Guide to French Indefinite Relative Pronouns : “Ce que” “Ce qui” “Ce dont” ” Ce quoi”

ce que ce qui ce dont french relative indefinite pronouns (1)

Are you ready to finally learn to use ce que, ce qui, ce quoi or ce dont ?These words that you often hear are called Indefinite Relative Pronouns and they look like a more complex variation of relative pronouns, often causing confusion to learners.

Read along to learn what is the difference between French relative pronouns (qui, que, dont) and Indefinite Relative Pronouns.

French Relative Pronouns: Qui, Que, Dont

It all started with relative pronouns qui, que, and dont. As their name suggests “relative” refers to the ability to connect the main clause to a relative clause.

Except for connecting two clauses, French relative pronouns helps to avoid repeating the same noun twice.

Let’s take a look at the example.

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 use a relative pronoun qui  and make a sentence that looks like this:

C’est la fille qui joue de la clarinette.

It’s a girl who plays the clarinet.

Since relative pronouns have separate lessons on our website, we won’t go into too much detail here, but just offer you a quick reminder.

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

QUE –replaces the direct object. It is used for both genders and both numbers, both for persons and things.

DONT –  replaces the preposition de plus a person or thing and serves as the object.

Learn more about qui or que in our detailed article Mystery behind French Relative Pronouns: Qui and Que

What is an Indefinite Relative Pronoun?

Indefinite Relative Pronouns are also used to connect two ideas in one sentence and avoid repeating the noun twice. However, unlike “normal” relative pronouns, indefinite relative pronouns have no specific antecedent, or in other words, the antecedent is general or indefinite.

To understand what this means, let’s see an example.

J’ai également hâte d’entendre ce que mes collègues auront à dire.

I also look forward to hearing what my colleagues have to say.

In this sentence, we don’t really know what our colleagues will say, their statement is still general and indefinite. We refer to what they have to say in a general way.

Indefinite relative pronouns can have the function of :

  • a subject (ce qui)
  • an object (ce que) and
  • an indirect object that’s introduced with the preposition de (ce dont)
  • an indirect object introduced with other prepositions (ce quoi )

Let’s now examine each one of them separately.

Ce qui – Indefinite Subject

ce qui – what

Ce qui serves as the indefinite subject in a relative clause.

Mes herbes, que j’arrose tous les jours, pousse très bien.

My herbs, which I water every day, are growing nicely.

Ce que – Indefinite Direct Object

ce que – what

Ce que serves as the indefinite direct object in a relative clause and it may refer to a person (Je, you, Pierre…) or a thing ( livres, pain, magazines ).

In this sentence, you see that the person is referring to something general, that’s not precisely defined. The person is not mentioning the exact book or article. When that is the case, we use indefinite direct object ce que. 

J’ai lu ce qu’elle a écrit.

I read what she wrote.

Ce dont – Indefinite Indirect Object + de

Ce dont is used when replacing the indirect object after the preposition “de”.

Possible translations in English

  • from which
  • from whom
  • including
  • of which
  • of whom
  • that
  • whose
  • with

Ce dont  Pierre a peur, ce sont les serpents. 

What Peter is afraid of, are snakes.

Ce Quoi – Indefinite Indirect Object

Ce quoi – an object of any other preposition (avec, à, pour)

Dis-moi ce à quoi tu penses.

Tell me what you’re thinking.

C’est ce pour quoi elle a été choisi.

That’s what she was chosen for.

When to Use: CE QUE or CE QUI in French

The biggest challenge when learning indefinite french pronouns is that they are sometimes too similar to an English speaker. In fact, they are so similar, that oftentimes,  ce qui and ce que can both mean “what” or “that,”.  Which one to use depends on grammar, not meaning, unfortunately.

We say unfortunately because people don’t have difficulties remembering things that are meaningful,  rather when the form is separate from the meaning.

Now that we know all of these, we should focus on spotting the patterns.

  • Use ce que when the next word is a subject pronoun (je/tu/il) or a noun.
  • Use ce qui when the word following is a verb.


Il a perdu la course, ce qui est décevant.

He lost the race, which is disappointing.


Je ne sais pas ce qui m’arrive.

I don’t know what is happening to me.

Note that ce que becomes ce qu’ in front of a vowel or a mute h.

Use these exercises to practice your knowledge.

It’s all Relative

Once you start using Indefinite Relative Pronouns in French, you’ll realize how fluent your speech has become. You’ll notice how easy it is to connect ideas and move from one idea to another. Using Relative pronouns is one of the indicators that you are becoming a fluent French speaker.

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