When to use 'qui' and when to use 'ce qui'?

Could someone please explain to me when to use 'qui' and when to use 'ce qui'? I have the same question for 'que' and 'ce que'

Thank you :)

March 9, 2018


Warning: this is a bit of a long post, but I tried to be as exhaustive as possible regarding this issue.

Relative pronouns in French are very complex and intricate, much more so than in English. For instance, I don't want to sound scary, but relative pronouns have kept a lot of remnants of declension from Latin, and distinguish no less than 4 grammatical cases !

But I'll try to keep it simple and explain it as best as I can: firstly, the relative pronoun used, both in French and in English, depends on its case (it's grammatical role in the relative clause: subject, object, possessor or indirect object), and its animacy (whether it refers to a human being or an inanimate object).

For instance, when you say "The man who is here", or "The man who eats an apple", 'the man' is the subject of the relative clause so 'who' (subject case) is used.

But in "The man whom I saw" or "The man with whom I'm talking", 'the man' is the object of the relative clause so 'whom' (object case) is used.
Note that in those contexts English very often drops the relative pronoun, giving "The man I saw" and "The man I'm talking with", but in French these pronouns can never be dropped !

As for the animacy distinction: in English we say "the man whom I see" when talking about a human, but "the house which I see" or "the house that I see" when talking about an inanimate object. In French the same distinction exists.

Now let's see how they work in French, sorted by grammatical case:

Subject case: when the relative pronoun is the subject of the sentence it will always be QUI regardless of animacy. It can be a bit confusing, as qui also means who/whom as an interrogave pronoun (in fact, native French speakers learning English may say "the house who is here" because of this).

The man who eats an apple = L'homme qui mange une pomme.
The house which is here = La maison qui est ici.
What is there = Ce qui est là (litteraly "that which is there", I'll explain further down why we add 'ce' here)

Object case: as the object of the sentence the relative pronoun will always be QUE, also regardless of animacy.

The man whom I see = L'homme que je vois.
The house which I see = La maison que je vois.
What I see = Ce que je vois.

Possessive case: this corresponds to the English 'whose/of which', and it marks the possessor of a noun in the relative clause: it is always DONT, and just like its English counterpart 'whose', it works for both people and things.

The man whose shirt is blue = L'homme dont la chemise est bleue. (notice that, unlike in English, dont cannot replace the definite article 'la'. A closer translation could be "the man of whom the shirt is blue")
The house whose roof is red = La maison dont le toit est rouge.

Note that dont will also replace the object of a verb when it is introduced by the preposition 'de': for instance with "parler de" (to talk about):

What we talk about = Ce dont nous parlons. ("that of which we talk")

Indirect object case (used after a preposition): Things get slightly more complex when the pronoun is introduced by a preposition, because unlike before, now there is animacy distinction.

When the pronoun refers to human beings, QUI is used:

The man with whom I'm talking = L'homme avec qui je parle.
The person I'm thinking about = La personne à qui je pense. (penser à = to think about)

When the pronoun refers to another type of noun: LEQUEL is used, and agrees in gender and number with the noun: lequel/laquelle/lesquels/lesquelles

Note that the 'le' part of lequel will still contract with à and de:

à + lequel -> auquel | à + lesquels -> auxquels | à + lesquelles -> auxquelles
de + lequel -> duquel | de + lesquels -> desquels | de + lesquelles -> desquelles

The dog I think about = Le chien auquel je pense.
The house in which he lives = La maison dans laquelle il vit.
The knives with which I cut the meat = Les couteaux avec lesquels je coupe la viande.

Finally, when the pronoun refers not to a noun, but to a genderless demonstrative pronoun (notably 'ce'), QUOI will be used.

What I think about = Ce à quoi je pense.

Note that quoi can only be used there is no noun it explicitly refers to, otherwise lequel is necessary. For instance, you cannot say "La maison dans quoi je vis".

Finally, it is possible, (though in many cases less natural), to use lequel instead of qui when reffering to human beings. So it is possible to say:

L'homme avec lequel je parle.
La personne à laquelle je pense.

I would therefore recommend to default to using lequel when a preposition is involved, but keep in mind that using qui for people is simpler and often sounds better.

To summarize:
. subject: QUI
. object: QUE
. possessor (introduced by the preposition de): DONT
. introduced by other prepositions: QUI for humans, QUOI for ce, LEQUEL for everything else

Now when it comes to saying ce qui/ce que instead of simply qui/que :

basically, they all translate to what (except qui which translates to who), but the forms with ce corresponds to relative pronouns, while "que" alone is an interrogative pronoun. For instance:

Que vois-tu ? means "What do you see ?" (interrogative pronoun)

"Ce que tu vois" means "What you see", or "That which you see" (relative pronoun)

Ce que je vois est beau = What I see is beautiful

Je ne comprends pas ce que tu dis = I don't understand what you're saying.

One way to see it is that without the 'ce' it would look like a question: for instance "ce qui est là " means "what is there" (i.e. "that which is there") as in "Ce qui est là est beau" (What is there is beautiful), but without ce it becomes "qui est là" which means "who is there".

Anyway, I'm starting to realise this is getting way too long, but I hope it could help, feel free to ask me if you have any questions about this (or French in general, as it is my native language) !

March 9, 2018

Merci beaucoup d'avoir pris le temps d'expliquer en détail ce point de grammaire déroutant !

March 11, 2018

merci pour la bonne explication :)

March 11, 2018

Hi relox84 –

In another comment, I wrote "On peut dire aussi 'have you got the time', ce qui n'est pas soutenu mais qui est peut-être plus fréquent en Grande-Bretagne." (I was referring to the English sentence "do you have the time", i.e. "as-tu l'heure".)

Notice that at first I use "ce qui", and then I use "qui" on its own. It seems to me that one of these must be wrong. Is it? And can you tell me which one, and why?

My initial inclination was to use "qui", but somehow it sounded wrong, so went with "ce qui", at least for the beginning of the relative clause.

And could I have replaced "ce qui" with "phrase qui" or "une phrase qui"?

January 4, 2019

qui is when you are saying who as in qui est ca (who is that) and ce qui means what. also, ce qui est is which is. I hope you find this helpful.

March 9, 2018

Merci :)

March 9, 2018

Some examples :

"Ce qui est difficile en français, c'est la prononciation". => "What is hard in french, is pronounciation".

Ce qui refers to "pronounciation". In the beggining of the sentence, "ce qui" is used to emphasize on it.

"Je ne sais pas ce qu'il faut faire" =>

"I dont know what one should do/have to do."

Ce qu' / ce que are same, but" ce qu' " is to make a link with the following voyel.

"Tu fais ce que tu veux" . => No voyel, so no "apostrophe".

"j'aimerai que tu fasse une course pour moi " => que is used to make a link between "proposition principale" et "proposition subordonnée" (you can recognize the "proposition surbordonnée" because the tense is "subjonctif" ="fasse").

"Qui" alone is often refering to someone/something we are talking about. =>

"L'homme qui est là-bas est grand"

Also means "who"

Qui est là ? > Who's here ?

Same for "que" alone > Que fais-tu ?

March 9, 2018

Merci pour ton aide :)

March 11, 2018
Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.