El cual – Relative Pronoun

El cual - Spanish relative pronoun
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Pronombre relativo

A relative pronoun links a dependent / relative clause (i.e., a clause that cannot stand alone) to a main clause. The Spanish relative pronoun el cual usually means "who" or "whom" and has four different forms:

  Singular Plural
masc el cual los cuales
fem la cual las cuales

Characteristics of el cual

  1. Joins a main clause to a relative (dependent) clause
  2. Replaces one or more words
  3. May refer to people or things
  4. Agrees in gender and number with the noun it replaces
  5. Is used almost exactly like el que – they are nearly always interchangeable*

Non-restrictive clauses

A non-restrictive clause does not limit the noun it replaces, but rather adds additional information that can be omitted without substantially changing the meaning of the sentence.** In non-restrictive clauses, el cual can be the subject or the object.

Por ejemplo…

La profesora quiere hablarte. Ella está enfadada.    The teacher wants to talk to you. She‘s angry.
La profesora, la cual está enfadada, quiere hablarte.    The teacher, who is angry, wants to talk to you.
Puse los libros en la coche. Ellos son pesados.   I put the books in the car. They are heavy.
Puse los libros, los cuales son pesados, en la coche.   I put the books, which are heavy, in the car.

Restrictive clauses

In restrictive clauses, where the information after the relative pronoun is essential to the meaning of the sentence, el cual simultaneously replaces an antecedent and is the object of a preposition.

Por ejemplo…

Hay una mesa. Como en esa mesa.   There’s a table. I eat at that table.
Esa es la mesa en la cual como.   That’s the table at which I eat. / That’s the table I eat at.
Me estoy acercando a un coche. Hay alguien dentro del coche.   I’m approaching a car. There’s someone inside the car.
Hay alguien dentro del coche al cual me estoy acercando.   There’s someone inside the car (that) I’m approaching.
Las chicas no han llegado. Mi hermano trabaja con ellas.   The girls haven’t arrived. My brother works with them.
Las chicas con las cuales mi hermano trabaja no han llegado.   The girls with whom my brother works haven’t arrived.

 * El cual vs El que

There are a few situations in which only el cual should be used. Aside from being somewhat more formal than el que, el cual is usually used in the following cases:

1. When the relative pronoun is separated from its antecedent, either by other words or by some sort of grammatical pause (such as a colon or period):

Hay un perro en mi barrio, el cual ladra toda la noche.   There’s a dog in my neighborhood who barks all night.
Al mercado, había un problema con mi tarjeta de crédito; el cual fue arreglado por mi banco.   At the store, there was a problem with my credit card; it was fixed by my bank.

2. After most multi-syllable prepositions and prepositional phrases:

La casa frente a la cual yo vivo …   The house I live across from …
Las enfermedades contra las cuales luchamos …   The diseases we are fighting against …

3. After según, when it means "according to":

El principio según el cual …   The principle according to which …
La profesora según la cual …   The teacher according to whom …

4. After indefinite pronouns and expressions of quantity:

Vi a los estudiantes, algunos de los cuales me saludaron.   I saw the students, some of whom waved at me.
Tengo una casa en Madrid, la mitad de la cual es aquilada.   I have a house in Madrid, half of which is rented.

** Note, however, that el cual puts more emphasis on the clause than the relative pronoun que would.

 Accents matter! El cual is a relative pronoun while cuál is an interrogative pronoun or interrogative adjective.

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Spanish relative pronoun el cual