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French Indefinite Relative Pronouns

Pronoms relatifs indéfinis - ce qui, ce que, ce dont, quoi

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Just as in English, a relative pronoun links a relative clause to a main clause. This is true for both relative pronouns and indefinite relative pronouns. The difference is that regular relative pronouns have a specific antecedent, but indefinite relative pronouns do not. If you don't understand relative pronouns, I highly recommend that you go back to that lesson before studying this one.

There are four* French indefinite relative pronouns; each form is used only in a particular structure, as summarized here. Note that there's no one-to-one equivalent for these words - depending on context, the English translation may be what or which:

Subject
ce qui   what

Direct object
ce que/qu'   what

Object of de**
ce dont   which, what

Object of a preposition**
quoi   which, what

*There's a fifth indefinite relative pronoun, quiconque, but it is rare and complicated, so I address it in a separate lesson.

**Remember that French verbs often require different prepositions than English verbs, so you really need to be careful with ce dont and quoi - it's not always obvious which one is correct. When there is no preposition, of course, you use ce que.

Note that when the pronoun tout is used with indefinite relative pronouns, it changes the meaning to "everything" or "all."


Ce qui serves as the subject of a relative clause and takes the il form of the verb.

   Ce qui m'intéresse, c'est la langue.
   What interests me is language.

   Sais-tu ce qui lui plaît?
   Do you know what pleases him?

   C'est ce qui me dérange.
   That's what bothers me.

   Tout ce qui brille n'est pas or.
   All that glitters is not gold.


Ce que is used as the indefinite direct object in a relative clause.

   Ce que je veux, c'est être trilingue.
   What I want is to be trilingual.

   Sais-tu ce que Pierre a fait ?
   Do you know what Pierre did?

   C'est ce que je déteste.
   That's what I hate.

   Tout ce qu'il écrit est amusant.
   Everything he writes is funny.


Ce dont is used as the object of the preposition de.

   Ce dont j'ai besoin, c'est un bon dico.
   What I need is a good dictionary.

   Sais-tu ce dont Luc parle ?
   Do you know what Pierre is talking about?

   C'est ce dont je me souviens.
   That's what I remember.

   J'ai tout ce dont j'ai envie.
   I have everything I want.


Quoi is the object of any preposition except de.

   Sais-tu à quoi il pense ?
   Do you know what he's thinking about?

   J'ai étudié, après quoi j'ai lu.
   I studied, after which I read.

   Avec quoi écrit-il ?
   What is he writing with?

   Ce à quoi je m'attends, c'est une invitation.***
   What I'm waiting for is an invitation.

   C'est ce à quoi Chantal rêve.***
   That's what Chantal dreams about.

*** When à quoi is at the beginning of a clause or follows c'est, the word ce is placed in front of it (ce à quoi).
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