Learning French: Qui vs. Que As Relative Pronouns

Since I’ve been learning French recently, I’ve decided to start a series of blog posts to share insights I’ve had which helped me to grasp things more quickly.

Let’s start with “qui” and “que” in their roles as relative pronouns since, unless you’re the right kind of geek (which I’m not), it can be difficult to juggle technical grammatical terms and make sense of another language at the same time.

Subject and Object

As a quick refresher, in a sentence, the subject verbs the object. For example, in the phrase “I like it,” I am the subject because I’m doing the liking, “like” is the verb, and “it” is the object because “liking” is being done to it.

A relative pronoun is a pronoun which replaces either the subject or the object so you don’t have to say it twice using two sentences.

For example, I like the guy who pays me is easier to say than I like the guy. The guy pays me. and more clearly conveys the meaning.

Who and Whom

Before grasping French relative pronouns, it helps to get a good understanding of “who” and “whom” first.

Modern, everyday English doesn’t have a clear distinction between relative subject and object pronouns for things (you use which/that for both), but the distinction for people is still alive enough that “whom” hasn’t (yet) gone the way of “thee”, “thou”, “thy”, and “thine”1.

Here’s a little rule of thumb I came up with: “Who” verbs nouns but “whom” is verbed by them.

I like the guy who pays me.
My sister invited a friend whom I don’t like.

In the first sentence, “who” replaces the subject of the second clause while, in the second, “whom” replaces the object.

In French, “qui” replaces the subject (who/which/that) and “que” replaces the direct object (whom/which/that)2.

Inversion

The previous example becomes much more clear if you break things down.

For my first example, you can break it into two sentences like this:

I like the guy. The guy pays me.

…but for my second (the one with whom), you have to do this:

My sister invited a friend. I don’t like the friend.

Notice how the word ordering within the second sentences differ. Combined with a strong but basic understanding of the meaning of subject/object and grasping the differences between “who” and “whom”, learning “qui” and “que” becomes a lot easier.

Good luck.


1. It used to be that “ye/you/your/yours” were plural/formal like “vous” and friends while “thee/thou/thy/thine” were singular informal like “tu”. More on that in another post.

2. As you can guess from the term “direct object”, it can be more complicated, but let’s take things one step at a time. For the curious, the most recognizable “indirect object” relative pronoun in English is “to whom“.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Learning French: Qui vs. Que As Relative Pronouns by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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