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I am struggling to understand the grammar behind the sentence "Sé el primero al que le gusta esto", and in particular that construction "el primero al que". I understand "que" to here mean "that" or "who", and the "a" is simply the personal "a", but I cannot see past a literal translation of "the first the who". Why is it not simply "Sé el primero a que le gusta esto"?

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The word que is a relative pronoun (equivalent to the English word that).

In normal use you must put it together after the other word which makes the syntactic relation. (This is not entirely true, but it avoids complicating the explanation). For example:

El televisor que compramos está defectuoso.

The grammatical analysis is as follows:

  1. Main clause: El televisor está defectuoso

  2. Subordinate clause: que compramos

The subordinate clause can be expanded to el televisor compramos ("we buy a TV"), where the pronoun "que" replaces "televisor". That is the function of relative pronouns.

You cannot separate televisor from que.

Now consider your hypothetical sentence:

Sé el primero a que le gusta esto

In this case the preposition a is "sandwiched" between primero and que.

The solution is to use a slightly more complex pronoun. It seems as if we only add an article, but it is actually considered another type of relative pronoun, that agrees in gender and number with what it's related to:

el que, la que, los que, las que.

With this pronoun we can do more complicated things:

El que llegue primero ganará. [At the beginning of sentence]

Sé la primera a la que le gusta esto. [Preceded by a preposition]

Sé el primero a el que le gusta esto.

...but in this last case we merge a + el into one word al:

Sé el primero al que le gusta esto.

When referring to humans you can also use the pronoun quien, which works identically, but only agrees in number (not gender):

Sé el primero a quien le gusta esto.

Sean los primeros a quienes les gusta esto.

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The most usual relative pronoun for people is "que".
Sé el primero que hace clic.

But, as we are using the pronoun in the I.O. (because "gustar" asks for it), we find ourselves with a preposition.

After a preposition, the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an article depends on several things:

  • Explanatory clause, mandatory: Mi marido, al que le gusta eso, dice...
  • Restrictive clause, depends:
    • Non person: different rules, depending on whether it's a, de, con, en , por; whether it's affirmative or emphatic... Not our case here.
    • Person, mandatory. <- Our case.

Source: DPD, "que", 1.2.2

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  • The OP does not indicate a person. Also "una persona en que confío" is a clear example of a person (literally) that does not require the article between the preposition and que – user0721090601 Jul 18 '15 at 12:54
  • @guifa I'd say (point me to a reliable source if I'm wrong, please) that, although it sounds "well", it's as incorrect as "una persona con que fui". Also, we are addressing a second person singular, we can assume the personhood of the subject ("you who have the ability to like"). – guillem Jul 18 '15 at 13:00
  • I don't agree with sé el primero que hace clic, this is not what the link suggest, unless you just like to do click wherever you can. Neither with the affirmation of que as the most usual relative pronoun, you need to attach statistics if you are going to say that. – Sergio Velásquez Jul 18 '15 at 14:35
  • That was just an example of usage of what OP seemed to find intuitive, in no way I'm suggesting that the meaning of the original sentence is that one, I'm just trying to illustrate a correct instance of "que" without the article. The answer to OPs question is not that, it's below that. Edit: as for frequencies, this might hint in that direction uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/cortes/classes/Fall%202010/301/… Double-edit: this one has no comic sans: cvc.cervantes.es/ensenanza/biblioteca_ele/asele/pdf/12/… – guillem Jul 18 '15 at 14:40
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It can be just que. The "short" prepositions — a, de, con — allow for the omission (or perhaps better said, elision) of the article.

The reason the article is needed is because all prepositions in Spanish must have a noun or something acting as a noun following them. Proposition standing, common in English, is verboten.

A que clause you see is actually an adjective clause, though. To nounify adjectives, in other words, to say a thing that is that adjective, we place an article in front.

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  • If you use just que then the sentence will be: Sé el primero que gusta de esto, which is not too natural for me but it's common in Spain. – Sergio Velásquez Jul 18 '15 at 4:23
  • @SergioVelásquez That is a different structure. Per DPD que 1.2.2.2., "Si el antecedente no es de persona, el relativo con preposición puede construirse opcionalmente sin artículo en los siguientes casos: a) Con las preposiciones a, con, de, en y por […] En todos estos casos es igualmente posible el uso del relativo con artículo e, incluso, suele ser lo más habitual, especialmente en el caso de por, ya que la secuencia por que puede tener también otro valor […] b) Cuando la oración de relativo es afirmativa […] ". – user0721090601 Jul 18 '15 at 5:06
  • Based on that, "Sé el primero al que le gusta esto" and "Sé el primero a que le gusta esto" are both valid unless (per DPD que 1.2.2.2., if the modified noun is a person, the article is obligatory, but in the OP's question, it is not specified whether it is a person, thus making the article optional) – user0721090601 Jul 18 '15 at 5:10
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    You missunderstood the explanation Sé el primero a que le gusta esto will not be accepted by a native. "...ha de llevarlo necesariamente cuando el antecedente es de persona". in the sentence al, the article el is referring to the person (the one who likes it (it is: me, clicking the like button)), so, in this case, the use of al is mandatory. – Sergio Velásquez Jul 18 '15 at 5:24
  • There is nothing in the sentence to indicate that this is a person and not toros or figuratively about something completely different (and, in any case, that rule is clearly not absolute: la persona en que confío). No native that I've ever met would say las razones por que se hace (they'd all use por las que), but it's perfectly valid. Just because someone might not use a structure doesn't negate its technical correctness (e.g. "The rat the cat the man adopted caught was eaten"). – user0721090601 Jul 18 '15 at 6:49

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