An Easy Guide to Spanish Relative Pronouns


January 22, 2020

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spanish relative pronouns

In this article, we’ll be looking at what Spanish relative pronouns are, and how to use them.

What are Spanish relative pronouns?

A noun is a word that names a person or object. A pronoun is simply a word that replaces a noun, which helps to avoid repeating it.

A relative pronoun is a pronoun we use to introduce some info that relates to the noun (a ‘relative clause’). The relative pronoun goes right after the noun.

It means that ‘This is my friend, Juan. Juan works with me.’ can become ‘This is my friend, Juan, who works with me.’ Sounds smoother, right?

Sometimes in English we can just skip the relative pronoun altogether. For example, either of the following would be acceptable:

  • ‘Look at the dress that I bought.’
  • ‘Look at the dress I bought.’

But in Spanish you can never miss them out!

  • ‘Mira el vestido que compré.’
  • ‘Mira el vestido compré.’ This sentence makes NO SENSE in Spanish!

So, what are the Spanish relative pronouns you need to know? Here they are, with their English counterparts:

quewho, whom, which, that
quien(es)who, whom
el que/la que/los que/las quewho, whom, which, that
el cual/la cual/los cuales/las cualeswho, whom, which, that

*Some grammarians will argue that cuyo is a relative adjective not a pronoun, but we’ve chosen to include it so that you’re aware of how to use and recognize it!

Top tip: Never put an accent on a relative pronoun!

The truth is that in most cases, que will be enough to make yourself understood, but you should really learn the others, too, as there are times when they’re more appropriate, especially in formal written Spanish.

Que (‘who,’ ‘whom,’ ‘which,’ ‘that’)

Que is the most common Spanish relative pronoun and can be used in lots of different ways: it can mean ‘who,’ ‘whom,’ ‘which,’ or ‘that.’ We can use it with humans or inanimate objects.

El hombre que vende fruta es mi padre.The man who sells fruit is my father.
Bernard es el nombre del terapeuta que conocí ayer.Bernard is the name of the therapist whom I met yesterday.
Mi dilema, que es grande, todavía no se ha resuelto.My dilemma, which is big, still hasn’t sorted itself out.
El plato que estoy preparando es italiano.The dish that I’m preparing is Italian.

Quien (‘who,’ ‘whom’)

The next relative pronoun we’ll look at is quien, meaning ‘who’ or ‘whom.’ It’s pretty similar to que, but it’s used only for people.

There are two forms of it: quien (singular) and quienes (plural).

But we saw above that que can be used with humans. So how do we know whether to use que or quien? The answer to this is that quien is often used after a preposition!
Paul es el chico a* quien conocí en el gimnasio.Paul is the guy who I met at the gym.
¿Sabes el nombre de la persona con quien bailaste ayer?Do you know the name of the person with whom you danced yesterday?
Los Jones, con quienes trabajo, te estaban buscando.The Joneses, with whom I work, were looking for you.
Ella es una chica de quien no quiero saber nada.She’s a girl about whom I want to know nothing.

*Note that this is the ‘personal a.’

You can also use quien without a preposition, when it’s describing something as part of a nonessential clause (an additional piece of information).
Amo a Isabel, quien ya tiene novio.I love Isabel, who already has a boyfriend.

Cuyo (‘whose’)

This one means ‘whose’ and has four forms, to make it agree in number and gender (with the noun that follows, not the person who owns the noun). The options are: cuyo, cuya, cuyos, and cuyas.

Although ‘whose’ is commonly used with people, we can use it with objects, too.

It’s not used in question form like it is in English. We can say ‘Whose is this book?’ but we can’t say ‘Cúyo libro es esto?’ Instead, we’d opt for ‘De quién es este libro?’ 

In fact, cuyo isn’t that common at all. It’s pretty high register, meaning it’s mainly just used in formal writing, not everyday chit-chat.
Olivia es la chica cuyo novio tiene mucho dinero.*Olivia is the girl whose boyfriend has a lot of money.
Olivia es la chica cuya novia tiene mucho dinero.*Olivia is the girl whose girlfriend has a lot of money.
Marta, cuyos hermanos son dentistas, es mi mejor amiga.Marta, whose brothers are dentists, is my best friend.
Voy a la tienda cuyas prendas son hermosas.I’m going to the shop whose clothes are beautiful.

*Notice that the cuyo agrees with the boyfriend or girlfriend, not with Olivia.

El que (see que)

El que also has four forms: el que, la que, los que, and las que. It means pretty much the same as que, but is used in a slightly different way. 

Like que, it can be used with people or objects. The difference is that el que is normally used after a preposition.

Es el problema del que te hablé.It’s the problem about which I told you.
¿Te acuerdas de la marquesina debajo de la que nos protegíamos de la lluvia?Do you remember the bus shelter under which we hid to protect ourselves from the rain?
He viajado en muchos trenes en los que no había mucho espacio.I’ve traveled on many trains in which there wasn’t much space.
Hay personas con las que me encanta hablar.There are people with whom I love to talk.

If you’re referring to a general abstract idea, you can use the genderless lo que.

El romance es lo que más me gusta.Romance is what I most like.

El cual (see el que)

El cual can have an extremely similar meaning to el que, but el cual is more formal and emphatic. This also means it’s not heard in everyday speech. Use it when you want to look sophisticated in your writing!

Don’t forget to make everything agree (el cual, la cual, los cuales, las cuales)!

There are some specific cases where you’d definitely use it instead of el que:
  • After según (according to).
Ricardo, según el cual ...Ricardo, according to whom ...
  • After other prepositions of more than one syllable, e.g. para (‘for’), sobre (‘about’), contra (‘against’).
Acabo de ver a los hombres contra los cuales luché.I just saw the men against whom I fought.
  • After prepositional phrases, e.g. a pesar de (‘despite’), detrás de (‘behind’).
Cerré la puerta, detrás de la cual mis amigos charlaban.I closed the door, behind which my friends were chatting.

Quiz Time!

Okay, let’s see what you’ve learnt. Choose the correct relative pronoun for each of the following:

 1. ¿Cómo se llama la chica con _ saliste? (‘What is the name of the girl who you went out with?’)

     a. quienes

     b. la que

     c. las que

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 2. Es la mujer _ perro acaba de morir. (‘It’s the lady whose dog just died.’)

     a. cuyo

     b. de quien

     c. que

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 3. Dame un boli _ escriba bien. (‘Give me a pen that writes well.’)

     a. que

     b. el que

     c. cual

Click to reveal the correct answer:

 4. Soy la mujer fuerte sobre _ tu madre te advirtió. (‘I’m the strong woman whom your mother warned you about.’)

     a. cual

     b. cuya

     c. la cual

Click to reveal the correct answer:

5. Isabel, _ tiene novio, me rechazó. (‘Isabel, who has a boyfriend, rejected me.’)

     a. cuya

     b. quien

     c. quienes

Click to reveal the correct answer:

Good work!

So now you know how to use relative pronouns in Spanish. Don’t worry if you get muddled up, as a lot of these can be interchangeable (and remember: if in doubt, use que). ¡Hasta la próxima!

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