How to Use Relative Pronouns in Spanish
Do you feel frustrated that there are so many similar relative pronouns in Spanish and their usage seems, well—relative?
I have many students who keep asking when to use lo que in Spanish and when to use lo cual. What’s the difference between que, el que and quien? How to use cuales?
I know it can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning, but I promise that I will clearly explain the differences, rules, and usage in this brief article. I’ll throw in many examples and avoid complicated grammar and linguistic terms.
In the end, you’ll know what relative pronouns are and how to use them and you’ll be able to check your solid knowledge with a multiple-choice quiz.
Table of Contents:
- What Are Relative Pronouns?
- El que, la que, los que, las que
- El cual, la cual, los cuales, las cuales
- Lo que, lo cual
- Relative Pronouns in Spanish – Multiple Choice Quiz
- Practice Spanish Relative Pronouns in 1-to-1 Conversations
What Are Relative Pronouns?
Relative pronouns in Spanish are words that connect clauses to give more information about previously mentioned people, things, or issues. You use them to connect ideas in one sentence and avoid repetition.
If you use a relative pronoun, you can join two separate sentences into one, and give more detailed information:
My brother works at a bookshop.
My brother lives in Colombia.
My brother, who lives in Colombia, works at a bookshop.
“Who” is one of the relative pronouns in English, and “who lives in Colombia” is a subordinate relative clause.
It works the same in Spanish. You can classify the relative pronouns according to the element in the main clause that they refer to—things or people.
Some relative pronouns may refer both to people and things, such as:
- el que
- la que
- los que
- las que
- el cual
- la cual
- los cuales
- las cuales
Others refer only to people:
In Spanish, other words can introduce relative clauses, although they’re not relative pronouns. For example, relative adjectives (cuyo, cuanto) introduce adjectival relative clauses and adverbs (donde, cuando) introduce adverbial relative clauses.
Check out the following articles to learn more about relative adjectives and adverbs:
PRO TIP! You never put an accent mark over relative pronouns.
Que is the most common Spanish relative pronoun, as you use it with people, things, concepts, and more. It translates into “that,” “which,” “who,” or “whom.”
Estoy leyendo un libro que me prestó Juan.
I am reading a book that Juan lent me.
Pedro que vive al lado de ti va a llamarme por la tarde.
Pedro who lives next door is going to call me in the afternoon.
Although you can omit the relative pronoun in English, you cannot do so in Spanish.
La casa que te gusta ya no está en venta.
The house (that) you like is not for sale anymore.
You also use que after preposition, but only if the relative pronoun refers to a thing. If it refers to a person, you’ll need to change it to quien.
Este es el barrio en que creció mi abuelo.
This is the neighborhood where my grandfather grew up.
La peli de que te hablé ya está en Netflix.
The movie I told you about is already on Netflix.
You can’t use que after the prepositions sin, por, and para, as these combinations would be confused with the adverbial conjunctions: sin que, porque, and para que. If you need to use them with que, you’ll need to add the definite article el or la before que.
The relative pronoun quien always refers to a person. It means “who” or “whom” in English.
When you use quien, you need to match it in number with the antecedent. If the antecedent is singular, you’ll use quien. If it’s plural, you have to use quienes.
Mi vecina, quien es pintora, acaba de regalarme este cuadro.
My neighbor, who is a painter, just gave me this painting.
Los estudiantes quienes no quieren presentar el examen el día de hoy pueden hacerlo mañana.
Students who do not want to take the exam today can take it tomorrow.
Que vs. Quien
What’s the difference between que and que when referring to people? They’re usually interchangeable. However, if you want to use the relative pronoun after a preposition and it refers to a person, you should use quien.
No es el chico con quien hablé,
He isn’t the boy (whom) I talked to.
El que, la que, los que, las que
When using the relative pronoun el que, you’ll need to match it with the gender and number of the noun it refers to.
- el que – singular, masculine
- la que – singular, feminine
- los que – plural, masculine
- las que – plural, feminine
Example Sentences in Spanish
El vecino, el que vive encima de ti, tiene un coche nuevo.
The neighbor, the one who lives above you, has a new car.
La ciudad a la que nos mudaremos tiene mejores escuelas.
The city we’re moving to has better schools.
Los ciudadanos, para los que trabajamos, son nuestros jefes.
The citizens, the ones we work for, are our bosses.
Las chicas, las que pueden, eligen estudiar en el extranjero.
The girl, the ones who can, choose to study abroad.
As you can see, these combinations can refer both to people and things. They need to be separated from the antecedent with either a comma or a preposition.
Andrea, la que sale con Nico, ya no estudia aquí.
Andrea, the one who goes out with Nico, no longer studies here.
Mi casa, en la que pasé toda mi infancia, pertenece ahora a otra familia.
My house where I spent my whole childhood now belongs to another family.
El cual, la cual, los cuales, las cuales
El cual and the other forms also need to match the gender and the number of the noun they refer to.
- el cual – singular, masculine
- la cual – singular, feminine
- los cuales – plural, masculine
- las cuales – plural, feminine
You’ll use these instead of el que and its related forms when there is more distance in the sentence between the antecedent and the relative pronoun.
For example, when a compound preposition is used. If you need a refresher on this topic, check out this Master List of Compound Prepositions in Spanish [Plus How to Use Them].
Example Sentences in Spanish
Estoy viendo una colina por encima de la cual está sobrevolando un avión.
I am looking at a hill over which a plane is flying.
Doblé la esquina, detrás de la cual se encontraba la calle más concurrida de toda la ciudad.
I went around the corner, behind which was the busiest street in the whole city.
En aquel tiempo caminábamos mucho por el bosque cerca del cual ahora viven tus primos.
At that time we used to walk a lot in the forest near the one where your cousins live now.
If there’s no preposition, you only use el cual in explanatory clauses, separated by commas.
La prima de nuestro maestro, el cual te cae muy bien, es una cantante famosa.
Our teacher’s cousin, whom you like very much, is a famous singer.
Lo que, lo cual
Lo que and lo cual are also relative pronouns, but instead of referring to an antecedent noun, they refer to the whole antecedent clause. They refer to abstract situations and concepts that do not have a gender.
Lo cual and lo que refer to something that has already been mentioned in the same sentence, but only lo que refers to something that has not been mentioned in the same sentence.
No quiero hablar de lo que pasó.
I don’t want to talk about what happened.
Reprobó el examen, lo que/lo cual molestó a su madre.
He failed the exam, which made his mother upset.
Relative Pronouns in Spanish – Multiple Choice Quiz
Check yourself by answering the following 10 questions. Before you start, take a look at this relative pronoun chart for a visual wrap-up.
Now you’re ready! Read the following sentences and choose the relative pronoun that fits the blank. Pay attention to accent marks, commas, and prepositions!
1. Mi primo ______________ vive en México ya habla español.
2. El libro ______________ me prestaste no tiene las últimas páginas.
3. Elisa, para ______________ todo es fácil, casi no tiene que estudiar.
4. Su perro, ______________ te mordió, no vive en buenas condiciones.
5. Los niños, ______________ vimos ayer, van a la misma escuela que tu hija.
6. Vive en una casa antigua, detrás de ______________ se encuentra un enorme parque.
7. No me acuerdo de ______________ pasó.
8. Marco perdió su peluche favorito, ______________ le molestó mucho.
9. Mis amigos con ______________ cenamos ayer ya están de vuelta en su país.
10. No puedo decirte ______________ me pasó.
Practice Spanish Relative Pronouns in 1-to-1 Conversations
Relative pronouns are not difficult to learn, but it will take you some time to use them intuitively without thinking about the rules.
The only way to do it is to read and speak a lot. Being consistent in your Spanish studies is crucial to becoming bilingual. I know it can be hard to find motivation, but being bilingual will change your life, and it’s a major investment in your cognitive and decision-making abilities.
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