Relative Pronouns

A relative pronoun introduces a clause that describes a previously mentioned noun, which is called the antecedent. Relative pronouns are used to link two related ideas into a single sentence, thereby avoiding repetition. In the following example, that relative pronoun que introduces the clause celebras en tu familia which describes the antecedent tradiciones culturales.

¿Nos puedes contar historias sobre las tradiciones culturales que celebras en tu familia?
Can you tell us stories about the cultural traditions that you celebrate in your family?

In English the most common relative pronouns are that, who, which, whom, and whoever.  In Spanish there are 4 sets of relative pronouns that are somewhat interchangeable: que, quien, el que, and el cual. So the challenge of using these relative pronouns is knowing which to use. Because there is a great amount of variation in how people use them, they are few concrete rules but there are general patterns shown below for each.

Que

  • the most common and the prefered relative pronoun in spoken or informal contexts
  • most often used when there is nothing between it and the antecedent
  • used with antecedents that are persons or things

Viven por las tradiciones y las creencias que tienen sus familias y sus bisabuelos.
They live for the traditions and beliefs that their families and great grandparents have.

Sería como noventa por ciento de pura gente que viene de México.
It would be like ninety percent of only people that come from Mexico.

Quien

  • most often used when there is a preposition between it and the antecedent:
    •  as seen in the two examples both quien and quienes are precede by the preposition con
  • used only with antecedents that are persons
  • agrees in number with the antecedent
    • as seen in the two examples, quien is singular likela gente and quienes is plural like las personas 
Yo diría que mucha de la gente con quien he trabajado, ha tenido mucha influencia conmigo.
I would say that many of the people that I have worked with have had a great influence on me.
Practico ese asunto de servicio en toda parte adonde voy con todas las personas con quienes hablo.
I practice this service matter everywhere I go with all the people that I speak with.

Notice that que can also be used with prepositions.

Tal vez fue el miembro de la familia con que menos relación tuve.
He was the family member who I had the least relationship with.

El/La/Los/Las que and el/la/los/las cual

  • less common in spoken speech, though very common in written and more formal contexts
  • used with antecedents that are persons or things
  • agrees in number and person with the antecedent
    • el edificio grande en el cual daban clases de inglés
    • la escuela americana en la cual daban clases de inglés
    • los edificios grandes en los cuales daban clases de inglés
    • las escuelas americana en las cual daban clases de inglés
  • most often used when there are many words between the it and the antecedent*

* Though it seems arbitrary, it actually makes sense that this would be the best relative pronoun to use when there is a big gap between the antecedent and the relative pronoun. Why? Because it specifies the gender and number, it is really easy to tell what the relative pronoun refers to even though there is many other words in between. Look at the example below: we know that la cual refers to una escuela americana, instead of el primer año, because it is feminine and singular. If we used the relative pronoun que, it would be ambiguous (though context can clarify as well).

Allí estudié en la escuela, una escuela americana el primer año, en la cual daban clases allí en inglés y en español.
There I studied in the school, an american school the first year in which they gave classes in English and Spanish.

Relative Clauses with Prepositions

For relative clauses containing a preposition, the preposition must appear before the relative pronoun. In contrast in English, the preposition often appears at the end of the clause. Compare the location of the prepositions in the following examples and translations.

Spanish: antecedent + preposition + que/quien

Tal vez fue el miembro de la familia con que menos relación tuve.
He was the family member who I had the least relationship with.
Yo diría que mucha de la gente con quien he trabajado, ha tenido mucha influencia conmigo.
I would say that many of the people that I have worked with have had a great influence on me.