Relative Clauses in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

Relative clauses (oraciones relativas) are subordinate clauses that provide information about a noun or pronoun from the main clause. They allow us to include additional information without having to start a new sentence. A relative clause can be introduced by a pronoun, determiner or relative adverb.

Learn how to identify and write relative clauses and improve your written and oral communication in Spanish with Lingolia. Put your knowledge to the test in the exercises below.

Example

Estos son los amigos con los que paso mi tiempo.

Lucas, a quien conozco desde hace tiempo, es muy divertido. Antonio, que lleva gafas, está en mi clase. Y Laura, cuya sonrisa es magnífica, baila muy bien.

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What are Relative Clauses in Spanish grammar?

Relative clauses allow us to combine two sentences. They are subordinate clauses that provide additional information about an element in the main clause. Relative pronouns and adverbs serve as the link between the main clause and the relative clause.

Example:
Antonio está en mi clase. + Antonio lleva gafas. → Antonio, que lleva gafas, está en mi clase.Antonio, who wears glasses, is in my class.

Types

There are two types of relative clauses in Spanish grammar:

  • Defining relative clauses (oraciones de relativo especificativas) identify the thing being described. In Spanish as in English, these relative clauses are not written between commas. If you remove a defining relative clause from the sentence, the meaning is changed or becomes unclear.
    Example:
    El chico que lleva gafas es Antonio.The boy who wears glasses is Antonio.
  • Non-defining relative clauses (oraciones de relativo explicativas) only provide additional information; you can remove a non-defining relative clause from a sentence and the meaning will stay the same. In Spanish as in English, these relative clauses are written between commas.
    Example:
    Lucas, a quien conozco desde hace tiempo, es muy divertido.Lucas, whom I’ve known for a long time, is very funny.

If you are not sure whether the relative clause should be written between commas, try removing it from the sentence to see if the meaning changes or becomes ambiguous. If so, then the relative clause is defining and does not require commas. If the sentence still makes sense without the relative clause, it requires commas.

Example:
El chico [que lleva gafas] es Antonio.The boy [who is wearing glasses] is Antonio.
It is not possible to identify Antonio without the distinguishing information in the relative clause.
Lucas [, a quien conozco desde hace tiempo,] es muy divertido.Lucas [,who I’ve known for a long time,] is very funny.
Knowing how long the speaker has known Lucas is not necessary to understand the meaning of the sentence: that he is funny.

How to form Relative Clauses in Spanish

Relative clauses are formed using relative pronouns or relative adverbs. They refer to something in the main clause which can be explicit or not.

  • relative clauses that refer to something that is explicitly stated in the main clause
Example:
El chico que lleva gafas.The boy who wears glasses.
Los amigos con los que paso mi tiempo.The friends with whom I spend my time.
  • relative clauses that do not refer to something explicitly stated in the main clause are introduced by the relative pronouns quien, cuanto, donde, cuando, como and el que.
    Example:
    Quienes nos conocen sabe que somos muy buenos amigos.Everyone who knows us knows that we are good friends.
    El que lleva gafas se llama Antonio.The one who is wearing glasses is Antonio.

List of Spanish Relative Pronouns and Adverbs

The table below gives an overview of the relative pronouns and adverbs in Spanish.

Singular Plural Examples
Refers to... Masculine Feminine Masculine Feminine
Relative pronouns person or thing que Antonio, que lleva gafas, está en mi clase.Antonio, who wear glasses, is in my class.
el que la que los que las que Lucas, al que conozco desde hace tiempo, es muy divertido.Lucas, who I’ve known for ages, is really funny.
el cual la cual los cuales las cuales Estos son los amigos con los cuales paso mi tiempo.These are the friends with whom I spend my time.
person quien quienes Mis amigos, a quienes conozco desde mi infancia, son estupendos.My friends, who I’ve known since childhood, are fantastic.
amount cuanto Aprecio cuanto mis amigos hacen por mí.{info::I appreciate everything my friends do for me.}}
possession cuyo cuya cuyos cuyas Laura, cuya sonrisa es magnífica, baila muy bien.Laura, whose smile is magnificent, dances really well.
amount cuanto cuanta cuantos cuantas Mis amigos y yo nos vemos cuantos días tenemos libres.My friends and I see each other when we are off.
Relative adverbs place donde, adonde El colegio donde estudié organiza una fiesta de antiguos alumnos todos los años.The high school where I studied organises a school reunion every year.
manner como Laura baila como los ángeles.Laura dances like an angel.
time cuando A Lucas y a Antonio los conocí cuando íbamos al colegio.I knew Lucas and Antonio when we went to high school.
amount cuanto Veo a mis amigos cuanto puedo.I see my friends as much as I can.

Que

In Spanish the relative pronoun que is the most common because it can refer to people, things, concepts and events. It can introduce defining and non-defining relative clauses (oraciones explicativas, oraciones especificativas). It can be translated as who/what/which in English.

Example:
Antonio, que lleva gafas, está en mi clase.Antonio, who wear glasses, is in my class.
Las gafas que lleva Antonio son nuevas.The glasses that Antonio is wearing are new.

If the relative clause is introduced by a preposition, we also need an article before que.

Example:
Estamos en la tienda en la que compramos las botas de invierno.We’re in the shop where we bought the winter boots.

El Que

The pronoun el que (also la que, los que, las que) can refer to people as well as things.

Example:
Antonio, el que lleva gafas, va a mi clase.Antonio, who wears glasses, goes to my class.
Esta foto, en la que tengo doce años, la hizo mi padre.This photo, in which I’m twelve, was taken by my father.

If there is no preposition before el que, it can only be used in non-defining relative clauses, i.e. between commas.

Example:
Antonio, el que lleva gafas, va a mi clase.Antonio, who wears glasses, goes to my class.

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

Example:
Mi amigo Lucas, al que conozco desde mi infancia, es muy divertido. (non-defining)My friend Lucas, whom I’ve known since childhood, is very funny.
Los chicos con los que salgo en la foto son mis mejores amigos. (defining)The boys who I’m with in the photo are my best friends.

El cual

The relative pronouns el/la cual, los/las cuales can be used instead of el que/la que/los que/las que in a non-defining relative clause. These relative pronouns are mainly used in formal speech.

Example:
Antonio, el cual/el que lleva gafas, está en mi clase.Antonio, who wears glasses, is in my class.

Without a preposition, el cual can only be used in non-defining relative clauses (between commas).

Example:
Antonio, el cual lleva gafas, está en mi clase. (non-defining)

With a preposition, el cual can be used in both defining and non-defining relative clauses.

Example:
Mi amigo Lucas, al cual conozco desde mi infancia, es muy divertido.My friend Lucas, who I’ve known since childhood, is vey funny. (non-defining)
Los chicos con las cuales salgo en la foto son mis mejores amigos.The boys who I’m with in the photo are my best friends. (defining)

Lo que, lo cual

The relative pronouns lo que and lo cual refer to a complete sentence or to an idea. Lo cual always refers to something that is explicitly stated in the main clause.

Example:
Hoy vienen mis amigos a cenar, lo que/lo cual me alegra mucho.Today my friends are coming for dinner, which I’m really happy about.
No sé lo que voy a preparar para cenar.I don’t know what I’m going to make.

Quien

The relative pronoun quien (who) always refers to a person and is only used in written Spanish. If there is no preposition, it can be used instead of que in non-defining relative clauses (between commas).

Example:
Antonio, quien/que lleva gafas, está en mi clase.

If there is a preposition, quien can be used instead of el que or el cual and their variants in both defining and non-defining relative clauses.

Example:
Mis amigos, con quienes/los que/los cuales fui al cole, vienen hoy a cenar.My friends, with whom I went to school, are coming for dinner today.
He quedado con quien/el que/el cual viste en el parque el otro día.I met with who you saw in the park yesterday.

Quien can also refer to something that is not explicitly stated in the sentence:

Example:
Quien avisa no es traidor.Whoever informs is not a traitor.
Quienes nos conocen saben que somos muy buenos amigos.Everyone who knows us knows that we are good friends.

Remember

  • In defining relative clauses we can’t replace que with quien or el cual:
    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 el que, el cual and quien in defining relative clauses if they follow a preposition:
    Example:
    Las gafas con las que sale Antonio en la foto son nuevas.

Cuyo/a/os/as

While in English the word whose has only one form, the Spanish possessive form cuyo is variable and agrees in gender and number with the possession, not with the owner.

Example:
Antonio, cuyas gafas son nuevas, es miope.Antonio, whose glasses are new, is short-sighted.
(gafas = feminine plural → cuyas)

Cuyo/a/os/as sounds very formal, so in general we prefer to use it only in written Spanish. In spoken Spanish we rephrase the sentence to avoid using a relative clause in this context.

Example:
Laura, que tiene una sonrisa muy bonita, baila muy bien.Laura, who has a beautiful smile, dances very well.
not: Laura que su sonrisa es muy bonita baila muy bien.

Cuanto

The Spanish relative pronoun cuanto is very formal. In English we translate this relative pronoun as everything/everyone/all.

Example:
Le contó a la policía cuanto recordaba. (Le contó a la policia todo lo que recordaba.)I told the police everything I remembered.
Adopta a cuantos gatos encuentra. (Adopta a todos los gatos que encuentra.)I adopt all the cats I find.

Donde

The relative adverb donde (where) is invariable and is used to refer to place. Depending on the preposition it is combined with it can refer to origin (de donde), departure point (desde donde), location (en donde), transit (por donde) or destination (a donde/adonde). It is interchangeable with en el que or al que and their variants.

Example:
Esa es la tienda (en) donde Antonio compró sus gafas. (Esa es la tienda en la que Antonio compró sus gafas.)This is the shop where Antonio bought his glasses.
The use of the preposition en to indicate location is optional.

Como

The relative adverb como gives information about the manner in which the action of the main clause is performed.

Example:
Baila como sabes.Dance like you know how.

Cuando

The relative adverb cuando refers to time. It can be translated with the English when or as.

Example:
La semana pasada, cuando volví de vacaciones, llovió sin parar.Last week, when I came back from holiday, it rained non-stop.

Indicative or Subjunctive in Relative Clauses

Non-defining relative clauses are formed with the verb in the indicative.

Example:
Antonio, que lleva gafas, está en mi clase. (present indicative form of estar)Antonio, who wears glasses, is in my class.

Defining relative clauses can be formed with the indicative, the infinitive or the subjunctive.

Example:
Estos son los amigos con los que paso mi tiempo. (present indicative of pasar)These are my friends with whom I spend my time.
Para mí, un amigo es alguien en quien confiar. (infinitive)For me, a friend is someone in whom you can trust.
No hay nadie que baile como Laura. (present subjunctive of bailar)There is no one who can dance like Laura.

Sometimes we have to use the subjunctive in relative clauses. We must do this when the relative clause…

  • comes after a negation
    Example:
    No hay ninguna amiga que me comprenda como Laura.No other friend understands me like Laura.
  • expresses a wish, permission, prohibition, or a subjective evaluation
    Example:
    Me gustaría tener una bicicleta que me permitiese ir a visitarla.I’d like to have a bike that would allow me to go and visit her.