Sometimes, you just have to look at things a bit differently.
Check out a problem sideways.
Turn your room upside-down.
Invert your questions.
Okay, maybe that last one is just a French thing.
French inversion questions are an important type of French question that flip the standard rules on word order.
It might sound like a strange concept, a sort of Yoda-esque rearranging of the words in your sentence.
But do not worry: it will all make sense by the end of this post!
Why Use French Inversion Questions vs. “Est-ce que” Questions?
You may already be familiar with a certain type of French question that starts with the phrase est-ce que. These questions are quite simple to form—you just tack est-ce que onto the beginning of a statement.
Est-ce que tu parles français? (Do you speak French?)
You can ask more open-ended questions with the phrase Qu’est-ce que.
Qu’est-ce que vous cherchez? (What are you looking for?)
French inversion questions are simply a more formal way to ask questions. For example, you will hear a qu’est-ce que… question in the French version of the silly, super casual Disney classic “Hakuna Matata,” whereas this science explainer uses inversion questions.
Want even more examples of how French native speakers use questions in different contexts?
The videos above come from FluentU.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:
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You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
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Where to Practice French Inversion Questions
To help you to retain this information better, here are some exercises that you can efficiently complete online. Try them out before our guide to see how much you already know, or use them after to make sure you remember what you have learned.
- The University of Québec at Trois-Rivières has made a very useful French inversion question worksheet available for anyone to use. It consists of a list of sentences that you need to pass into inversion questions.
You may notice that you have the responses at the end of this document, but my piece of advice to you is to try and complete them without checking the answers first. Cheating will not help you learn any faster!
- Check out the interactive quiz from “En bons termes“ by Pearson Education, which consists of converting some sentences into the inverted question form. After that, you can check your work by clicking on “Submit answers for grading.”
- This short quiz from Columbia University includes both French inversion questions and est-ce que questions so you can get more comfortable with both types.
Flip It and Reverse It: How to Form Flawless French Inversion Questions
1. Inverting a Basic Statement
Eventually, forming French inversion questions will become second nature. You will be able to simply ask a question without starting from a statement.
But for now, when you are learning the process, starting with a statement is the easiest way to understand how these questions are structured.
As in English, a basic French statement follows this formula: subject + verb + object.
The subject is doing the action, the verb is the action and the object is what is being acted on (sometimes literally, sometimes abstractly). For example:
Tu parles français. (I speak French.)
Vous avez mangé les biscuits. (You ate the cookies.)
To turn these statements into inversion questions, all you need to do is invert the subject and verb. See why they are called inversion questions?
Just make sure to put a hyphen between the verb and subject. For compound tenses, like the passé composé in the second example below, the main verb gets inverted but the participle stays where it is.
Tu parles français. → Parles-tu français? (Do you speak French?)
Vous avez mangé les biscuits. → Avez-vous mangé les biscuits? (Do you play the piano?)
There is one hitch if your verb ends with a vowel and your subject begins with one. You will need to add -t- between the verb and subject.
Seem difficult? It is not! Check these out:
Parle-t-elle français? (Does she speak French?)
Regarde-t-il le film? (Is he watching the movie?)
Aime-t-il voyager? (Does he like traveling?)
The -t- serves two purposes here: to link the verb to the subject, and to prevent having to pronounce two vowels in a row.
2. Using Interrogative Words
Very often you will need to ask a question and you will not know exactly what type of information you are looking for. In other words, you need to ask a question that will not have a yes/no answer.
For these types of open-ended questions, you need to start with an interrogative word, then use the inverted verb-subject structure.
Some common interrogative words include:
- Qui (Who)
- Que (What)
- Quand (When)
- Où (Where)
- Pourquoi (Why)
- Comment (How)
So, some example inversion questions would be:
Quand arriveras-tu chez toi? (When will you arrive home?)
Comment t’appelles-tu? (What is your name? — Literally, “How do you call yourself?”)
For this last example, note that you may also hear the forms “Comment tu t’appelles?” and “Comment vous appelez-vous?” but these are more common in France, while the inversion in the example above is more common in other French-speaking countries like Belgium.
3. Forming Negative Questions
Sometimes questions are posed in the negative. For instance, in English you might ask, “Don’t you play the piano?”
You can do this with French inversion questions as well, by adding ne or n’ before the verb (use n’ if the verb starts with a vowel) and pas after the subject:
N’aimez-vous pas la viande? (Don’t you like meat?)
N’aiment-ils pas cuisiner? (Don’t they like cooking?)
Ne sais-tu pas mon nom? (Don’t you know my name?)
4. Questions About Yourself
Do you ever talk to yourself? I know I do. (No, you’re crazy!)
In all seriousness, we sometimes speak to ourselves when we are trying to find our keys or wondering what we were thinking when we decorated the kitchen in mauve. Alternatively, we may need to ask someone else about ourselves.
There is nothing new about the structure for this type of French inversion question, except that the phrase ai-je may seem a bit weird. It is just the inversion of J’ai (I have).
Ai-je deux animaux chez moi? (Have I got two pets at home?)
Suis-je intelligent? (Am I intelligent?)
Ai-je l’air de rigoler sur ce sujet? (Do I look like I am joking about this topic?)
Que sais-je? (What do I know? or Whatever)
Ready-you are? Learned-you have well?
Right, it does not work in English.
What I mean is: I hope you have learned inversion questions well enough that you are ready to use them in the wild!
After graduating with a degree in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Alicante, Spain, Veronica Manzanares moved to Paris to work as a Spanish Teaching Assistant and then to Copenhagen, Denmark. After realizing how hard Danish was, she moved to the U.K., where she would like to settle down.
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