Relative clauses in Spanish

(Use of Spanish relative clauses)

Table of contents – relative clauses

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation of relative clauses
  2. Types and comparison to English
  3. Formation of relative clauses
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are relative clauses? How are they used in Spanish?

Relative clauses (in Spanish: oración de relativo) belong to the subordinate clauses, which means that this type of sentence cannot stand alone. Similar to English, a relative clause in Spanish is always part of a complex sentence. It usually refers to a noun in this sentence and adds further information. Consider the following examples:

  • In most cases, the antecedent of a relative clause is a noun to which it attributes one or more characteristics:
    • “El libro que me has dado es muy interesante.” (The book you gave me is very interesting.)
      • This comment is about the book to which the relative clause ascribes more information.
    • “La chica que conocí la última semana es verdaderamente maja.” (The girl I met last week is amiable.)
      • Here, the sentence refers to the girl (chica).

Types of relative clauses and comparison to English

Like English, Spanish relative clauses distinguish between restrictive or defining (necessary) and non-restrictive or non-defining (unnecessary) ones. The reason is that a relative clause that provides only additional information and is not required for understanding the sentence (i.e., non-restrictive) must be separated with commas from the rest of the sentence. Thus, it is a matter of punctuation. Consider:

  • Be careful with restrictive relative clauses. Precisely as in English, no commas are placed—neither before nor after:
    • “Me gustó mucho el restaurante  donde comimos el sábado.” (I really liked the restaurant where we ate on Saturday.)
      • No comma in Spanish and English.
    • “La casa  que compramos   tiene piscina.” (The house we bought has a swimming pool.)
      • Although the relative clause is embedded in the complex sentence here, it is not punctuated with a comma.
  • However, in non-defining (non-restrictive) ones, the comma is required—as it is in English:
    • “Su hermana, a quien ya conozco desde hace 20 años, va a visitarnos mañana.” (His sister, whom I have known for 20 years, is visiting us tomorrow.)
    • “Esta vieja pelota, con la que jugaba cuando era joven, ya no necesito.” (This old ball, which I used to play with when I was a kid, I don’t need anymore.)
      • Both sentences have two commas in Spanish too.

How are Spanish relative clauses formed?

The formation of Spanish relative clauses is simple; they always begin with a relative pronoun or relative adverb. Respective words are, for example, ‘que’ (that), ‘como’ (how), ‘el que’ (which), ‘donde’ (where), ‘cuanto’ (how much), ‘quien’ (who), etc., but also ‘cuyo’ (whose). Additional prepositions like ‘delante’ (before), ‘con’ (with), ‘sobre’ (about), etc. can appear before them. Compare:

Position in the sentence

Typically, the relative clause follows its antecedent directly and is introduced with suitable relative words:

  • “Esta es la escuela de idiomas en la cual aprendí inglés.” (This is the language school where I learned English.)

Indicative or subjunctive?

Choosing the appropriate mood is more complicated because the clause can be either in the indicative (the realis mood) or in the subjunctive. Note the following points:

  • Non-restrictive relative clauses (those between commas) always require an indicative verb:
    • “El idioma inglés, que la mayoría aprende en la escuela, se usa frecuentemente en compañías.” (The English language, which the majority learn in school, is frequently used in companies.)
  • Defining relative clauses, on the other hand, may include subjunctive verbs. This combination is often the case when the statement expresses unreal things like wishes but also negations or prohibitions:
    • “Necesitamos gente que nos ayude con la mudanza.” (We need people who will help us move.)
      • Here, the subjunctive of ‘ayudar’ (ayude) is needed, since it is a kind of wish.
    • “Esa es la vecina que vive encima de mí.” (That’s the neighbour who lives above me.)
      • Nevertheless, the indicative can be utilized in many restrictive ones, as here with ‘vivir’ (vive).

Further explanations relating to the Spanish ‘Relative clauses’

The following explanations are related to ‘Relative clauses in Spanish grammar’ and could be helpful as well: