What's the difference between “que” and “dont”; for example in:

Je lis le livre que tu m'as donné. (I'm reading the book you gave me)

Je lis le livre dont tu m'as parlé. (I'm reading the book you told me about)


Que s'utilise avec un verbe transitif :

Tu m'as donné un livre. Je lis le livre que tu m'as donné.

Dont s'utilise avec un verbe intransitif :

Tu m'as parlé d'un livre. Je lis le livre dont tu m'as parlé.

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    L'emploi d'un verbe intransitif ne suffit pas à déterminer que l'on va utiliser "dont". Voir notamment les constructions verbe + à + complément, par exemple Tu te réfères à un livre. Je lis le livre auquel tu te réfères.. Dans cet exemple, remplacer auquel par dont n'est pas possible. dont ne remplace que les compléments d'objet introduits par de. – RomainValeri Jun 21 '12 at 9:58

As a side note to the answer given by Laurent, even a French native speaker sometimes needs to think about the inverse sentence "Tu m'as donné un livre" to deduce the correct insertion of "que" w.r.t "dont".

In the second sentence "Tu m'as parlé d'un livre", mind the "d'" (or "de" depending on the case), that will lead you to the insertion of "dont".

Not sure it's helpful, though. (That's my first answer here.)

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    No, that's exactly the most helpful hint possible. I associate de with dont as well. – temporary_user_name Aug 24 '12 at 18:43
  • Agree. Other propositions (à, most notably) command a different way of organizing the relative. – Circeus Sep 5 '12 at 16:13

I can't explain the grammatical rules (too much technical terms) but an easy way to remember the difference is that you can translate 'dont' with 'of which'.

(Note that in your two proposed translations, the 'which'/'that' are elided).

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    Good point, although I wonder if native english speakers always know when to use "which" and when to use "that". – Joubarc Aug 18 '11 at 12:35
  • And to be honest, I'm not even sure the difference is the same, see for example betterwritingskills.com/tip-w022.html which seems to imply the words may grammatically be interchangeable. In French, it's not a matter of difference of meaning; one is correct and the other isn't. – Joubarc Aug 18 '11 at 12:41
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    @Joubarc, yes, but 'that' and 'of which' aren't interchangeable (and 'of that' can't be used in the same way). Note also that a more literal translation of your sample phrase would be "I'm reading the book of which you spoke". I'm not suggesting that you should translate like this, just that it's a helpful aide-memoire. – Benjol Aug 18 '11 at 13:26
  • Ok, my mistake, I hadn't noticed the "of" in "of which". – Joubarc Aug 18 '11 at 13:28

Que replaces a direct object (COD in french ‘Complement d'objet direct‘ ).

Dont replaces an object (or person) after ‘de’ like in this example:

Voici l'enfant. J'ai trouvé le ballon de cet enfant.
Voici l'enfant dont j'ai trouvé le ballon.

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It can sometimes help to think of dont as an invariable synonym for duquel (or de laquelle, desquels, desquelles).

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  • dont is not the same as duquel (& co.). Example: Ce livre dont le titre ne me plaisait pas. – Stéphane Gimenez Sep 15 '12 at 15:00

Que = that

Dont = of which, of whom.

"Je lis le livre que tu m'as donné." = I am reading the book that you gave me.

"Je lis le livre dont tu m'as parlé." = I am reading the book of which you spoke.

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Here as in all relative clauses it's a case problem (yes there are cases in french). Both dont and que (as duquel, auquel, etc) replace the noun in the relative clause :

  • Dont is the genitive form and it's used to mark a complément du nom

  • Que is the accusative form and marks a complément d'objet direct, a direct objet of the relative clause. "Que" is also an ambivalent word equivalent to the English "that" or even "what" as in "je sais que j'ai raison" (i know that i'm right) or in "les mots que j'ai dits" (the words that i said) (and i'm not sure about that s after dits)

  • Auquel would be the equivalent for an indirect object.

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