‘Lo que’ vs ‘que’

Quick answer – ‘lo que’ is a neuter “relative pronoun”; it refers to situations / concepts and often translates to ‘the thing that’. ‘Que’ can also be used as a “relative pronoun” (when placed directly after the person / thing being referred to), but it can also be a conjuction AND it’s used when forming comparatives.

But don’t worry just yet because I’m sure you’ll have mastered both expressions by the end of this article.

I’ve even made a short quiz so that you can test your newfound Spanish knowledge!

Let’s get into it!


‘Lo que’ can be used in the following ways –

1. To introduce a “relative clause” (i.e., to give extra info).

Recibió mucha alabanza, lo que le animó a seguir. = He received a lot of praise, which encouraged him to continue.

2. As part of a “noun clause” (i.e., groups of words acting as nouns). In this context ‘lo que‘ often translates to “what” or “the thing that”.

Eres lo que comes. = You are what you eat.

3. It can also be used at the beginning of a sentence (again translating to “what” or “the thing that”).

 Lo que necesita es amor. = What he needs is love.

‘Que’ can be used as follows –

1. As a “relative pronoun”.

Ahí está la casa que me gusta. = There’s the house that I like.

2. As a “conjunction”.

Quiero que estudies. = I want you to study.

3. In “comparative sentences”.

Prefiero el azul que el verde. = I prefer the blue one to the green one.

When to use ‘lo que

1 We use ‘lo que’ to introduce a relative clause

And what’s a relative clause?

Well, it’s a “clause” (or group of words) that has a subject and verb, but CANNOT stand alone as a sentence.

They normally give more information about a noun that has already been mentioned.

Watch out (ojo!) though as we use MANY different words to introduce “relative clauses” (i.e., extra info about a noun) in Spanish –

Ese hombre QUE lleva puesto una playera gris es mi marido. = That man (wearing the grey t-shirt) is my husband.

Los chavos con QUIENES siempre salimos son muy buena onda. = The boys (we always go partying with) are really cool.

La escuela a LA QUE asistía ya no existe. = The school (I used to go to)  has already closed down.

So … what’s with this ‘lo que’?

Well, it’s also used to introduce a relative clause, but being a NEUTER relative pronoun, it’s used exclusively to refer to SITUATIONS or CONCEPTS.

In this context, it normally translates to ‘which’.

Let’s have a look at some examples –

Dijo que no valía la pena, de lo que no me cabe duda.

He said that it wasn´t worth it, which I don’t doubt at all.

Here ‘lo que’ refers to the idea that “something” wasn’t worth it

Después de haber encontrado una mosca en la sopa

Y todavía va a cenar allá, lo que se me hace muy raro!

After having found a fly in the soup

He still goes for dinner there, which is pretty weird.

Here ‘lo que’ refers to the fact that the man continues to frequent the restaurant

2 ‘Lo que’ can be part of a “noun clause”

Lo que’ can also be part of what we call a “noun clause”, which is basically a group of words acting as a noun.

Again, ‘lo que‘ refers to a situation or concept and it normally translates to ‘what’ in English, but the phrase ‘the thing that‘ will also work as a translation.

Erika’s top tip – you *almost* always translate the English word ‘what‘ to ‘lo que‘ when used in the middle of a sentence … this is by far the easiest way to get your head around this use of ‘lo que‘.

The exception is when the next verb is an infinitive (i.e., ‘to do‘, ‘to play‘, etc.) or after certain verb + preposition combos in which case ‘que‘ is used instead.

Let’s look at a few examples –

No me gustó lo que me dijo esa noche.

I didn’t like what he said that night.

Me contó lo que pasó.

He told me what happened.

¡Dime todo lo que sabes!

Tell me everything you know!

No recuerdo nada de lo que pasó en el accidente.

I don’t remember what happened during the accident.

3 It can even be used at the beginning of a sentence

Lo que’ is also sometimes used at the beginning of a sentence, normally when “the situation / concept” in question hasn’t been mentioned previously.

Again, it normally translates to ‘what’ or ‘the thing that’.

Lo que necesita es un bueno regaño.

What he needs is a good telling off.

Lo que realmente quiero es un fuerte abrazo.

What I really want is a big hug.

When to use ‘que

1 We also use ‘que’ as a “relative pronoun” (eek!)

The MAIN DIFFERENCE between ‘que’ and ‘lo que’ (when used as “relative pronouns”) is that ‘que’ is used exclusively to refer to PEOPLE and THINGS, whereas ‘lo que’ refers to SITUATIONS and IDEAS.

Erika’s note – remember that “relative pronouns” are words  used to introduce extra info.

Que’ is actually the most common relative pronoun in Spanish, especially in conversation!

Let’s dive into some examples –

Martín, que era el alumno más listo, reprobó el examen.

Martín, who was the smartest student, failed the exam.

Here ‘que’ refers to a person (Martín)

El celular que compró era súper chafa.

The cell phone that he bought was super tacky.

Here ‘que’ refers to an object (the cell phone)

2 We also use ‘que’ as a conjunction

Conjunctions are words that we use to link other words, sentences or phrases together.

You can think of them as the glue that holds sentences together.

Check these examples out –

Una pareja se despide

Daniel – No quiero que te vayas. Quédate.

Rosa – No puedo quedarme esta noche, lo siento.

A couple says goddbye to one another

Daniel – I don’t want you to leave. Stay.

Rosa – I can’t stay tonight, I’m sorry.

No le gusta que le den órdenes.

He doesn’t like to be given orders.

Estaba lloviendo tanto que nos tuvimos que ir de la playa.

It was raining so much that we had to leave the beach.

3 ‘Que’ can also be used in comparative sentences.

Que’ is used when making COMPARISONS.

 In this context, you can think of it as the Spanish version of ‘than’.

For example –

Tú eres más listo que yo.

You’re smarter than me.

Beber* agua es mucho mejor que beber coca.

Drinking water is way better than drinking Coke.

Prefiero ser un aescritor pobre que un hombre de negocios rico.

I’d rather be a poor artist than a rich businessman.

*Erika’s note – ‘beber’ and ‘tomar’ are two ways of saying ‘to drink’; make sure to check out our article on ‘tomar’ vs ‘beber’ if you want to find out all the juicy deets.

Final thoughts

Well, muchachos, that’s a wrap!

How’s that busy brain doing? With a bit of luck, it already knows how to identify both expressions.

Just remember that learning a language like Spanish is definitely not for the faint-hearted. You need to be brave and step outside your comfort zone!

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our article on ‘cualquier’ vs ‘qualquiera’ if you fancy another dose of Spanish grammar.

¡Buena suerte, amigo!

Lo que’ vs ‘que’ Quiz

Complete the sentences with ‘que’ or ‘lo que’.

  1. No menciones nada de ___________ hablamos. Es un secreto.

  2. El mundo necesita más personas ___________ se tomen en serio a los animales.

  3. Carlos llegó tarde al teatro, ___________ retrasó el inicio del concierto.

  4. Recuerda ___________ no estás solo. Aquí tienes un amigo.

  5. Por favor, dime ___________ piensas sobre mi último informe.

  6. Al final, el amor ___________ recibes es igual al amor __________ das.

  7. ¡Aguas! Baja la voz, creo _______ allá viene el jefe.

  8. No creo en nada de ___________ dices. Eres un mentiroso.

  9. Es mucho más facil hablar ___________ actuar.

  10. ¿Te sientes bien? ¿Quieres ___________ te lleve al hospital?

Answers –

1. lo que

2. que

3. lo que

4. que

5. lo que

6. que / que

7. que

8. lo que

9. que

10. que

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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