What lies beyond the veil of mystery?
Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (What is it?)
Ah, the never-ending stream of questions.
It’s enough to make you run away in frustration.
Don’t let it rattle you, though. We’re going to lift the veil of mystery and confusion behind this expression. We’re going to bring context and clarity to this francophone puzzle.
Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est ? (But, what is it?)
Let’s find out.
Qu’est-ce que c’est: A Versatile Expression for Any Context
What Does qu’est-ce que c’est Mean?
To a non-native speaker, qu’est-ce que c’est can be a source of frustration.
We can translate it as, “What is it”—and that captures the basic meaning.
But what’s with all the extra words?
Anatomy of an idiomatic expression
Let’s break this down a bit.
First of all, the initial qu’ of qu’est-ce: It’s short for que, meaning “that.”
Que ends in a silent e. When it’s placed next to est-ce, it loses its silent e in a process called elision. (Don’t feel bad, though. Que may lose its e, but it gets a snazzy new apostrophe to put in its place.)
So, est-ce. Just what is this vowel-stealing component of qu’est-ce que c’est?
Est simply means “is.” It’s just the present-tense, third person conjugation of être (to be).
And the little tag-on, -ce? It merely means “this.” Or “that.” It’s barely noticeable. It’s barely even uttered. (Just add a very slight hissing sound after you say est, before you pronounce que.) Technically, ce is a demonstrative adjective. It usually goes in front of a noun, to indicate “this (one)” or “that (one).”
Put together, est-ce literally means “is this”—or “is that.”
So far, we have qu’est-ce—“what is this.”
Next up, another que (that). This que doesn’t lose its –e like the last one did. It’s used as a conjunction to introduce the next part of the phrase—c’est (it is).
And here’s where things get really weird, because we now have the full phrase: qu’est que c’est. A phrase that can be literally translated as, “What is this that it is?”
Qu’est-ce que c’est versus est-ce que
All this talk of qu’est-ce que c’est may bring to mind the heart of this expression: est-ce que.
Est-ce que (is it that) gets a lot of mileage in French.
You may have been taught est-ce que as a way to ask questions:
- Est-ce que Paul est ici ? (Is Paul here?)
- Est-ce qu’il connaît Sandrine ? (Does he know Sandrine?)
- Est-ce que l’avion vient d’arriver ? (Did the plane just arrive?)
- Est-ce qu’on va arrêter de poser toutes ces questions ? (Will we stop asking all these questions?)
Qu’est-ce que c’est, like est-ce que, is an interrogative. Even though they share a core of words, they’re not interchangeable.
Est-ce que basically means “is,” or “does,” or “will,” depending on the context.
Qu’est-ce que c’est, on the other hand, asks “what.”
Shades of meaning
In more casual French, you’ll often hear, c’est quoi, ça ?—literally meaning, “it’s what, this/that?” (We’d say, “What’s this?” or “What’s that?” in English.)
Qu’est-ce que c’est is a bit more formal than c’est quoi, ça. However, it’s not always more polite.
Depending on the context and tone of voice used, qu’est-ce que c’est can be used to express a wide variety of emotions and shades of meaning.
We’ll look into fine-tuning our use of qu’est-ce que c’est in a moment.
Practicing qu’est-ce que c’est
As with any French expression that you’re incorporating into your repertoire, you’ll need to practice qu’est-ce que c’est in several different modalities to really get the hang of it.
Hear it spoken
Qu’est-ce que c’est probably gets the most play in conversation. Before you start using it, give yourself the chance to hear it spoken in a variety of ways.
You’ll find it on the French airwaves, on the radio and even on television.
YouTube pitches in with a few musical and conversational entries.
Sing and Learn’s Qu’est-ce que c’est song for kids in French brings you toe-tapping practice with a catchy little melody.
In the mood for a sea chanty? Monsieur Johnson MFL’s version of this “Drunken Sailor” tune will have you hoisting a glass and saying “Cheers”—in French, of course!
For a more sober exploration of this expression, the C’est Jackie channel leads you through listening and speaking exercises. Jackie demonstrates a wide range of emotions that can be expressed with this versatile phrase.
Use it in French conversation
As French learners, we’re always trying to find more ways to fit conversation practice into our everyday lives.
Why not include qu’est-ce que c’est in your French conversations?
It’s quite a helpful expression, after all. You can use it to elicit information about the world around you.
Point and use qu’est-ce que c’est to learn names for common household objects.
Keep your hands to yourself and use qu’est-ce que c’est to question your conversation partner while arguing about the deeper meaning of life.
You can find qu’est-ce que c’est in books, magazines and newspapers.
The phrase is used in the title of books on myriad topics.
You might spy the phrase in children’s books, which often involve learning about the world. Try books like “What is this? Qu’est-ce que c’est ?” to see this phrase in action.
Hunt down qu’est-ce que c’est in contemporary novels, where it might be featured in dialogue.
Look for it in the lines of editorials and op-ed pieces in French newspapers.
Write it out
Brush up on your French writing skills and learn to use qu’est-ce que c’est, all at the same time.
When you write the expression, be sure to include all the right punctuation in the right places:
- An apostrophe after the first qu’
- A hyphen between est and –ce
- An apostrophe between c’ and est
Use qu’est-ce que c’est in your French language journal. Insert it into emails. Just use it!
Using qu’est-ce que c’est in Context
Depending on the context, qu’est-ce que c’est can communicate a whole spectrum of emotions.
First and foremost, qu’est-ce que c’est is used for identifying unknowns.
Say it in a wonder-filled voice as you use it to discover as-yet-unknown names of objects around you—much as a young child might:
Qu’est-ce que c’est, ce truc-là ? (What is that thing over there?)
You can use qu’est-ce que c’est to emphasize your question or to add intensity to the conversation.
Add another que to the end of the expression, or drop the c’est from the end of qu’est-ce que c’est to ask about the fundamental nature of something:
- Qu’est-ce que c’est que la vérité ? (What is truth?)
- Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’une grasse matinée ? (What is a “fat morning?”)
- Qu’est-ce que l’univers ? (What is the universe?)
- Qu’est-ce qu’une expression idiomatique ? (What is an idiomatic expression?)
If you simply can’t believe what’s going on around you, distill your disbelief into a question:
Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ? (What [the heck] is that? / What on earth is going on?)
Your listeners will know that you’re stunned by whatever you’re witnessing.
Go from incredulous to furious with the same expression:
Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?!
Said in a tone of righteous indignation, qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?! asks, “What is the meaning of this?!”
If you’re offended by a question, you can demand to know:
Qu’est-ce que c’est, cette question ?
…In other words, “What kind of question is this?! What are you asking me?!”—with a dollop of “How dare you!” thrown in for good measure.
Related French Expressions
You’ll recognize the basic structure of qu’est-ce que c’est in some related expressions.
Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? (What [in the world] are you doing?)
In this expression, you’re dropping the final c’est from qu’est-ce que c’est in favor of a subject and a verb.
You can use the formal version—qu’est-ce que vous faites (what are you [formal/plural] doing)—or stick with the informal tu (you).
As always, your tone of voice will go a long way in determining whether this question is interpreted as curiosity or a show of irritation.
Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? (What’s going on? / What’s happening?)
Here, the que c’est is replaced by qui (who). However, it doesn’t mean “what is that who passes by.” When used in the reflexive, se passer means “to take place.”
Again, this can mean “what’s happening?” or “what the devil is going on?”, depending on context and tone of voice.
Qu’est-ce qui est arrivé ? (What happened?)
This is similar to qu’est-ce qui se passe, only it uses the passé composé (compound past tense) to ask about what has already occurred.
Ni quoi, ni qu’est-ce que (Nothing at all)
In English, we’d probably say, “Not this, that or the other” to express the spirit of ni quoi, ni qu’est-ce que.
Its synonyms in French include aucune chose (not a single thing) and rien du tout (nothing at all).
Simply put, it means “nothing.”
It dates back at least to the time of Marcel Proust, but you can still find it in various modern contexts—such as blog posts, adult contemporary songs and Instagram account names.
Whether you’re trying to learn French vocabulary to describe the world around you, pondering the discourse of talking heads or expressing your exasperation, you now have a killer query that can be used in almost any context.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in at least three others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a freelance content writer and education blogger. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.