How to Use Relative Pronouns in Spanish
Are you ready to journey back to high school grammar? The days of searching for independent clauses and underlining their relative clause counterparts seemed long gone, until now. The key to understanding relative pronouns in Spanish and using them correctly is to have a firm grasp on how they function in a sentence. Of course, the only way out of this mess is through it, so open up your language journal and let’s get to it!
It’s All Relative
A relative pronoun in Spanish introduces a clause that describes a previously mentioned noun. This noun can be a person, thing, place, possession, or amount. You see these in English all the time: “that, which, who, whom” and you’re fairly confident that you use them correctly, although you may wonder about “whom.” Well, buckle up—the ride gets a little bumpy from here on out, considering that Spanish grammar is extensively more rigid than English grammar when it comes to relative pronouns.
Don’t worry, we’ll get through it together.
English vs Spanish Relative Pronouns
One thing you may have noticed about English is that we’re okay with dropping the relative pronoun every once in a while: “Hey, that’s the coat I bought you!”
For those of us who love grammar like a lifelong, trustworthy friend (it’s true, I do), the previous sentence hides a little secret—it should be, “Hey that’s the coat that I bought you!”
Why? I’m glad you asked.
That is the coat is an independent clause or complete sentence; it can be used entirely on its own. Whereas I bought you is not complete because it lacks an object; it begs the question: “I bought you what?”
Relative clauses are sometimes called adjectives clauses simply because they give more details about the subject being referred to. In this case, I bought you is a description of the coat and as such, it’s preceded by a relative pronoun (that).
Are you still with me?
Let’s do one in Spanish!
Which common relative pronoun comes to mind?
Was it que? Thought so.
Here’s the sentence we explored in English above, translated to Spanish:
¡Oye! Ese es el nuevo abrigo que te compré. (Hey! That’s the new coat [that] I bought you.)
And here’s another example with que:
Me encanta la nueva casa que construyeron. (I love the new house [that] you built.)
The independent clause is me encanta la nueva casa and la casa is the noun being described in the following relative clause que construyeron.
Que is the most common Spanish relative pronoun and it means that, which, who, and whom, depending on the subject that it refers to.
Along with que, we have el que, la que, los que, and las que to consider.
El que, la que, los que, las que
When the article comes before que, it plays an important role in removing confusion in ambiguous sentences. These relative pronouns roughly translate to “the one who” or “the one that.”
Imagine your Spanish-speaking friend said to you:
La hermana de Miguel, que ganó cien mil dólares en la lotería, me compró un carro.
Who won a hundred thousand dollars? Was it Miguel or his sister?
Here, let’s fix it: La hermana de Miguel, la que ganó cien mil dólares en la lotería, me compró un carro.
As you’ve seen, the meaning doesn’t change, but clarity is enhanced by the article. If instead Miguel had been the lucky lottery-winner, you’d say La hermana de Miguel, el que ganó cien mil dólares en la lotería, me compró un carro.
English doesn’t offer this kind of specificity with relative pronouns so it’s something fun we can appreciate about the Spanish language. Let’s see some more examples!
Mi tío, el que es profesor de español, te llamará pronto. (My uncle, the one who’s a Spanish teacher, will call you soon.)
Iba comprar unas mesas para la fiesta—las que son de plástico. (I was going to buy tables for the party—the ones that are plastic.)
¡Somos a los que quieres preguntar! (We’re the ones you want to ask!)
** Keep in mind that el que, la que, los que, and las que can be replaced with (respectively) el cual, la cual, los cuales, and las cuales.
A que, con que, de que, en que
Similar to English, Spanish has phrasal verbs that require the use of a preposition to make sense. It would be weird if someone said to you, “I dreamed with you last night!” because we use a different preposition with the verb “dream.” We say, “I dreamed of you” or “I dreamed about you.”
Fun fact: In Spanish, you actually do say “I dreamed with you” since con is the preposition that goes with soñar. ¡Soñé contigo anoche! (I dreamed of you last night!)
These relative pronouns translate roughly to “to which,” “with which,” “from which,” and “in which.”
Before we get into our list of phrasal verbs, watch out! These relative pronouns can all refer to places and things, but if it follows a preposition and refers to a person, you must use quien.
A que le estarias apostando? – What would you bet on?
Phrasal verb: apostar a (to bet on)
Literal translation: On what would you bet?
*referring to a thing
La agenda con que cuento está en mi escritorio. – The agenda I rely on is on my desk.
Phrasal verb: contar con (to rely on, count on)
Literal translation: The agenda upon which I rely is on my desk.
* referring to a thing
La cueva de que salí anoche es muy oscura y me dio mucho miedo. – The cave I came out of last night was really dark and scared me a lot.
Phrasal verb: salir de (come out of)
Literal translation: The cave from which I came out last night is very dark and scared me a lot.
* referring to a thing
El edificio en que trabaja mi hermano es bello y grande. – The building my brother works in is big and beautiful.
Phrasal verb: trabajar en (to work in)
Literal translation: The building in which my brother words is big and beautiful.
Este no es el señor con quien hablaba. – This isn’t the man I was talking to.
Phrasal verb: hablar con (to speak with)
Literal translation: This isn’t the man with whom I was talking.
* referring to a person
Lo que and lo cual
Both lo que and lo cual are “neuter” relative pronouns, meaning that they are not masculine or feminine and as such they aren’t used to refer to a specific noun. Rather, they refer to abstractions: a situation, a concept, or a whole sentence. They roughly translate to “what” or “which” and lo que is more frequently employed than lo cual.
Lo que me dijiste me lastimó. – What you said to me hurt my feelings.
Nunca voy a aceptar lo que me pidió hacer. – I’ll never accept what she asked me to do.
Lo que me llena de alegría es tu sonrisa. – What fills me with happiness is your smile.
Quiere trabajar desde casa, lo cual es mejor. – She wants to work from home, which is better.
El niño le empujó al otro lo cual me molestó mucho. – The boy pushed the other one, which bothered me a lot.
Cuyo, cuya, cuyos, cuyas
The final Spanish relative pronoun we’ll cover here is the equivalent to “whose” in English: cuyo. You use this to refer to that which is possessed by the “possessor” (or owner): whose turn is it?
Fun fact: “to be [someone’s] turn” in Spanish is tocar a [alguien]. To ask, “whose turn is it?” you’d say ¿A quién le toca?
Like many other relative pronouns, this form must agree in gender and number with the subject it’s describing.
A nadie le gusta estar con el profesor cuyo clase es la más difícil. – Nobody likes to be with the professor whose class is the hardest.
En visto de los hechos, cuyo origen son humanos, el cambio climático es real. – In light of the facts, whose origin is human, climate change is real.
Practice Relative Pronouns in Real-time
You’ve just learned the most commonly used relative pronouns in Spanish and how to use them in sentences! What you need now is some powerful practice time. Our certified, native Spanish teachers from Guatemala are eager to meet you and help you build your fluency skills through conversation and structured curriculum. Sign up for a free class today to see how truly easy, fun, and effective it is!
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