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, to distinguish from the question words qué, cuál, quién, cuánto.
Thing referred to Singular Plural Example
Masculine Feminine Masculine Feminine
Person or thing que Juan, que conducía muy deprisa, tuvo un accidente.Juan, who was driving very fast, had an accident.
el que la que los que las que Es una historia difícil a la que tiene que enfrentarse.It’s a difficult story that he has to face.
el cual la cual los cuales las cuales Juan quiso arreglar el coche con el cual tuvo el accidente.Juan wanted to fix the car with which he had the accident.
Person quien quienes Ayuda a quienes lo necesitan.Help those who are in need.
Possession (whose) cuyo cuya cuyos cuyas Juan, cuya madre le había prestado su coche, tuvo un accidente.Juan, whose mother had lent him the car, had an accident.
Amount cuanto cuanta cuantos cuantas Cuantos presenciaron el accidente, acudieron a scorrerlo.Those who witnessed the accident came to his help.

Relative clauses that are introduced by a relative pronoun can either be written between commas or not:

  • Non-defining relative clauses (oraciones explicativas) are written between commas. They provide additional information.
  • Defining relative clauses (oraciones especificativas) are not written between 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 was driving very fast, had an accident with the car that his mother had lent him.

How to use Relative Pronouns in Spanish

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 drives 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’ve known since high school, had an accident last week.

El que

The relative pronouns el que, la que, los que and las que can be used to refer to people as well as things.

Example:
La madre de Juan, el que tuvo un accidente, es mi vecina.The mother of Juan, who had the accident, is my neighbour.
El coche de su madre, con el que tuvo el accidente, quedó destrozado.His mother’s car, with which he had the accident, was wrecked.

If there is no preposition before el que, we can only use it in non-defining relative clauses (between commas).

Example:
La madre de Juan, el que tuvo un accidente, es mi vecina.The mother of Juan, who had an accident, is my neighbour. (non-defining)

If there is a preposition before el que, we can use it in both defining and non-defining relative clauses.

Example:
El coche de su madre, con el que tuvo el accidente, quedó destrozado.His mother’s car, with which he had the accident, was wrecked. (non-defining)
El señal de stop contra la que se estrelló era poco visible.The stop sign against which he crashed wasn’t very visible. (defining)

¿«que» or «el que»?

The article that comes before que can help us to determine which noun the relative clause is referring to. The three sentences below are all correct, but they show how the relative pronoun can change the meaning.

unambiguous:
La hermana de Pedro, la que vive en Cuba, acaba de encontrar un trabajo en las Naciones Unidas.Pedro’s sister, who lives in Cuba, has just found a job at the United Nations. → Pedro’s sister lives in Cuba
La hermana de Pedro, el que vive en Cuba, acaba de encontrar un trabajo en las Naciones Unidas.The sister of Pedro, who lives in Cuba, has just found a job at the United Nations. → Pedro lives in Cuba
ambiguous:
La hermana de Pedro, que vive en Cuba, acaba de encontrar un trabajo en las Naciones Unidas.Pedro’s sister, who lives in Cuba, has just found a job at the United Nations. → Pedro or Pedro’s sister lives in Cuba, it is not clear

If the verb demonstrates who or what the relative clause is referring to we omit the article.

Example:
Los solistas de la orquesta, que han salido en televisión, han recibido un premio.The soloists in the orchestra, who have been on television, have received a prize.

El cual

The relative pronouns el cual, la cual, los cuales and las cuales are the same as the relative pronouns el que, la que, los que and las que. Both forms exist to give variety to a text with lots of relative pronouns. El cual is often reserved for formal texts.

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

Without a preposition, el cual and its variations can only be used in non-defining relative clauses (between commas) and never in defining relative clauses (without commas).

Example:
La madre de Juan, el cual tuvo un accidente, es mi vecina.The mother of Juan, who had the accident, is my neighbour. (non-defining)

With a preposition we can use el cual and its variations in both defining and non-defining relative clauses.

Example:
El coche de su madre, con el cual tuvo el accidente, quedó destrozado.His mother’s car, with which he had the accident, was wrecked. (non-defining)
La señal de stop contra el cual se estrelló era poco visible.The stop sign against which he crashed wasn’t very visible. (defining)

Lo que, lo cual

Lo que and lo cual refer to a complete sentence rather than a noun. The difference between the two is that lo cual always refers to something explicit from the clause before.

Example:
No se acuerda de lo que pasó.I don’t remember what happened.
Juan ha destrozado el coche, lo que/lo cual va a molestar mucho a su madre.Juan has wrecked the car, which is going to bother his mum a lot.

We can combine lo que and lo cual with a preposition in non-defining relative clauses (between commas).

Example:
Llegó sano y salvo a casa, de lo que/lo cual todos se alegran.I arrived home safe and sound, which everyone was pleased about.

Quien

The relative pronoun quien always refers to a person, and is normally only used in writing. If there is no preposition before, quien can be used as an alternative to que in non-defining relative clauses (between commas). If there is a preposition before quien, it can be used instead of el que or el cual and their variants in both defining (no commas) and non-defining (with commas) relative clauses.

Example:
Juan, quien/que ha tenido un accidente, está sano y salvo.Juan, who has had an accident, is safe and sound.
El hombre con quien/el que/el cual se ha casado Marina es ingeniero también.The man who Marina married is also an engineer.

Quien does not need to refer to something explicit from the previous clause. In this case it can also be replaced by el que or el cual and their variants, as long as they agree grammatically with the other parts of the sentence.

Example:
Quien/el que avisa no es traidor.Who informs is not a traitor. (masculine singular) / La que avisa no es traidora. (feminine singular)
Quienes/los que presenciaron el accidente se pararon a ayudar a Juan.Those who witnessed the accident stopped to help Juan. (masculine plural)

Remember

  • In defining relative clauses (no commas) we cannot replace que with quien or el cual or its variants.
Example:
Las gafas que lleva Antonio son nuevas.The glasses that Antonio is wearing are new.
not: Las gafas las cuales lleva Antonio son nuevas.
  • We can only use the relative pronouns el que, el cual and quien in defining relative clauses when there is a preposition before them.
    Example:
    Las gafas con las que sale Antonio en la foto son nuevas.The glasses with which Antonio appears in the photo are new.

Cuyo

Unlike the 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, i.e., it agrees with the gender of the possession not of the owner.

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.

Example:
La madre, cuyo coche ha quedado destrozado, se alegró de que todo fuera un susto.The mother, whose car had been wrecked, was happy that it was all just a scare.
→ La madre, que tiene un coche que ha quedado destrozado, se alegró de que todo fuera un susto.
incorrect: La madre que su coche ha quedado destrozado se alegró de que todo fuera un susto.

Remember

The relative pronoun cuyo and its variants is always followed by a noun with which is agrees in gender and number. It is never followed by a verb, which makes it different to other relative pronouns.

Example:
El edificio cuyas ventanas son azules celestes tiene vistas al mar.The building, whose windows are light blue has sea views.

Cuanto

The relative pronoun cuanto/cuanta/cuantos/cuantas is equivalent to todo lo quewhatever/todos los queall those who.

Example:
Cuantos estaban fueron a ayudarle.All those who were nearby went to help him.
Todas las personas que estaban cerca fueron a ayudarle.All the people who were nearby went to help him

When there is no variation in gender or number cuanto is a relative adverb.

Example:
Todo cuanto pasó quedó un susto.Everything that happened was a fright.