Relative clauses, whether Spanish or English, are introduced by a relative pronoun. In Spanish, this is generally "que".
In Spanish these subordinate clauses may take the indicative or the subjunctive.
Relative clauses with El Indicativo
We use the indicative when "que" is referring to someone or something that we know exists and/or is known to us. Here are some examples:
Saldré con el chico que tiene ojos azules.I will go out with the guy who has blue eyes.
Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que vive en mi barrio.I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.
Las personas que han reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.People who have booked in advance may go to that desk.
In all the examples above, the speaker knows of the existence of:
- a specific guy who has blue eyes (...que tiene ojos azules)
- some people who live in his neighbourhood (...que vive en mi barrio)
- people who have definitely booked in advance ( ...que han reservado)
Relative clauses with El Subjuntivo
We use the subjunctive when "que" is referring to someone or something that we do not know exists and/or is not known to us. Here are the same examples as above but this time using the subjunctive:
Saldré con un chico que tenga ojos azules.I will go out with a guy who has blue eyes.
Voy a invitar a mi fiesta a la gente que viva en mi barrio.I am going to invite people who live in my neighbourhood to my party.
Las personas que hayan reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.People who booked in advance may go to that desk.
In all these examples the speaker doesn't really know:
- a specific guy with blue eyes; she is not thinking about a specific guy she already knows. (...que tenga ojos azules)
- who lives in his neighbourhood. She may be new in the area and hasn't met anyone around yet (...que viva en mi barrio)
- if anyone has booked in advance, but there may be some people among the group who did. ( ...que hayan reservado)
This concept is sometimes difficult for English speakers to understand as there is no grammatical distinction between the two situations: the known and unknown fact explained above. However, we could add "may/might" to the English sentence when we use the subjunctive in Spanish to convey that "unknown fact", for example:
Las personas que hayan reservado con anticipación pueden pasar por esta ventanilla.
People who may have booked in advance can go to that desk.
Here are some more examples:
Regamos todas las plantas que estaban secas.We watered all the plants that were dry. (indicative- known)
Informamos a los padres de los niños que habían llamado para preguntar.We informed the parents of the kids who had called to enquire. (indicative- known)
Pedí el menú que era más barato.I ordered the menu that was cheaper. (indicative- known)
Ofrecieron ayuda a los afectados que se hubieran quedado sin nada.They offered help to victims who had been left with nothing. (subjunctive-unknown)
Abrimos las puertas a aquellos que quisieran entrar.We opened our doors to those who wanted to come in. (subjunctive- unknown)
Teníamos que hacer una presentación que fuese interesante para todos.We had to make a presentation that was interesting for everyone. (subjunctive- unknown)
Bear in mind that the most common relative pronoun is "que" and it can refer to both things and people. However there are other relative pronouns, e.g "el cual" or "quien".
See also Que/ el cual/ la cual/ los cuales/ quien/ quienes = who, that, which (Spanish relative pronouns)
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