the subject of the verb, qui. If you can not answer “Who?” or “What?” questions logically with one word, then you are probably missing the object of the verb, que.

For the first sentence, you would identify the relative clause and then ask yourself: Who barks the loudest? or What barks the loudest? The logical response would be “The dog.” Because you answer your question logically, we know we are missing the subject of the verb, qui.

For the second sentence, you would again identify the relative clause and then ask yourself: Who you are going to like? What you are going to like? You should understand that there is no logical answer found in the rest of the sentence. In this case, you already have the subject of the verb, and you are missing the object of the verb, or que.

Look at the two examples from before, this time in French and with the relative clauses underlined.

Le chien qui aboie le plus fort s’appelle Max.

J’ai acheté une robe que tu vas aimer.

A Useful Clue

Another clue to help decide whether to use qui or que is what follows these relative pronouns in the sentence.

Use qui when the following word is a verb or reflexive pronoun.                       

Elles préfèrent le café qui n’est pas trop chaud.                    They prefer coffee that is not too hot.

Je regarde les personnes qui te parlent.                     I look at the people who are talking to you.

Remember that qui acts as the subject of the verb.

Use que when the following word is a noun.

Elle va au restaurant que tu as suggéré.       She is going to the restaurant that you suggested.

Cléo utilise la recette que le cuisinier a créé.                        Cléo is using the recipe that the chef created.

Remember that que acts as the object of the verb.

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The CEFR is an international standard used to describe language ability. Here are specific details of the CEFR for this topic.

General Explanation:
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Listening:
I can understand phrases and the highest frequency vocabulary related to areas of most immediate personal relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local area, employment). I can catch the main point in short, clear, simple messages and announcements.