Relative Pronouns

This unit will cover relative pronouns in Portuguese. Relative pronouns are used to connect a dependent clause to the main clause of a sentence. A dependent clause refers to someone or something mentioned previously. The relative pronoun establishes a relationship with an antecedent and it’s that relation that allows us to understand who or what one is referencing.
Simply put, relative pronouns make sentences clearer and help us to avoid repetition. For example, let’s look at these 2 separate phrases used to describe a teacher:

  • O professor ensina francês Play normal audio The teacher teaches French
  • O professor é muito velho Play normal audio The teacher is very old

Now, if we use a relative pronoun to put them together:
O professor que ensina francês é muito velho Play normal audio The teacher who teaches French is very old
The word professor has been replaced by the relative pronoun que. Much more concise, right?

Classifying Relative Pronouns in Portuguese

In the past, some other words were also considered relative pronouns in Portuguese, but are now officially classified as something else. For example:

  • cujo, cujos, cuja, cujas – These are considered determiners. Learn more in this unit: Which One?
  • quanto, quantos, quanta, quantas – These are considered quantifiers. Learn more in this unit: How Much? How Many?
  • onde – Now classified as an adverb. Learn more in this unit: Adverbs 1

In English, the most common relative pronouns are: who, which, that, and whose. In Portuguese, we have the following relative pronouns (pronomes relativos Play normal audio )…

  • quem Play normal audio who, whom
  • que paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio that, which, who

…as well as relative pronoun phrases (locuções pronominais relativas Play normal audio ) which are formed by adding an article or preposition. Keep in mind that when relative pronoun phrases are variable, the article (o, a, os, or as) changes depending on the gender and number of the subject in reference.

  • Adding articles:
    • o que, a que Play normal audio the one that, the one who, which
    • os que, as que Play normal audio the ones that, the ones who, those which, those who
    • o qual, a qual, os quais, as quais Play normal audio which, whom, that
  • Adding prepositions:
    • a que Play normal audio to which
    • em que paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio in which
    • de quem Play normal audio whose, of whom
    • etc…


Note that some of these can also function as interrogative pronouns when they are used in questions, such as O que é que ele disse? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio What did he say? or Quem te fez isto? Play normal audio Who did this to you?, or as determiners when preceding a noun.
Let’s explore some examples of relative pronouns and relative pronoun phrases. It’s important to see how these function within Portuguese sentences, rather than just translating literally.

Que

Que is considered a universal pronoun because it can be used to replace both people and things, whether they are singular or plural.
relative pronouns in Portuguese
For instance:

  • O cão que eu vi era muito grande Play normal audio The dog that I saw was very big
  • Os cães que eu vi eram muito grandes Play normal audio The dogs that I saw were very big

So, despite the noun being plural in the second phrase, the relative pronoun que has not changed.
Sometimes, certain verbs have to be accompanied by a preposition, so keep in mind that sometimes you may need to use a preposition in front of a relative pronoun, such as que:

  • Está ali aquela rapariga de que gosto Play normal audio The girl that I like is over there, Literal: She is there that girl of which I like
  • Ela vendeu a casa em que morei tantos anos Play normal audio She sold the house that I lived in for so many years, Literal: She sold the house in which I lived so many years
  • O carro a que me refiro é este Play normal audio The car which I’m referring to is this one

O que (and its variations)

O que functions as a relative pronoun phrase. Sometimes it is used when there is no specific noun as an antecedent. Rather, it refers to the entire preceding phrase as a whole. In these cases, o que usually translates to which.
For example:

  • Ela deixou o cão na rua, o que zangou o seu marido Play normal audio She left the dog outside, which angered her husband
  • Ele falou pouco, o que me preocupou Play normal audio He spoke little, which worried me

In both sentences, o que is replacing the entire main clause, rather than a specific noun. “Leaving the dog outside” was the thing that angered her husband, and you can’t assign a gender or number to an entire phrase like that. Thus, the article remains just o.
However, o que can also replace a specific noun. In that context, it is variable, meaning it must match the gender and number of the noun it replaces. You just need to remember to use o, a, os, or as, depending on whether it’s masculine or feminine, and singular or plural. Let’s see some examples:
Aquele doce é o que vi na Alemanha Play normal audio That sweet is the one that I saw in Germany
Aqueles doces são os que vi na Alemanha Play normal audio Those sweets are the ones that I saw in Germany
Essa flor é a que eu mais gosto Play normal audio That flower is the one that I like most
Essas flores são as que gosto mais Play normal audio Those flowers are the ones that I like the most

Quem

Quem always refers to a person or a group and usually follows a preposition such as:

  • com paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio with a paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to para paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to, for contra paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio against por paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio for

For example:

  • O rapaz com quem casou é o meu primo Play normal audio The boy you married is my cousin, Literal: The boy with whom you got married is my cousin
  • A menina para quem comprei o vaso morava aqui Play normal audio The girl I bought the vase for used to live here, Literal: The girl for whom I bought the vase used to live here

There are 2 situations in which it doesn’t require a preposition, however, They are:

  • Fui eu quem fiz o almoço Play normal audio It was me who made lunch – The pronoun quem comes immediately after the subject of the sentence;
  • Procuro quem me possa ajudar Play normal audio I'm looking for someone who can help me – The pronoun quem functions as the subject, replacing alguém (someone) or uma pessoa (a person).

O qual, A qual, Os quais, As quais

This group of Portuguese relative pronouns have the same meanings as que and quem. Sometimes o qual and its variants are used in place of que when we refer to people and want to avoid ambiguity. These are mainly used in written Portuguese, rather than spoken. They are variable, so the choice must match the gender and number of the subject you’re referring to:

  • o qual – singular, masculine;
  • a qual – singular, feminine;
  • os quais – plural, masculine;
  • as quais – plural, feminine.

For example:
Vou falar com a irmã do Hugo, que já conhecemos da festa Play normal audio I’m going to talk to Hugo’s sister, whom we already know from the party
It’s unclear from this example whether the speaker met Hugo or his sister at the party. But, if we replace que with a qual, it will leave no doubt that it was the sister whom he met:
Vou falar com a irmã do Hugo, a qual já conhecemos da festa Play normal audio I’m going to talk to Hugo’s sister, whom we already know from the party
Here are couple more examples:
A cantora sobre a qual falei é muito linda Play normal audio The (female) singer who I talked about is very beautiful
Adorei os chocolates brancos, os quais compraste na Bélgica Play normal audio I loved the white chocolates that you bought in Belgium
Again, in general, everyday speech you would probably stick to:
Adorei os chocolates brancos que compraste na Bélgica Play normal audio I loved the white chocolates that you bought in Belgium
This is perfectly fine!

Contrasting with English

You may have noticed that in English, you can often omit relative pronouns, such as that. With relative pronouns in Portuguese, you cannot, because the sentence just won’t make sense.
For example, these are both correct:

  • The book that I was reading.✅
  • The book I was reading.✅

But…

  • O livro que eu estava a ler. ✅
  • O livro eu estava a ler. ❌   (This one is gibberish!)

Comments

  • “onde – Now classified as an adverb”.

    I’m curious why this is the case, as this is different from how it is traditionally classified in French, English, and German.

    • It’s a good question. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find more information about that decision 🙁

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