Ce que and Ce qui – Indefinite Relative Pronouns

Ce que and ce qui - French indefinite relative pronouns
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Pronoms relatifs indéfinis

When used as indefinite relative pronouns, ce qui and ce que can both mean "what" or "that," so which one to use depends on grammar, not meaning.

 Unlike the relative pronouns qui and que, ce qui and ce que cannot refer to people.

Ce que = indefinite direct object

Ce que serves as the indefinite direct object in a relative clause.

Par exemple…

Je ne sais pas ce que tu as mis dedans.   I don’t know what you put in it.
Ce que tu achètes est intéressant.   What you’re buying is interesting.
J’ai lu ce qu’elle a écrit.   I read what she wrote.
C’est ce qu’ils ont vu.   That’s what they saw.

 Ce que vs que

Ce que is indefinite: there is no antecedent. Compare the above with these examples using the definite relative pronoun que:

Le thé que tu as mis dedans est vert.   The tea you put in it is green.
Le livre que tu achètes est intéressant.   The book you’re buying is interesting.
J’ai lu le message qu’elle a écrit.   I read the message she wrote.
C’est l’accident qu’ils ont vu.   That’s the accident they saw.

Ce qui = indefinite subject

Ce qui serves as the indefinite subject in a relative clause.

Par exemple…

Je ne sais pas ce qui est dedans.   I don’t know what’s in it.
Ce qui te distrait doit être important.   What is distracting you must be important.
Je n’ai pas vu ce qui m’a heurté.   I didn’t see what hit me.
C’est ce qui lui a donné l’idée.   That’s what gave him the idea.

 Ce qui vs qui

Ce qui is indefinite: there is no antecedent. Compare the above with these examples using qui:

Le thé qui est dedans est vert.   The tea (that is) in it is green.
Le projet qui te distrait doit être important.   The project (that is) distracting you must be important.
Je n’ai pas vu la voiture qui m’a heurté.   I didn’t see the car that hit me.
C’est le discours qui lui a donné l’idée.   That’s the speech that gave him the idea.

En résumé

    subject   object
antecedent   qui   que
no antecedent   ce qui   ce que

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