Que and Qui – Relative Pronouns

Que and Qui - French relative pronoun
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Pronoms relatifs

When used as relative pronouns, qui doesn’t necessarily mean "who" and que doesn’t always mean "what"; depending on the context, either one can mean either one.*

Que = direct object

Que replaces the direct object in a relative clause, whether it’s a person or a thing. For example,

Le médecin fait des visites à domicile, et je le connais.

The above sentence with two independent clauses is perfectly grammatical, but there’s another way to say it: combine them into a main and relative clause.

Le médecin que je connais fait des visites à domicile.   The doctor (whom) I know does house calls.

 In English, the relative pronoun is often optional, but in French it is always required.

Another example:

Il va acheter une maison. J’ai vu la maison.

It sounds silly to say maison twice, right? Since it’s a direct object in both sentences, we can join them and replace the second maison with que, and there are two different ways to do this:

J’ai vu la maison qu’il va acheter.   I saw the house (that) he’s going to buy.
Il va acheter la maison que j’ai vue.**   He’s going to buy the house (that) I saw.

One more example:

J’aime bien certaines choses. Le théâtre est une de ces choses.
Le théâtre est une des choses que j’aime bien.   The theater is one of the things I really like.
Une des choses que j’aime bien, c’est le théâtre.   One of the things I really like is the theater.

In summary, que serves as a direct object in order to connect two clauses and avoid repetition.

Qui = subject

Qui, on the other hand, replaces the subject of the subordinate clause, whether it’s a person or a thing. For example,

J’ai un fils. Il joue au tennis.

Using two short, related sentences like this is stilted, so we combine them into one:

J’ai un fils qui joue au tennis.   I have a son who plays tennis.

Here’s another look at the very first example – you can word it another way to replace the subject rather than the object:

Le médecin fait des visites à domicile, et je le connais.
Je connais le médecin qui fait des visites à domicile.   I know the doctor who does house calls.

 Remember that qui doesn’t always mean "who" when it’s a relative pronoun.

Voici le livre. Le livre était sur la table.
Voici le livre qui était sur la table.   Here’s the book that was on the table.

The subject of the second sentence is le livre, so when combining the two sentences into one, it becomes qui.

Qui = indirect object

Qui has another function as a relative pronoun: it replaces the indirect object after a preposition.

Je pense à ma sœur. Elle vient de déménager en France.
Ma sœur à qui je pense vient de déménager en France.   My sister I’m thinking about just moved to France.

 Note that you can also say Je pense à ma sœur qui vient de déménager en France, where qui is the subject of the subordinate clause. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you’re replacing with the relative pronoun.

J’ai pris un pot avec un collègue. Il a été viré le lendemain.
Le collègue avec qui j’ai pris un pot a été viré le lendemain.   The colleague I had a drink with was fired the next day.

Alternatively, J’ai pris un pot avec un collègue qui a été viré le lendemain.

J’ai mangé chez un ami. Il est chef de cuisine.
L’ami chez qui j’ai mangé est chef de cuisine.   The friend whose house I ate at is a chef.

Or, J’ai mangé chez un ami qui est chef de cuisine.

 Exceptions
  1. After the preposition de, the relative pronoun is dont.
  2. After any other preposition, qui can be the relative pronoun only when the indirect object is a person. When it’s anything else, the relative pronoun is lequel.

 En résumé : Que vs Qui

As a relative pronoun, que is a direct object (person or thing), and qui is either a subject (person or thing) or the object of a preposition (person only).

* Unlike when they are interrogative pronouns, in which case qui means "who" and que means "what."

**Why vue instead of vu? It’s direct object agreement.

 Related lessons

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Que vs qui

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