Relative Pronouns in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses. The relative pronouns in Spanish grammar are que, cual, quien, cuyo/cuya, cuanto/cuanta. These pronouns also have a plural form.

Learn about Spanish relative pronouns with Lingolia’s grammar rules and exercises.

Example

Juan, que conducía muy deprisa, tuvo un accidente con el coche que su padre le había dejado. No se acuerda de lo que pasó.

Juan buscó un taller donde llevar a arreglar el coche con el cual tuvo el accidente. ¿Cómo se lo va a decir a su padre? Es una difícil historia a la que tiene que enfrentarse.

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Spanish Relative Pronouns

The following table provides an overview of Spanish relative pronouns. Note that the relative pronouns que, cual, quien and cuanto are written without an accent, compared to the question words qué, cuál, quién, cuánto.
thing referred to singular plural example
masculine feminine masculine feminine
person or thing que Es imposible recuperar todo el tiempo que se pierde.It’s impossible to make up for all the time that you lose.
el que la que los que las que El motivo por el que llega tarde es el tráfico.The reason that he is late is the traffic.
el cual la cual los cuales las cuales Esa es una causa por la cual luchar.That is a cause to fight for.
person quien quienes Ayuda a quienes lo necesitan.Help those who are in need.
possession (whose) cuyo cuya cuyos cuyas Se trata de un libro cuyo autor he olvidado.It’s a book whose author I have forgotten.
amount cuanto cuanta cuantos cuantas Enviaron una invitación para la boda a cuantos conocían.They sent a wedding invitation to everyone they knew.

Relative clauses which are introduced by a relative pronoun can either be set off by commas or not:

  • Non-defining relative clauses (oraciones explicativas) are set off by commas. They provide additional information.
  • Defining relative clauses (oraciones especificativas) are not set off by commas. The define/identify what is being described.
Example:
El chico, que conducía muy deprisa, tuvo un accidente con el coche que su madre la había dejado.The boy, who had been driving very fast, had an accident with the car that his mother had let him borrow.

Usage of Relative Pronouns

Que

The most commonly used relative pronoun in Spanish is que. It can refer to any type of noun i.e. a person, an animal, a thing, a concept or an event. Que can be used in both defining (no commas) and non-defining (commas) relative clauses.

Example:
Conduce un coche que es de su madre.He drive a car that belongs to his mother.
Juan, que tuvo un accidente la semana pasada, ya se ha recuperado.Juan, who had an accident last week, has already recovered.

Que on its own cannot be preceded by a preposition. However, when que is preceded by a definite article (el que, la que, los que, las que) it can be combined with a preposition.

Example:
El coche con el que tuvo un accidente es de su madre.The car with which he had an accident is his mother’s.
Juan, al que conozco desde el colegio, tuvo un accidente la semana pasada.Juan, whom I know from school, had an accident last week.

El que/el cual - La que/la cual

The relative pronouns el que and el cual (as well as the forms la que/cual, los/las que/cuales) can be used instead of que to avoid confusion.

Example:
La madre de Juan, el que/el cual tuvo un accidente, es mi vecina.The mother of Juan, who had an accident, is my neighbour.

Juan had the accident

La madre de Juan, la que/la cual tuvo un accidente, es mi vecina.Juan’s mother, who had an accident, is my neighbour.

His mother had the accident

When el que relates to a defined person who is the direct object, the preposition a remains unchanged in the relative clause. (a + el → al)

Example:
Conozco a Juan. Juan tuvo un accidente. → Juan, al que conozco, tuvo un accidente.I know Juan. Juan had an accident. → Juan, whom I know, had an accident.

The forms of el que and el cual are prefered in relative clauses that are introduced by a preposition. After long prepositions or prepositional phrases, the forms of el cual are more common.

Example:
Juan buscó un taller donde llevar a arreglar el coche con el que/el cual tuvo el accidente.Juan was looking for an garage where he could bring the car with which he had the accident to be repaired.
Es una difícil historia a la que tiene que enfrentarse.It’s a difficult situation that he has to deal with.
Es la señal de stop contra la cual se estrelló.That’s the stop-sign that he drove into.

If there is no antecedent (a word indicating what noun the pronoun refers to), we can only use the forms of el que (not el cual).

Example:
Los que habían visto el accidente informaron a la policía.Those who had seen the accident informed the police.

Lo que/lo cual

When the relative pronoun refers to an entire clause instead of just a single word, then we use lo que or lo cual.

Example:
No se acuerda de lo que pasó.He doesn’t remember what happened.
Juan ha destrozado el coche, lo que/lo cual va a molestar mucho a su madre.Juan completely wrecked the car, which will make his mother very angry.

Quien

The relative pronoun quien can be used as an alternative form of que, mainly in relative clauses that are introduced with a single-syllable preposition and refer to a person.

Example:
Juan es el chico con quien fui al cole.Juan is the boy with whom I went to school.

When using quien to relate to a person who is the direct object (instead of que), the preposition a remains unchanged in the relative clause.

Example:
Juan, a quien conozco, tuvo un accidente.Juan, whom I know, had an accident.
(but: El chico que conozco tuvo un accidente.The boy whom I know had an accident.)

We often find the relative pronoun quien used without an antecedent in proverbs and idiomatic sayings.

Example:
Quien cava una fosa, en ella caerá.He who digs a pit will fall in it himself.
meaning: You can easily fall into your own trap.

Cuyo

Unlike English relative pronoun whose, which has only one form. The Spanish possessive form cuyo (cuyo/cuya/cuyos/cuyas) agrees in number and gender with the noun it precedes.

Example:
Tiene miedo de hablar con su madre, cuyo coche ha destrozado.He’s scared to talk to his mother, whose car he’s wrecked.

la madre (feminine), el coche (masculine) → cuyo coche

Cuyo sounds very formal, so it is generally only used in written Spanish. In spoken Spanish, it’s better to rephrase the sentence in order to avoid using the various forms of cuyo.

Cuanto

The relative pronoun cuanto/cuanta/cuantos/cuantas is used without an antecedent in the sense of the forms of todo lo quewhatever/todos los queall those who.

Example:
Cuantos estaban fueron a ayudarle.All those who were there went to help him.
Le contó a la policía cuanto recordaba.He told the police everything he could remember.