As children, most of us remember learning the Five Ws—who, what, when, where and why.
Well, easy is debatable, especially when it comes to “what” in French.
Despite the fact that it’s one of the first things we learn as language learners, most of us are unaware that the roots of mastering “what” go a lot deeper into intermediate and advanced soil.
But we don’t have to bury ourselves alive in heavy grammar.
Let’s simplify and take a quick look at the different ways that “what” is expressed in French.
If you make it all the way to the end, you bet I’ll send you a virtual cookie!
A Few Things to Consider First About “What” in French
It’s important to keep in mind there’s no exact translation of the English “what” to the French “what.”
“What” is a grammatical multitasker. It can interrogate like a bad cop, describe like a storyteller and even move freely within a sentence like the queen in chess. As French learners, once we understand that, everything changes.
In English, we get pretty used to using the word “what” all willy nilly and because of this, we think “what” is just one thing.
Well, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not.
From this point on, both in this article and out in the real world of language learning, let go of your inhibitions and leave your anglophone “what” at the door.
Doing this will allow your brain to be more accepting of other linguistic possibilities. You’ll also be less tempted to translate, which as we’ll see, rarely works out.
If you want to hear native French speakers use “what” in French in its many different constructs, FluentU has plenty of real-world content. You’ll find news clips, inspirational interviews, educational talks and funny YouTube videos all complete with interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and short quizzes that’ll provide you with the next best things to in-person language immersion.
But before you can start practicing, you first need to learn the basics of the French “what.”
So, here we go!
How to Say “What” in French
How to Use the French “Which” as the English “What”
Have you ever found yourself on the verge of a mini-breakdown when the question you want to ask or the sentence you want to say in French includes “what?”
You go in thinking you know the word for “what” but then it doesn’t sound quite right in your head.
And then you proceed to either not say anything at all (and go wallow in ice cream) or think: “I can get around this,” and do some weird linguistic detour that incites a forced smile from the person you’re talking to.
Well, you’re not alone my friend!
In English, it’s common to use “what” before a noun, as in, “What is your favorite film?”
But in French, you have to think “which” as in, “Which is your favorite film?”
The French Word for “Which”
The French word for “which” is quel, and it changes form depending on whether the noun that follows is masculine, feminine, singular or plural.
- Masculine: Quel
- Quel est son nom? (What’s his name?)
- Feminine: Quelle
- Quelle est la date d’aujourd’hui? (What’s the date today?)
- Masculine plural: Quels
- Quels sont les avantages d’habiter en ville? (What are the advantages of living in town?)
- Feminine plural: Quelles
- Quelles sont tes qualités personnelles? (What are your personal qualities?)
Quel as an Exclamation
Quel is also used when we want to make an exclamation such as, “What a beautiful house!”
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a Red Riding Hood vibe here. So the next time you go to your grandmother’s house in the forest and notice she has slightly larger teeth than usual, you’ll know to say, “Quelles grandes dents!” (What big teeth!)
A bonus point is that the pronunciation of quel and its variants don’t change, only the spelling!
How to Use “What” as a Question Word
Que. So simple. So deadly.
Why? Because when asking a question sometimes “what” can get confusing, despite the fact that it seems straightforward at first.
The one you need to use depends on whether que is followed by a subject or an object.
- Subject: Qu’est-ce qui se passe? (What’s happening?)
- Object: Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? (What do you want?)
Remember that when que is followed by the vowel “e” it’s necessary to drop the last “e” in que and add an apostrophe.
Que can also stand on its own—and thanks to inversion (e.g. the swapping around of a pronoun and verb), we can see it in all its glory:
Que fais-tu aujourd’hui? (What are you doing today?)
How to Use “What” in the Middle of a Sentence
There are times when “what” isn’t needed at the beginning or end of a sentence but instead in the middle. Kind of like a sandwich filling, or in grammatical terms connecting two clauses together.
Since we’ve already taken a look at at est-ce qui and est-ce que in relation to the subject and object of a sentence, we can breathe a sigh of relief, as this follows exactly the same principle. The only difference is that we’re going to take our sandwich knife and cut the est part away.
We’re now left with ce qui and ce que.
- When”what” is the subject of the relative clause:
- On ne sait pas ce qui va se passer. (We don’t know what’s going to happen.)
- When “what” is the object of the relative clause:
- Montre-moi ce que tu as trouvé! (Show me what you found!)
Again, this takes a lot of practice, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling!
How to Use “What” on its Own, with Prepositions or at the End of a Sentence
Quoi also means “what,” and whenever you want to say it by itself as in the exclamation, “What!” the equivalent in French is “quoi!”
It should be noted that quoishouldn’t be used in polite or formal situations when you haven’t heard something someone has said to you.
Quoi can also be “what” at the end of a sentence.
Il voit quoi? (What does he see?)
Again, this is informal and should be exercised with care depending on your situation.
When “what” is used with a preposition, the preposition comes first and then quoi.
De quoi s’agit-il? (What’s it about?)
Je me demande à quoi elle pense. (I wonder what she’s thinking about.)
How to Use “What” with the Preposition De
If you’re still with me, congratulations for sticking out all this tough grammar!
Sometimes “what” after a preposition isn’t quoi but ce dont.
Ce dont is used for verbs that use de to introduce an indirect object pronoun.
Let’s say I want to express this in English: I want this television. It’s what I want.
In French, this becomes: J’ai envie de cette télévision. C’est ce dont j’ai envie.
As I’ve mentioned previously, mastering how to say “what” in French will take time. But, you’re off to a great start now!
The French “what” is in a sense part of a much bigger picture because to really get the hang of it (in all its forms) you need to have a good grasp of French prepositions and syntax amongst other things. But, that’s for another day!
Sophie McDonald is a freelance content writer with a burning passion for writing and languages. You can find her Twitter page here where she will most likely be talking about writing and languages.
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