The form dont is properly called a “relative adverb” rather than a “relative pronoun,” since it does not simply replace a noun, as a pronoun does, but rather a prepositional phrase beginning with de (and such a prepositional phrase can have adverbial force).
The meaning of the de element of dont can be any meaning of de except “from”: “of, with, by,…”, depending on what the dont links to in the relative clause (often a noun, but sometimes a verb).
I. When Dont Attaches to a Noun
If you are going from French to English, the following steps will usually suffice:
How to: Put Dont into English (When Dont Attaches to a Noun)
- Translate dont as “of which“ or “of whom,” depending on whether the antecedent is a person or a thing.
- Translate the rest of the relative clause pretty much word-for-word.
- Reword using “whose” (if such seems called for).
Here are examples:
Step 1. Translate dont as “of which” or “of whom,” depending on whether the antecedent is a person or a thing.
- …le monsieur dont… > “the gentleman of whom”
- …la situation dont… > “the situation of which”
Step 2. Translate the rest of the relative clause word-for-word (more-or-less): first the subject… then the verb… then the direct object, or whatever other complements there are.
Note that, in addition to having a noun antecedent in the preceding clause, the form dont will also be attached (by way of the preposition de) to a noun in the relative clause. This second noun can be either subject or object of the relative clause.
- …le monsieur dont vous connaissez la femme > “the gentleman of whom you know the wife”
- …le monsieur dont la femme s’est sacrifiée pour notre cause > “the gentleman of whom the wife sacrificed herself for our cause”
- …la situation dont nous envisageons la résolution > “the situation of which we envisage the resolution”
- …la situation dont la résolution nous échappe > “the situation of which the resolution escapes us”
Step 3. Reword the English if necessary to reduce awkwardness, using “whose” instead of “of whom (…) the”.
- “the gentleman of whom you know the wife” > “the gentleman whose wife you know”
- “the gentleman of whom the wife sacrificed herself for our cause” > “the gentleman whose wife sacrificed herself for our cause”
Some stylists deprecate the use of “whose” when the antecedent is a thing. If we disdain that negative counsel, then:
- “the situation of which we envisage the resolution” > “the situation whose resolution we envisage”
- “the situation of which the resolution escapes us” > “the situation whose resolution escapes us”
The above three steps should take care of things when dont is a attached to a noun. What about when dont is attached to a verb, as part of a complément prépositionnel?
II. When Dont Attaches to a Verb
Well…there’s really no overall rule. You need to know the equivalent English for expressions such as:
|Verb Phrase||Ordinary Sentence||Relative Clause|
(to speak about)
|Il parle de ses expériences en Chine.
(He is speaking about his experiences in China.)
|Sais-tu le sujet dont il parle?
(Do you know the subject / about which he is speaking / he is speaking about?)
(to think about = to have an opinion about)
|Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de notre président?
(What do you think about our President?)
|Griselde est la personne dont nous pensons tant de bien.
(G is the person / about whom we think so highly / we think so highly about.)
(to take care of, to occupy o-s with)
|Estelle s’occupera des brochures.
(Estelle will / take care of / see to the brochures.)
|Où sont les brochures dont Estelle s’est occupée?
(Where are the brochures [that] Estelle saw to?)
|se mêler de
(to involve o-s in, to get mixed up in; to meddle in; to dabble in)
|Il ne faut pas te mêler de leur dispute d’amoureux.
(You mustn’t get involved in their lovers’ quarrel.)
|Je n’ai rien à dire du Mouvement de la Liberation des femmes, dont elle se mêle depuis quelque temps.
(I have nothing to say about the WLM she has involved herself in recently.)
Note also that avoir besoin de, literally “to have need of,” will usually be translated “to need”:
- J’ai besoin d’un stylo. (I have need of a pen > I need a pen.)
- Voici le stylo dont tu avais besoin. (Behold the ballpoint of which you had need > Here is the ballpoint [that] you needed.)
Finally, note this kind of construction, where you just have dont, a noun phrase, and no verb:
- Plusieurs personnes, dont moi, se sont opposés à cette proposition. (Several persons, of whom I am one, have opposed this proposal.)
- On peut se spécialiser dans beaucoup de sous-branches de la physique, dont l’astrophysique. (One can specialize in many sub-branches of physics, for example, astrophysics / including astrophysics.)