Trying to understand the difference between qui and que?
Knowing which word to use can be a tricky business. Fortunately, we have all the intel you’ll need to keep them straight and use them correctly!
At the beginning of a question, qui usually means “who” and que typically means “what”. This is what French learners typically think each word means.
However, either word can mean “who” or “that”. In fact, qui and que don’t translate directly to any one English word.
That’s because qui and que are also what’s called relative pronouns – words that connect two sentences and refer to something mentioned previously in a sentence, like “which” or “that” in English.
Think of it like this.
Relative pronouns are words that don’t have one absolute meaning. Some words, like “parrot” or “run”, have a meaning, and can be defined in the dictionary and drawn in a picture. Relative pronouns can’t. Instead, they stand in for another word, so their meaning is based on their context in a sentence.
Feel like you need more of an explanation?
We’re not surprised. When it comes to understanding the difference between qui and que, the short explanation always leaves you wanting more!
Let’s dive into the longer explanation.
Time for a deep breath. Let’s try this again.
We use qui to replace the subject or indirect object* of a sentence.
We use que to replace the direct object.
*Worth noting: qui only replaces the indirect object when a preposition comes before it. But we’ll cover that a bit further down!
Panicked by scary words like “subject” and “direct/indirect object”?
It’s always easier to explain with an example. Take a look at these two sentences below.
|J’ai une grande tante. Elle joue au basket.
|I have a tall aunt. She plays basketball.
To turn this into one smoother – dare we say, even cooler – sentence, we want to replace elle.
Elle is the subject, so we use qui.
|J’ai une grande tante qui joue au basket.
|I have a tall aunt (who) plays basketball.
No need to panic! Here’s a quick grammar terms refresher.
I give him the sandwich.
|I = subject
|give = verb
|him = indirect object
|the sandwich = direct object
Now, let’s try a similar example, but with que.
|La grande femme joue au basket. Je la connais.
|The tall woman plays basketball. I know her.
To combine these two sentences, we want to replace la/”her” in the second sentence – the word referring to our six-foot-three aunt who can dunk. La is the direct object, so we use que.
|La grande femme que je connais joue au basket.
|The tall woman, (who) I know, plays basketball.
If that’s all the information you needed, why not skip straight to practising using qui and que?
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Now that you have read the theory – well done for hanging in there – we’re going to let you in on our little secret.
We’ve got four golden rules we like to keep in mind when deciding whether to use qui or que – and as of today, they’re yours.
When you first learn the words qui et que, you might hear that qui means “who” and que means “what” or “that” – you may even see this translation in French-English dictionaries or your school materials.
But it’s simply not that clear-cut. The difference between them is based on context.
At the beginning of a question, it’s true that qui typically means “who”, as in:
|Who is it?
And que frequently means “what”, as in:
|What are you doing?
In these cases, that translation is correct!
But the meaning of qui and que is actually based on how they’re used in a sentence. Either can mean “who” or “that”, depending on context.
The reality is, direct, word-for-word translation simply isn’t an effective way to think about language learning.
Think about ne… pas in French. In English, we don’t have the same structure to make something negative:
|Je ne parle pas.
|I’m not speaking.
Trying to translate directly, you’d have to say something like, “I not speak not”, right? Similarly, qui and que should be thought of as something that just isn’t quite the same.
To really understand the difference, we’re going to have to dig into grammar, so brace yourself, and just know that we’ll help demystify as we go.
As we’ve mentioned, we use qui when we need to replace the subject in the second sentence, which you’re joining with the first.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a thing, just whether the word you’re replacing would be the subject of the next sentence or not.
Here’s what that looks like – two sentences…
|J’ai un frère. Il est adorable.
|I have a brother. He is adorable.
… become one.
|J’ai un frère qui est adorable.
|I have a brother who is adorable.
Rather than having two short sentences that feel unnatural in normal speech, we combine them into one. Il (mon frère) is the subject of the second sentence, so we use qui when merging the sentences.
But again, it doesn’t have to be a person! Here’s an example using an inanimate object:
|Ils ont une belle maison. Cette maison est gigantesque.
|They have a beautiful house. This house is gigantic.
See how these two sentences merge into one, thanks to qui.
|Ils ont une belle maison qui est gigantesque.
|They have a beautiful house (that) is gigantic.
See? It doesn’t matter whether qui replaces either a person, creature or thing. What matters is the fact that cette maison is the subject of the second sentence, and that’s why we replace it with qui.
Pro tip: A little trick to make things easier? The subject is just about always followed by a conjugated verb (i.e., not a verb in the infinitive, the most basic form of any verb).
So if you see a conjugated verb, use qui. If it’s not followed by a conjugated verb, you probably want que. (There’s something called inversion that can muddy this a little, but while you’re still just learning, stick with the verb rule and you’ll be right 99% of the time!)
But wait! There’s more.
Qui has another function as a relative pronoun we haven’t covered yet: it replaces the indirect object after a preposition. Confused? Think avec qui, à qui, chez qui.
Take a look at these two sentences:
|Je pense à mes parents. Ils sont en train de faire le tour du monde.
|I’m thinking about my parents. They are going on a round-the-world trip.
Now, look what happens when they merge into one sentence:
|Mes parents, à qui je pense, sont en train de faire le tour du monde.
|My parents, who I’m thinking about, are going on a round-the-world trip.
Let’s take a look at another example – this time, one including the preposition avec.
|Paul s’est marié avec Luka. Luka est polonais.
|Paul married Luka. Luka is Polish.
Watch how the two sentences merge together:
|Luka, avec qui Paul s’est marié, est polonais.
|Luka, who married Paul, is Polish.
In short, if it follows a preposition like avec, chez, or à, you’re looking for qui.
Worth noting: this sentence structure also works without a preposition, because here it’s replacing the subject, just in a different order:
|Mes fleurs, qui sont hautes, ont remporté le premier prix.
|My flowers, which are tall, won first prize.
Still, it’s qui, not que.
So that’s how you use qui, but how about que?
Que can also be a person, creature, or thing, but it replaces the direct object in a sentence. You typically know to use que when the word will be followed by anything other than a conjugated verb.
Let’s look at an example.
|Le boulanger de ton quartier fait des gâteaux délicieux. Je connais ce boulanger.
|The baker in your neighbourhood makes delicious cakes. I know this baker.
Now, let’s see que in action, as these two sentences become one:
|Le boulanger de ton quartier que je connais fait des gâteaux délicieux.
|The baker in your neighbourhood (whom) I know makes delicious cakes.
While the first two sentences are perfectly acceptable and grammatically correct, they’re a bit long and repetitive. Instead, we merge the two sentences with the help of a relative pronoun. That’s que.
|Lila va acheter un canapé. J’ai vu le canapé.
|Lila is going to buy a sofa. I saw the sofa.
Again, we can merge these sentences and replace the second canapé with que to avoid repetition and make our phrasing sound a bit more natural.
Here are two different ways to do this:
|J’ai vu le canapé que Lila va acheter.
|I saw the sofa (that) Lila is going to buy.
|Lila va acheter le canapé que j’ai vu.
|Lila is going to buy the sofa (that) I saw.
Either of these uses of que works! In both cases, que is followed by something other than a verb, because que is not replacing the subject, it’s replacing the direct object.
Today we’re focusing on que and qui, but they’re not the only relative pronouns! There’s also où, lequel, laquelle, and dont.
Dont, in particular, tends to come up when discussing qui and que because it also loosely translates, in some cases, to “that”.
You’ll see it in sentences that you might think would use qui or que. But really, dont is more like “of which”, because – to boil it down – it replaces de plus a person or thing.
But that’s a lesson for another time.
In short, our resident French expert very helpfully summed the difference up like this:
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