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:
- 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)
- “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)
- 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.
- 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”:
- 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:
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:
Note that it’s also possible to invert the questions saying:
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? ”
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.
Once again, you could also ask the question using “est-ce que” which is more common:
But most French people would rather use the intonation and ask:
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”
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:
But just like before, if you want to ask the question orally, that’s how most people do it:
- 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.
- Remember that we don’t have the “does” in French, we go straight to the verb.
Most people would rather say:
Now let’s do it in another sentence with the pronouns il and elle, he and she.
- 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:
Quand est-ce qu’il/elle arrive à l’aéroport ?
But once again, the most conversational way to ask this question would be:
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:
- 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?
- 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?
4) Pourquoi, Why ?
This one is very similar to Comment:
- Why does she stay outside?
Now with the passé composé:
- Why did you do this?
5) Qui, Who/Whom ?
- Who are you calling?
- 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?
In the passé composé:
- Who did you call?
- With whom did you go to the cinema?
Note also the very common question “Who is it?”:
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?
- Note that this time the first phrase is not considered formal.
Let’s try with a concrete example:
- How much is this book?
Now let’s talk about “How many”:
- How many cats do you have?
Now let’s see how this look like in the passé composé:
- How much did it cost?
- How much was this book ?
- How many cats did you have?
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:
Now with “est-ce que”:
And how most people usually say them:
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.
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”:
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 ?
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:
- 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?
- What is he thinking about?
To end this article, let’s take a look at the same examples in the passé composé:
- What did you eat?
- What did you talk about?
- What did he think about?