A big part of learning any language is asking questions.
“What exactly is the whole deal with tu and vous?”
“Where can I find some good, reliable French lessons online?”
“What’s my CEFR level, and why does it matter?”
That said, how do we ask those questions…in French?
It seems simple enough in English, but there are certain features in the French language that can make the process of asking questions complicated for learners.
But fear not!
Just read on to learn all the essentials of asking questions in French.
Before you know it, you’ll be questioning everything.
French Question Words…What Are They?
At its simplest, asking questions in French has to do with using the right word.
These words are called interrogative words, and they can be broken into three different categories: interrogative pronouns, interrogative adjectives and interrogative adverbs.
Sound like grammatical garble? Let’s take a closer look.
There are three main interrogative pronouns in French, and they are qui (who or whom), que (what) and lequel (which one). Qui and que are fairly simple to use. Primarily, qui is used when the answer is going to be a person, and que is used when the answer is going to be an object or idea:
- Qui es-tu ? (Who are you?)
- Qui parle ? (Who is speaking?)
- Que veux-tu ? (What do you want?)
- Que pensez-vous du livre ? (What do you think of the book?)
Have you ever seen the phrase qu’est-ce que being used to introduce a question, as in qu’est-ce que c’est (what is it)? Well, this is the same que being used here, it’s just that in the cases shown above, it’s not attached to the question phrase est-ce que (is it that). Stay tuned for more on est-ce que later.
The interrogative pronoun lequel and its variants act a little differently. Instead of simply taking the place of a single noun, this interrogative pronoun takes the place of quel (which) and a noun. Observe:
- Quel livre veux-tu ? (Which book do you want?) becomes Lequel veux-tu ? (Which one do you want?)
Sound simple? Not so fast. Lequel must agree with the gender and the number of the noun that it’s replacing. Check out what I mean:
- Quelle assiette veux-tu ? (Which plate do you want?) becomes Laquelle veux-tu ? (Which one do you want?) because assiette is a feminine singular noun.
- Quels livres veux-tu ? (Which books do you want?) becomes Lesquels veux-tu ? (Which ones do you want?) because livres is a masculine plural noun.
- Quelles assiettes veux-tu ? (Which plates do you want?) becomes Lesquelles veux-tu ? (Which ones do you want?) because assiettes is a feminine plural noun.
Got it? Okay.
You know all that work you just did for interrogative pronouns? Well, sit back, weary French learner, because interrogative adjectives are easier.
They are exactly like lequel in terms of gender and number agreement, but they don’t merge with a pronoun and they don’t replace the noun.
These words roughly translate to the English word “which.” Check out these examples:
- Quel livre veux-tu ? (Which book do you want?)
- Quelle assiette veux-tu ? (Which plate do you want?)
- Quels livres veux-tu ? (Which books do you want?)
- Quelles assiettes veux-tu ? (Which plates do you want?)
Simple enough, right? You’re welcome.
Last but not least, we have the category of question words known as interrogative adverbs. Check out these examples with their meanings:
- Combien de livres veux-tu ? (How many books do you want?)
The phrase combien de means “how many” or “how much” and can be used with count nouns such as pommes (apples) or non-count nouns like eau (water).
- Comment ça va ? (How are you?)
The word comment means “how.”
- Où es-tu ? (Where are you?)
If you don’t know already, you can probably guess that the word où means “where.”
- Pourquoi veux-tu ce livre ? (Why do you want that book?)
Pourquoi means “why.”
- Quand vient-il ? (When is he coming?)
Quand means “when.”
Questions…How Do I Ask Them?
So now that we have the words that we need, we need to know how to form our sentences with these words in order to properly ask questions. Here are some different ways to ask questions in French.
As you’ve probably noticed, for this whole blog post I’ve used inversion of the noun and verb in order to ask questions. This works both with and without question words, and this is the most formal way to ask questions. You should use this in almost all writing (except social media, of course), and you should use this method when asking questions of people of importance or people you don’t know. Here are some examples:
- Vous parlez anglais (You speak English) becomes Parlez-vous anglais ? (Do you speak English?)
- Vous voulez manger combien de pommes ? (You want to eat how many apples?) becomes Combien de pommes voulez-vous manger ? (How many apples do you want to eat?)
It’s worth noting that inversion happens with auxiliary verbs in cases of a compound verb tense:
- Tu as mangé une pomme (You ate an apple) becomes As-tu mangé une pomme ? (Did you eat an apple?)
Also, a t inserts itself during inversion when the third person singular is used and the verb ends in a vowel:
- A-t-il écouté la radio ? (Did he listen to the radio?)
- Aime-t-elle le livre ? (Does she like the book?)
And now, back to est-ce que. While not as formal as inversion, adding est-ce que (is it that) to the beginning of a phrase will also transform it into a question. To form a question, you simply add this phrase to the beginning of an affirmative, declarative sentence.
- Est-ce que tu parles anglais ? (Do you speak English?)
- Est-ce que tu as mangé une pomme ? (Did you eat an apple?)
- Est-ce qu‘elle aime le livre ? (Does she like the book?)
In addition, question words can be added before est-ce que for questions that are not answered with yes or no:
- Qu’est-ce que vous voulez manger ? (What do you want to eat?)
- Pourquoi est-ce qu‘elle aime ce livre ? (Why does she like that book?)
- Quand est-ce qu‘il va venir ? (When is he going to come?)
Est-ce que is not as formal as inversion, so it’s not advisable to use it in formal writing, but it can be heard in conversation even if a speaker is talking to someone of importance.
Intonation and n’est-ce pas
The following two methods for asking questions are extremely informal and should only be used in informal situations.
The first involves simply saying the statement in the declarative form but having a rising intonation at the end to signal a question. Simply, a declarative statement becomes a question by adding a question mark and/or raising the tone of your voice at the end:
- Louis va manger une pomme (Louis is going to eat an apple) becomes Louis va manger une pomme ? (Is Louis going to eat an apple?)
The second informal way to ask a question includes adding the phrase n’est-ce pas (isn’t it) to the end of the declarative statement.
- Monique veut lire le livre (Monique wants to read the book) becomes Monique veut lire le livre, n’est-ce pas ? (Monique wants to read the book, doesn’t she?)
Practice…Where Can I Get Some?
So many questions, so little time.
With all this newfound knowledge, though, you need to make time to practice!
You can get used to using que and qui on their own with an online quiz.
So, get out there, and get questioning!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.