Relative Clauses in Spanish Grammar

Introduction

Relative clauses (oraciones relativas) are dependent clauses which provide information about a noun or pronoun from the main clause. They allow 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. In the exercises, you can practise relative clauses.

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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Usage

Usually relative clauses come immediately after the noun or pronoun they refer to. This can be at the end of the main clause or right in the middle of a sentence.

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

Antonio lleva gafas. – ¿Quién?Antonio wears glasses. – Who?

possessive:
Laura, cuya sonrisa es magnífica, baila muy bien.Laura, whose smile is wonderful, can dance very well.

La sonrisa de Laura es magnífica. – ¿La sonrisa de quién?Laura’s smile is wonderful. – Whose smile?

with a preposition:
Estos son los amigos con los que paso el tiempo.These are the friends with whom I spend my time.

Yo paso el tiempo con mis amigos. – ¿Con quién?I spend time with my friends. – With whom?

object:
Lucas, a quien conozco desde hace tiempo, es muy divertido.Lucas, whom I’ve known for a long time, is very funny.

Conozco a Lucas desde hace tiempo. – ¿A quién?I’ve known Lucas for a long time. – Whom?

Types

There are two types of relative clauses:

  • Defining relative clauses (oraciones de relativo especificativas) are required in order to identify the thing being described. In Spanish as in English, these relative clauses are not set off by commas.
    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 which is not required for the identification of the thing being described. In Spanish as in English, these relative clauses are set off by commas.
    Example:
    Lucas, a quien conozco desde hace tiempo, es muy divertido.Lucas, whom I’ve known for a long time, is very funny.

Forming Relative Clauses in Spanish

Relative clauses are formed using relative pronouns or relative adverbs.

Relative pronouns and relative adverbs

The relative pronoun or relative adverb takes the place in the relative clause of the noun or pronoun that it refers to. The following table explains the relative pronouns in Spanish, as well as the relative adverb donde.

singular plural
word referred to masculine feminine masculine feminine
person or object (el) que (la) que (los) que (las) que
el cual la cual los cuales las cuales
person quien quienes
possession cuyo cuya cuyos cuyas
amount cuanto cuanta cuantos cuantas
place donde
Example:
Antonio, que lleva gafas...Antonio, who wears glasses, …
Antonio, a quien las gafas le sientan muy bien,...Antonio, on whom glasses look good, …
Antonio, cuyas gafas son nuevas...Antonio, whose glasses are new, …
Las gafas con las que Antonio nos sorprendió....The glasses with which Antonio surprised us …
La tienda donde/en la que Antonio compró sus gafas...The shop where/in which Antonio bought his glasses ...
Se gastó cuanto tenía.He spent everything that he had.

Que

We generally just use the relative pronoun que in Spanish. It can stand for either people or things.

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

To clarify which word the relative pronoun que is referring to, we can place an article in front of it.

Example:
La hermana de Lucas, el que es muy divertido, tiene dos años.The sister of Lucas, who’s very funny, is two years old.
La hermana de Lucas, la que es muy divertida, tiene dos años.Lucas’s sister, who’s very funny, is two years old.

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

Example:
Estos son los amigos con los que paso mi tiempo.These are the friends with whom I spend my time.

Quien, el cual

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

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

To Note

In defining relative clauses we cannot replace que with quien/… cual.

Example:
Las gafas que lleva Antonio son nuevas.The glasses that Antonio wears are new.
(not: Las gafas las cuales lleva Antonio son nuevas.)

Cuyo/a/os/as

While in English the word whose is invariable, the Spanish possessive form cuyo is variable and agrees in gender and noun with the possessor.

Example:
Antonio, cuyas gafas son nuevas, es miope.Antonio, whose glasses are new, is short-sighted.

Cuyo/a/os/as sounds very formal, so in general we prefer to use it only in written Spanish. In spoken Spanish we try to avoid using a relative clause in this context. However, it’s common in Spain to hear people using relative clauses with que in this context, even though it’s incorrect.

Example:
Antonio, que sus gafas son nuevas, es miope.Antonio, whose glasses are new, is short-sighted.

This relative clause is grammatically incorrect!

Lo que, lo cual

The relative pronouns lo que, lo cual are used when the pronouns refer to an entire clause. In English we generally use the relative pronoun which in this context.

Example:
Hace mucho que no veo a mis amigos, lo que/cual me entristece mucho.I haven’t seen my friends in a long time, which makes me very sad.

Cuanto

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

Example:
A mis amigos les cuento cuanto sé.I tell my friends everything I know.
Laura es la chica más hermosa de cuantas conozco.Laura is the prettiest girl of all whom I know.

Donde

The relative adverb donde is invariable and is used to refer to place.

Example:
Esa es la tienda donde Antonio compró sus gafas.This is the shop where Antonio bought his glasses.

Donde is interchangeable with en el/la/los/las que.

Example:
Esa es la tienda en la que Antonio compró sus gafas.This is the shop in which Antonio bought his glasses.

Subjunctive in Relative Clauses

Sometimes we have to use the subjuntivo 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:
    Yo querría una bicicleta que me permitiese ir a visitarla.I wish I had a bicycle that would allow me to visit her.