Wondering how to ask questions is a frequent issue in the minds of language learners. If you are learning French, learning how to formulate questions is very important for your progress.
However, asking questions in French can be very confusing for English people because there are many different ways to do it, and some are more formal than others.
Basically, there are 3 ways to ask questions in French:
1 – The inversion (formal)
Just like in English, you just have to invert the subject/verb order:
Is he French? > Est-il français ?
- The verb and the subject are connected with a hyphen.
- It’s the most formal way to ask questions in French. People don’t use it in everyday life. It’s more a written way to ask questions.
2 – Using “Est-ce que” (common)
Is he French? > Est-ce qu’il est français ?
- “Est-ce que” doesn’t mean anything alone. It’s just used for questions.
- You have to put it before the affirmative statement (he is French, il est français).
3 – Raising the intonation (casual, most common)
He’s French? > Il est français ?
- You just say the affirmative statement raising your intonation. It exists in English as well, but it’s much more common in French.
- It’s the most common way to ask questions in French in everyday life.
The Interrogative Words
In fact, there is another way to ask questions: using the French interrogative words.
Moreover, these words can also be combined with the 3 previous ways.
Here they are:
où, where ; quand, when ; comment, how ; pourquoi, why ; qui, who/whom ; combien, how much/many ; quel, what/which ; que/quoi, what
In this article, I want to explain how to ask questions with each one of them. I’ll first explain in detail how it works with “où” (where) and “quand” (when), and then you’ll see that it’s pretty much the same with the other ones (with just a few differences).
1) Où, Where ?
Let’s start with a simple example in the present tense.
Where is the house? > Où est la maison ?
- You just put the interrogative word before the verb, just like in English.
- But that’s quite a formal way to ask questions, you will almost never hear a person say that in everyday life (even if it’s correct).
You could then use “est-ce que”:
Where is the house? > Où est-ce qu’est la maison ?
- This is more common to hear.
- Note that the interrogative word is put before “est-ce que”
But here’s how most people would ask this question nowadays:
Elle est où la maison ? (while raising the intonation)
Literally, that would be “It is where, the house? ”
In French, we have this oral particularity of insisting on what we are talking about by adding a pronoun. In our example it’s the pronoun “Elle” at the beginning.
So basically you usually first define what you’re talking about with the pronoun (while raising your intonation) : “Elle est où ? > Where is it? ”, and then you define it clearly with the corresponding word: “la maison > the house”.
Here’s another example:
Il est où le chien ? > Where is the dog ?
Note that it’s also possible to invert the questions saying:
La maison elle est où ?
Le chien il est où ?
In this kind of question, your intonation is very important, you must sound like you are asking a question. It’s probably something you didn’t learn at school because it’s not traditional written French, but it’s really the way people speak every day.
But now let’s say you want to use another verb than être (to be), like danser, to dance ; aller, to go ; travailler, to work…
If you want to say for example: “Where does he dance? ”
In French, the traditional formal way would be: “Où danse-t-il ?”
So here again we have the inversion between the verb and the subject: “danse” is the verb and “il” is the subject, and we have removed the “does” because we don’t have it in French, we go straight to the verb.
But you notice that we have also added a “t” in the middle. Why?
In order to make a liaison.
Indeed, if the “t” wasn’t there, it would sound weird for French people. This happens a lot when you invert the verb and the subject to ask a question.
Où va-t-il ? > Where is he going ?
Où travaille-t-il ? > Where does he work ?
Once again, you could also ask the question using “est-ce que” which is more common:
Where does he dance? > Où est-ce qu’il danse ?
Where is he going? > Où est-ce qu’il va ?
Where does he work? > Où est-ce qu’il travaille ?
But most French people would rather use the intonation and ask:
Il danse où ? (literally: He dances where?)
Now let’s look at other more difficult examples using the passé composé:
Where did you buy this hat?
You already know that “you bought” in French is “tu as acheté”
So when you do the inversion to ask the question, it becomes “Où as-tu acheté ce chapeau ?”
Don’t forget the hyphen between “as-tu” when you invert the subject and the verb.
Once again you could use “est-ce que” to be less formal saying:
Where did you buy this hat? > Où est-ce que t’as acheté ce chapeau ?
But just like before, if you want to ask the question orally, that’s how most people do it:
T’as acheté où ce chapeau ? (literraly “you bought where this hat ?”)
- It’s quite simple in a way, because you don’t have to invert any subject and verb. Once again, the intonation is important.
2) Quand, When ?
Now that you’ve seen “Où”, it’s pretty much the same with the other interrogative words. Let’s see an example of a question with “Quand” (When), and the verb commencer, to start.
When does the movie start? > Quand commence le film ?
When does the movie start? > Quand est-ce que le film commence ?
- Remember that we don’t have the “does” in French, we go straight to the verb.
Most people would rather say:
Il commence quand le film ? (literraly “It starts when the movie? ”)
Now let’s do it in another sentence with the pronouns il and elle, he and she.
When is he/she arriving at the airport? > Quand arrive-t-il/elle à l’aéroport ?
- If you say it in the formal way by inverting the subject and the verb, remember that you must add a “t” between them to make a liaison because there is no consonant at the end of “arrive” and at the beginning of “il or elle”.
Of course, you can always use “est-ce que” which is more common:
When is he/she arriving at the airport? > Quand est-ce qu’il/elle arrive à l’aéroport ?
But once again, the most conversational way to ask this question would be:
Il/Elle arrive quand à l’aéroport (literally “He/She arrives when at the airport? ”)
Now let’s take a look with this example using the passé composé:
When did he/she arrive at the airport?
Same as for “Où”, the three ways to say it are:
Quand est-il/elle arrivé(e) l’aéroport ? (formal)
Quand est-ce qu’il/elle est arrivé(e) à l’aéroport ? (common)
Il/Elle est arrivé(e) quand à l’aéroport ? (casual)
- Note that we didn’t have to add a “t” between “est” and “elle” in the first sentence because we already have “t” at the end of “est” which is the auxiliary verb “être” used with the verb “arriver” in the passé composé.
3) Comment, How ?
With the past two example, I’ve explained in detail how to use the interrogative words in French. For the next ones, I will just give you some examples, and you will see that it’s always the same process:
- How do you pronounce this word?
Comment prononces-tu ce mot ? (formal)
Comment est-ce que tu prononces ce mot ? (common)
Comment tu prononces ce mot ? (casual)
- Notice that the last one is a bit different than the previous ones since this one keeps the interrogative word at the beginning.
Another example in the passé composé, we would have:
- How did you come here?
Comment est-tu venu ici ? (formal)
Comment est-ce que t’es venu ici ? (common)
Comment t’es venu ici ? (casual)
4) Pourquoi, Why ?
This one is very similar to Comment:
- Why does she stay outside?
Pourquoi reste-t-elle dehors ? (formal)
Pourquoi est-ce qu’elle reste dehors ? (common)
Pourquoi elle reste dehors ? (casual)
Now with the passé composé:
- Why did you do this?
Pourquoi as-tu fait ça ? (formal)
Pourquoi est-ce que t’as fait ça ? (common)
Pourquoi t’as fait ça ? (casual)
5) Qui, Who/Whom ?
- Who are you calling?
Qui appelles-tu ? (formal)
Qui est-ce que t’appelles ? (common)
T’appelles qui ? (casual)
- Note that “qui” in the casual phrase is more like “où” and “quand”, you put it at the end of the phrase.
“Qui” can become “Whom” when you say “Avec qui” (With whom)
- With whom are you (plural/polite) going to the cinema?
Avec qui allez-vous au cinéma ? (formal)
Avec qui est-ce que vous allez au cinéma ? (common)
Vous allez au cinéma avec qui ? (casual)
In the passé composé:
- Who did you call?
Qui as-tu appelé ? (formal)
Qui est-ce que t’as appelé ? (common)
T’as appelé qui ? (casual)
- With whom did you go to the cinema?
Avec qui êtes-vous allés au cinéma ? (formal)
Avec qui est-ce que vous êtes allés au cinéma ? (common)
Vous êtes allés au cinéma avec qui ? (casual)
Note also the very common question “Who is it?”:
Qui est-ce ? (formal)
C’est qui ? (casual)
6) Combien, How much/How many ?
So “combien” is a bit special since it can either be “how much” or “how many”. Usually, when “Combien” is alone, it means “How much”.
When it’s followed by “de” > “Combien de…” then it means “How many…”.
You will use “combien” to ask questions about quantities, price, dimensions, weight, numbers…
The most common sentence you will use:
- How much does it cost?
Combien ça coûte ? (common)
Combien est-ce que ça coûte ? (common)
Ça coûte combien ? (casual)
- Note that this time the first phrase is not considered formal.
Let’s try with a concrete example:
- How much is this book?
Combien ce livre coûte-t-il ? (formal)
Combien est-ce que ce livre coûte ? (common)
Combien coûte ce livre ? (more common)
Il coûte combien ce livre ? (casual)
Now let’s talk about “How many”:
- How many cats do you have?
Combien de chats as-tu ? (formal)
Combien de chats est-ce que t’as ? (common)
T’as combien de chats ? (casual)
Now let’s see how this look like in the passé composé:
- How much did it cost?
Combien ça a coûté ? (common)
Combien est-ce que ça a coûté ? (common)
Ça a coûté combien ? (casual)
- How much was this book ?
Combien ce livre a-t-il coûté ? (formal)
Combien est-ce que ce livre a coûté ? (common)
Combien a coûté ce livre ? (more common)
Il a coûté combien ce livre ? (casual)
- How many cats did you have?
Combien de chats as-tu eu ? (formal)
Combien de chats est-ce que t’as eu ? (common)
T’as eu combien de chats ? (casual)
7) Quel, What/Which ?
This one is also a special one since it has 4 different forms: Quel, Quelle, Quels, Quelles. They all mean “What or Which” but they are different because they “agree in gender and number with the noun they relate to”.
Yep, remember that in French, nouns are either masculine or feminine, and singular or plural. But don’t worry, they are pronounced exactly the same and they work in the same way as the previous interrogative words. So whenever you have a:
masculine/singular noun : Quel
masculine/plural noun : Quels
feminine/singular noun : Quelle
feminine/plural noun : Quelles
Let’s see a few formal examples:
Which movie are you watching? > Quel film regardes-tu ? (“film” is masculine/singular)
Which movies are you watching? > Quels films regardes-tu ? (“films” is masculine/plural)
Which serie are you watching? > Quelle série regardes-tu ? (“série” is feminine/singular)
Which series are you watching? > Quelles série regardes-tu ? (“séries” is feminine/plural)
Now with “est-ce que”:
Quel film est-ce que tu regardes ?
Quels films est-ce que tu regardes ?
Quelle série est-ce que tu regardes?
Quelles séries est-ce que tu regardes ?
And how most people usually say them:
Tu regardes quel film ?
Tu regardes quels films ?
Tu regardes quelle série ?
Tu regardes quelles séries ?
One more thing about the interrogative adverb Quel: it can also be followed first by the verb être, and then by the noun. In this case, don’t forget to make the corresponding grammatical agreements with the gender and number.
What is your favorite movie? > Quel est ton film préféré ?
What are your favorite movies? > Quels sont tes films préférés ?
What is your favorite serie? > Quelle est ta série préférée ?
What are your favorite series? > Quelles sont tes séries préférées ?
Note also that in this case, you cannot make the question with “est-ce que” since you already have the “est” in the sentence.
However, you can do it with the intonation, but then “quel” becomes “c’est quoi”:
C’est quoi ton film préféré ?
C’est quoi tes films préférés ?
C’est quoi ta série préférée ?
C’est quoi tes séries préférées ?
When French people speak, you will hear this form all the time, even though it’s technically not correct (but nobody knows it).
“C’est quoi” literraly means “It’s what” > “It’s what your favorite movie?”. It doesn’t make sense in English, but in French it’s the most normal thing ever.
In fact our 2 last interrogative adverbs will be “quoi” and another one with which it’s often confused: “que” because they can also both mean “what”.
8) Que/Quoi, What ?
First of all, know that I’m talking about “que” as an interrogative adverb, and not a relative pronoun.
To make it simple, “Que” is always at the beginning of the question. In fact, it has the same function as “Quel” but when there is a verb different than être (to be) after the adverb.
- What are you eating ?
Que manges-tu ? (formal)
Qu’est-ce que tu manges ? (common)
And here comes our fellow “quoi” in the next sentence. Just like for Où, Quand, Qui and Combien, when French people talk normally, they would rather say:
Tu manges quoi ? (literally “You are eating what? ”)
- So you cannot say “Tu manges que?”, that doesn’t exist at all in French. So basically, “que” is at the beginning (with the inversion and “qu’est-ce que”), and “quoi” is at the end (when the question is casual).
However, it’s possible to find “quoi” at the beginning of a question when it’s used right after a preposition:
- What are you talking about?
De quoi parles-tu ? (formal)
De quoi est-ce que tu parles ? (common)
De quoi tu parles ? (more common)
Tu parles de quoi ? (casual)
- What is he thinking about?
À quoi penses-t-il ? (formal)
À quoi est-ce qu’il pense ? (common)
À quoi tu penses ? (more common)
Tu penses à quoi ? (casual)
To end this article, let’s take a look at the same examples in the passé composé:
- What did you eat?
Qu’as-tu mangé ? (formal)
Qu’est-ce que t’as mangé ? (common)
T’as mangé quoi ? (casual)
- What did you talk about?
De quoi as-tu parlé ? (formal)
De quoi est-ce que t’as parlé ? (common)
De quoi t’as parlé ? (more common)
T’as parlé de quoi ? (casual)
- What did he think about?
À quoi as-t-il pensé ? (formal)
À quoi est-ce qu’il a pensé ? (common)
À quoi il a pensé ? (more common)
Il a pensé à quoi ? (casual)