Mystery behind French Relative Pronouns : Qui and Que

relative pronouns in french que qui

Although you’ve been learning French for some time, you’re still not sure when to use qui or que. We admit the difference may not be obvious at first.

In this lesson, we’ll reveal the mystery behind French relative pronouns. 

What are Relative Pronouns?

To avoid repeating some parts of the sentence, we use relative pronouns. As soon as they are pronouns, they replace something.

The most used relative pronouns are qui and que, but there’s one issue with those. Their meaning changes with context, and qui doesn’t necessarily mean “who” while que isn’t always translated as “that”.

Two independent clauses are perfectly grammatical, but they can be combined into a main and relative clause.

C’est une fille. Cette fille joue de la clarinette.

It’s a girl. This girl plays the clarinet.

In the above example, we have two sentences. The repeated word is fille, so if we want to avoid repeating that word, we will make one of those two sentences and it will look like this:

C’est la fille qui joue de la clarinette.

It’s a girl who plays the clarinet.

The same goes for relative pronoun que.

In the following section, you’ll learn about the difference between the french relative pronoun qui and que.

French Relative Pronoun: Qui

QUI – replaces the subject and means “which / who / that” in English.

C’est un professeur. Ce professeur joue de la guitare.

C’est le professeur qui joue de la guitare.

QUI+ verb (the pronoun qui is always followed by a verb)

Qui is also a question word.

Qui a fini le devoir ?

Who finished the homework?

Learn more about questions with qui. 

French Relative Pronoun: Que

The relative pronoun QUE in the sentence has the function of the direct object. It is used for both genders and both numbers, both for persons and things.

  • l’homme que tu vois – man that you see
  • les hommes que tu vois – men that you see
  • la femme que tu vois – woman that you see
  • les femmes que tu vois – women that you see

QUE – translated in English means WHO, WHICH, WHOM, THAT:

  • WHOM

C’était le chanteur qu’elle aimait.

He was the singer whom she loved.


C’est la bicyclette que je viens d’acheter.

This is the bicycle which I just bought.

It is possible, however, to omit that, which, or who while maintaining the same meaning as in French.

C’est un beau chien. J’aime ce chien.

It’s a beautiful dog. I love that dog.

C’est le chien que j’aime.

It’s a dog (that) I like.

Qu’+ a, e, i, o, y, u, h (que loses its e before a vowel or the letter h)

To learn more about Relative Pronouns in Fre

Qu’est-ce que or Qu’est-ce qui ?

Relative pronouns qui and que also make part of the complex question formation like qu’est ce que and qu’est-ce qui.

There are two variants of this question.

The phrase qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui literally means “what is it that…” or in normal English “what is… ?”

 Que is used when talking about an “object”, while qui when talking about a “subject”.

To learn more about the difference between these two questions, read the article Can you tell the difference between ” Qu’est-ce que? ” and “Qu’est-ce qui” ?

Mystery Revealed

Some call it a mystery, others say it’s just grammar. We don’t wanna overanalyze right now.
The point is that relative pronouns qui and que, are used to avoid repetition of the same subject/object and connect two sentences into one.

While que is used to replace a direct object in a sentence, qui is used for replacing the subject.

Keep in mind that understanding grammar is not the same as putting it into practice. Perhaps that’s the mystery behind it.

Learn more about relative pronoun dont in French.

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