Goal: To show how to ask questions.
If you must learn one thing in French, it is how to ask basic questions and understand the answers. Let's start by looking at question words in English. The main words you use to get information are:
Who, What, Where, When, Why, Which and How.
In French, these words become:
Qui, Quoi, Où, Quand, Pourquoi, Quel, et Comment.
Let's look at each one of these question words and its uses individually. Also, investigate two more techniques of asking questions: inversion and "est-ce que."
The use of "qui" in French is almost identical to the use of "who" in English. For example, when in English you would say
which means literally "Who is that?" When in English, if someone said a name and you didn't understand you would say
Qui êtes-vous? (Who are you) Qui est à l'appareil? (Who's calling?)
While "quoi" is the most direct translation of "what," there are many ways of saying "what." Which way is used depends upon the sentence.
"What are you doing?"
"Qu'est-ce que vous faites?"
In this sentence, the question-phrase "qu'est-ce que" is used in the place of "quoi." "Qu'est-ce que" is more formal and should be used in writing, to a group, or to a superior. (Qu'est-ce que literally translates to "what is that that. . ." which just goes to show you that sometimes literal translations aren't worthwhile. It is a combination of "que" and "est-ce que.")
Sometimes a sentence that would contain "what" in English uses a different question word in French. For example,
"What do you think of my sunglasses?"
"Comment trouvez-vous mes lunettes de soleil?"
The French translation means, literally, "How find-you my sunglasses?" Generally, when asking what someone thinks, you will use comment (which means "how").
"Is this what you're looking for?"
"Ceci, c'est ce que tu cherches?"
This translation means, literally, "This, it's what you search?"
Mainly "quoi" itself is used if you do not understand something. However, keep in mind that "quoi" is VERY informal! If you are speaking to a superior or group, use the more polite "Pardon?" instead.
Here are some more uses for "qu'est-ce que," "quoi," and "que." (Note that all these sentences happen to use inversion.)
Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire? (What do you like to do?) Qu'est-ce que c'est? (What's that?) Qu'est-ce qu'il y a? (What is there? or What's going on?) Qu'avez-vous fait? (What have you done?)
In this lesson:
Qui | Quoi | Où | Quand | Pourquoi | Quel | Comment
Inversion | Est-ce que
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Please note: When using "où," don't forget the accent! Without this accent, "ou" means "or!"
"Où" is the question word that travelers like best! It translates pretty much exactly into English "where."
"Where is customs?"
"Où est la douane?"
"Where are Pierre and Jean?"
"Où sont Pierre et Jean?"
"Where is it?"
"Where are you from?"
"Vous êtes d'où?"
Here are some more uses for "où."
Où sont les toilettes? (Where are the bathrooms?) Elle habite où? (She lives where?) Savez-vous où je suis? (Do you know where I am?) Où sont mes skis? (Where are my skis?)
"Quand" is the question word roughly translating into English "when." However, if you ask a question with "quand," you should expect only a general answer. When you want a more specific answer, use "à quelle heure" ("at which hour," literally). Look at the following dialogue in which these words are used.
Valérie: Il est quelle heure maintenant?
Valérie: Et nous allons chez Jean quand?
Stéphanie: Ce soir.
Valérie: À quelle heure?
Stéphanie: À sept heures.
Here's the English translation of that script:
Valérie: What time is it now?
Valérie: And we're going to Jean's house when?
Stéphanie: This evening.
Valérie: At what time?
Stéphanie: At seven o'clock.
Do you see how Valérie gets more specific answers when she uses "quelle heure?"
Here are some more uses for "quand" and "quelle heure."
L'avion part à quelle heure? (When does the plane leave?) C'est quand, ton anniversaire? (When is your birthday?) (INFORMAL) Tu fais tes devoirs quand? (When do you do your homework?) Quand allez-vous arriver? (When are you going to arrive?)
"Pourquoi," simply, means "why."
"Why are you here?"
"Pourquoi es-tu ici?"
"Why did you go?"
When you are asked a question with "pourquoi", answer with "parce que" (because). When "parce que" is followed by a word beginning in a vowel, such as "ils," use "parce qu'" instead.
Olivier: Pourquoi aimes-tu les chats?
Marc: Parce qu'ils sont beaux. Pourquoi aimes-tu les chiens?
Olivier: Parce qu'ils sont heureux.
In English, this script is:
Olivier: Why do you like cats?
Marc: Because they are pretty. Why do you like dogs?
Olivier: Because they are happy.
Got it? Here are some more uses for "pourquoi."
Pourquoi parlez-vous anglais? (Why do you speak English?) Pourquoi venez-vous en France? (Why do you come to France?) Pourquoi pas? (Why not?) Pourquoi est-ce qu'elle n'est pas là? (Why isn't she there?)
There are four ways to ask "which:" quel, quelle, quels, and quelles.
Quel is used when refering to a single masculine object or person.
Quelle is used when refering to a single feminine object or person.
Quels is used when refering to several masculine objects or people.
Quelles is used when refering to several feminine objects or people.
"Quel," like an adjective, takes the gender and plurality of the subject, as demonstrated above.
Here are some more uses for the variations of "quel."
Tu habites quel pays, Australie ou Japon? (You live in which country, Australia or Japan?) Quelle maison est celle d'Arnold? (Which house is Arnold's?) Tu as quel âge? (How old are you?)
"Comment," which means "how," is used to ask more things in French than in English. For example:
"Elle s'appelle comment?"
"What's her name?" (Literally: "She calls herself how?")
"What do you think?" (Literally: "How do you find?")
"Leur maison est comment?"
"What's their house like?" (Literally: "Their house is how?")
However, it is also used for some of the same things:
"Comment ça va?"
"How's it going?"
"Comment trouvez-vous la réponse?"
"How do you find the answer?"
Here are some more uses for "comment."
Comment vous sentez-vous aujourd'hui? (How are you feeling today?) Tu t'appelles comment? (What's your name?) (INFORMAL) Il s'appelle comment? (What's his name?)
Okay, so now you know all the question words. But, as you may have noticed in English, not all questions contain question words. Consider these sentences:
Are you at home?
Is he at school?
Notice two things about each sentence. First of all, no question word is used. Secondly, the verb appears before the subject. This technique of placing the verb first is known as inversion. In French, inversions are hyphenated. These are the translations of the sentences above:
Es-tu à la maison?
Est-il à l'école?
All sentences can be inverted except for those containing the pronoun "je".
Here's a special rule for inversions using pronouns that begin in vowels.
If the verb does not end in "t", a "t" must be added in hyphens. For example:
Elle parle = Parle-t-elle?
On mange = Mange-t-on?
But, when the verb conjugation ends in "t":
Elle fait = Fait-elle?
On part = Part-on?
Literally, "est-ce que" means "is that what." You can add this phrase onto the beginning of any sentence to make it into a question. Usually questions phrased in this manner are answerable by "oui" or "non."
Elle fait tes devoirs
Est-ce qu'elle fait tes devoirs?
Tu t'appelles Henri.
Est-ce que tu t'appelles Henri?
This may be used on ANY sentence, even those containing "je:"
Je suis près de chez vous.
Est-ce que je suis près de chez vous?