7 Ways To Say What In French + Example Sentences

7 Ways To Say "What" In French

It would be nice if we could tell you that there is a single word to express “what” in French. In reality, there are multiple ways to say “what”. Each way depends on the grammar and context of the sentence. In a nutshell, here are the seven ways to say what in French. Don’t fret if you don’t understand this list immediately. Keep reading and we’ll explain each way of saying what very clearly with example sentences.

The seven ways to say what in French?

  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”.

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

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 que Marie mange? What is Marie eating?
  • Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? What’s happening?
  • 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. Here are some example:

  • Que faites-vous maintenant ? What are you doing now?
  • 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.

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. Here are some examples:

  • Quel steak est-ce que vous choisissez ? What steak are you choosing?
  • 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:

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  • 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. Here are some examples of how to say “what” in the context of an indefinite relative pronoun:

  • 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.
  • 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). Here are some examples:

  • C’est quoi ton nom ? What’s your name? (Could also be asked with “quel est”)
  • 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:

The word, “quoi” can also be used as a filler word to express “you know” or “like”. This video from Easy French does an excellent job explaining this usage of quoi.

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. For example:

  • Comment ? Je n’ai pas compris. What? I didn’t understand.
  • Comment ! Il est deja midi? What! It’s already noon?

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 (explain on our site on this page). Here are some examples:

What in French – Conclusion?

Quoi ? Comment ? Say it isn’t so! This is the end of the lesson! We hope you’ve gained an better understanding on how to say “what” in French!

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About David Issokson

David Issokson is a lifelong language enthusiast. His head is swimming with words and sounds as he speaks over six 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 online lessons. When procrastinating working on his site, FrenchLearner.com, David enjoys his time skiing and hiking in Teton Valley, Idaho.

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