French Grammar: compound relative pronouns

French Grammar: Compound Relative Pronouns – A Comprehensive Guide

Relative pronouns play a crucial role in French grammar, helping to link dependent clauses to main ones.

Compound relative pronouns go one step further in sophistication, referring back to a previously mentioned noun to avoid repetition and make language more fluid.

Let’s explore these vital components of French grammar.

1. Introduction to Compound Relative Pronouns

The primary compound relative pronouns in French are:

  • ce qui/ce que/ce dont/ce à quoi

These are used when the antecedent (the noun being referred to) is an indefinite expression such as “something,” “anything,” “everything,” or “nothing.”

2. Breaking Down Each Pronoun

  • Ce qui: Used as the subject of a verb. Example:
    • I don’t know what makes him happy.
    • Je ne sais pas ce qui le rend heureux.
  • Ce que: Used as the direct object of a verb. Example:
    • I saw what she bought.
    • J’ai vu ce que elle a acheté.
  • Ce dont: Used with verbs, adjectives, and nouns that need “de.” It often translates to “of which,” “about which,” or “from which.” Examples:
    • That’s the book about which I was talking.
    • C’est le livre dont je parlais.
    • She forgot what she needed.
    • Elle a oublié ce dont elle avait besoin.
  • Ce à quoi: Used with verbs and expressions that require “à.” Example:
    • I know what she’s referring to.
    • Je sais ce à quoi elle fait référence.

3. Differences from Simple Relative Pronouns

While simple relative pronouns like “qui,” “que,” “où,” and “dont” also link clauses, they directly refer to a specific noun. In contrast, compound relative pronouns are more indefinite.

Example with simple relative pronoun:

  • The movie that I watched was great.
  • Le film que j’ai regardé était génial.

4. Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Mistaking “ce qui” and “ce que”: Remember, “ce qui” is a subject, and “ce que” is an object. Incorrect: Je ne sais pas ce que se passe. Correct: IJe ne sais pas ce qui se passe.
  • Confusing “dont” with other prepositions: “Dont” can only replace “de.” Incorrect: La personne de qui je parle. Correct: La personne dont je parle.

5. Practice Exercise

Convert these English sentences to French:

a. I understand what you mean.

b. That’s the issue about which we debated.

c. They remember what they dreamed.


Compound relative pronouns might seem intricate initially, but with understanding and practice, their usage becomes clearer.

They add richness to the French language, allowing for more complex and nuanced expressions.

As always, the key is to practice regularly and immerse oneself in authentic contexts to get a real feel for these pronouns. Bonne chance!

Leave a Comment