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What in French

What in French

In French, there are multiple ways to say “what”, which can cause confusion. Each way depends on the grammar and context of the sentence. Two of the main ways are qu’est-ce que and quoi. This post will explain precisely seven ways to say “what” with clear example sentences and audio.

How To Say "What" in French (7 Ways with Audio Examples)

How to say “what” in French

In a nutshell, here are the seven main ways to say “what” in French, which we’re about to explain in detail.

  1. Qu’est-ce que/qu’est-ce qui
  2. Que + inversion
  3. Quel + noun
  4. Ce que, ce qui, ce dont, ce à quoi
  5. Quoi
  6. Comment
  7. Et si…?

1) Qu’est-ce que / qu’est-ce qui

The first and most common way to say “what” in French is using “qu’est-ce que” and “qu’est-ce qui”. In a nutshell, the “qu'” is the shortening of “que”, which translates to “what”.

qu’est-ce que / qu’est-ce qui

what

The word “est-ce que” is unique to French and doesn’t exist in the other Romantic languages. It means is, are, do and does when forming yes-no questions.

Thus, when forming questions, “qu’est-ce que” precedes subject pronouns and people while “qu’est-ce qui” precedes verbs. Here are a some example sentences.

Qu’est-ce que vous faites ?

What are you doing?

Qu’est-ce qui se passe ?

What’s happening?

More examples:

  • Qu’est-ce que Marie mange ? What is Marie eating?
  • Qu’est ce qui donne la diarrhée ? What causes diarrhea?

The following are some common sayings with “qu’est-ce que”:

  • Qu’est-ce que c’est ? What is it?
  • Qu’est-ce que ça donne ? How’s it going (or coming along)?
  • Qu’est-ce que tu as ? What’s wrong (also “What’s your problem?”)
  • Qu’est-ce qui t’a pris ? What’s gotten into you?
  • Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas ? What’s wrong?

2) Que + inversion

As mentioned, the meaning of the word “que” is “what”. The second most common way to form questions in French is to use inversion. This is when the subject and verb get inverted with a hyphen.

que

que

Que faites-vous ?

What are you doing?

Here are some more examples:

  • Que manges-tu ce soir ? What are you eating tonight?
  • Que mangent les enfants ? What are the children eating?
  • Que dit Martin ? What is Martin saying?

3) Quel, quelle, quels, quelles

The word “quel” translate to both “which” and “what”. The grammatical term for “quel” is an interrogative adjective. The word “quel” must precede the noun it’s “asking about” and also agree in gender and number with that noun.

quel, quelle, quels, quelles (they all sound the same)

which / what

Hence, to express “What noun do you/are you + verb?” use the grammatical structure: “Quel + noun + est-ce que + personal pronoun + verb“. The latter part of the question can also be asked with the inversion.

Quel steak est-ce que vous choisissez ?

What steak are you choosing?

Here are some more examples:

  • Quelle voiture est-ce que vous aimez? What car do you like?
  • Quels amis est-ce que vous invitez ? What friends are you inviting?
  • Quelles fleures préférez-vous ? What flowers do you prefer?

To express “What is + noun” or “What are + noun”, use “Quel + a conjugated form of être (to be) + noun“. This page on our site covers the conjugations of être in detail.

Here are some examples of these sentences:

  • Quel est votre choix ? What is your choice?
  • Quels sont les jours de la semaine ? What are the days of the week?

The word “quel” can precede a nous with an exclamation mark to express “what a …!”. For example:

  • Quelle journée ! What a day!
  • Quelle surprise ! What a surprise!

4) Ce que, ce qui, ce dont, ce à quoi

This next section describes the use of “what” in the context of “I don’t know what” or “I don’t understand what“. This is a called an indefinite relative pronoun. This page on our site covers relative pronouns in detail.

ce que / ce qui

what

Je ne sais pas ce que je vais commander.

I don’t know what I’m going to order.

Il ne comprend pas ce qui arrive.

He doesn’t know what’s happening.

Here are two more more examples of how to say “what” in the context of an indefinite relative pronoun:

  • Elle ne sait pas ce dont nous avons besoin. She doesn’t know what need.
  • Tu ne sais pas ce à quoi elle pense. You don’t know what she’s thinking about.

5) Quoi

The word quoi translates to “what” and can be used in several contexts, the first of which is an informal version of the “quel” (explained above).

quoi

what

C’est quoi ton nom ?

What’s your name? (Could also be asked with “quel est”)

Here are some more examples:

  • C’est quoi ça ? What the heck/hell is that? (very informal)
  • Les droits de l’homme, c’est quoi ? What are human rights?

The word “quoi !” is most commonly used an informal and somewhat impolite “what !/?”. It can also be used to express surprise. For example:

6) Comment

The word comment translates to “how” (in the context of “How do you sing this song?”, for example) and “what”. When used to mean “what”, it is the more formal version of “quoi” from the previous section. It can also be used as an exclamation.

comment

what

Comment ? Je n’ai pas compris.

What? I didn’t understand.

7) Et si…?

The expression, “Et si…” is used to express “What if…?”, “How about…?” and “What about…?”. It must be followed by the imperfect tense.

et si…

what if…

Et si on partait demain ?

What if we left tomorrow?

Here are two more examples:

What in French – conclusion

Congratulations! You’ve now gained a much better understanding of the various ways to say “what” in French. Now we suggest checking our our lesson covering how to ask questions in French.

Discover more:

See all French grammar lessons

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David Issokson
David Issokson is a lifelong language learner and speaks over seven languages. Of all the languages he speaks, he's the most passionate about French! David has helped hundreds of students to improve their French in his private lessons. When not teaching or writing his French Word of the Day lessons, David enjoys his time skiing, hiking and mountain biking in Victor, Idaho.

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David Issokson

David Issokson is a lifelong language learner and speaks over seven languages. Of all the languages he speaks, he's the most passionate about French! David has helped hundreds of students to improve their French in his private lessons. When not teaching or writing his French Word of the Day lessons, David enjoys his time skiing, hiking and mountain biking in Victor, Idaho.

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