Imagine the scenario: You’re in French class. And you need help.
What do you do?
You ask a question, of course!
But wait—learning French should be immersive. In other words, it should be done in French. So what do you do?!
Well, naturally, you’ll want to ask a question in French!
In order to pipe up in class (and in other immersive French atmospheres), you’ll need to learn how to ask some basic French questions.
Luckily, asking questions in French is easy to master. When you really break it down, French questions follow certain basic “formulas.” If you can hack those formulas, you’ll be able to ask French questions with the mastery and enthusiasm of a little kid who just learned how to say “Pourquoi?” (“Why?”)
Asking French Questions: The Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide
Asking Yes-or-no Questions
It would be easy to just teach you how to ask the most essential “survival” questions. But why merely give you a fish when I could instead teach you how to fish?
In other words, it’s much more helpful to learn why questions are structured the way they are.
The simplest questions are those that need a “yes” or “no” answer. To ask questions like these, we can choose from a few alternatives.
Asking yes-or-no questions using est-ce que
The most formal way to ask a question is to take a declaratory sentence and add est-ce que which in English would be something like “is it that.” Let’s take a look at the sentence:
Vous êtes australien. (You are Australian.)
This is a statement that we can turn into a question as follows:
Est-ce que vous êtes australien? (Are you Australian?)
Asking yes-or-no questions by changing your tone
Especially in informal situations, with “yes” and “no” questions you can just keep the same word order of the statement and raise the tone on the last word of the question. In this case we have:
Vous êtes australien. (You are Australian.)
Vous êtes australien? (Are you Australian?)
Here is a helpful YouTube video to help you get the hang of asking questions by changing your tone.
Asking yes-or-no questions by changing word order
I find est-ce que incredibly simple to use, but you can also just invert the subject and verb of your sentence. Check out the following statement:
Vous allez au parc. (You go to the park.)
If we wanted to make this a question we could just say:
Allez-vous au parc? (Do you go to the park?)
This is an equally valid way to ask questions, and you might find it easier than using est-ce que. Note the hyphen between the verb and subject.
To get a hang of inversion questions—especially those pesky hyphens—the best method is lots of practice. Luckily there are lots of great resources for this online, such as this quiz or this fill-in-the-blank worksheet.
Asking Questions with French Question Words
Many questions cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” This means you’ll have to practice your French question words: French equivalents of who, what, when, where, why, how and how many. However, as you’ll see, they also can be hacked with simple formulas based on what we’ve already seen.
Asking “who” questions
The French word for “who” is qui. Let’s start with a simple question:
Qui est-il? (Who is he?)
The simplest way to ask this question is to put qui at the beginning of the sentence and then invert the subject and verb with a hyphen as we did above. Inverting the subject and verb is the most common way to ask questions involving qui, but let’s look at a more complicated example.
We could also use qui to form a question using your old friend, est-ce que:
Qui est-ce qui lit? (Who is reading?)
This is a great moment to explain that est-ce que is only used when what follows it could be a complete sentence (subject + verb + object). That’s why a question like Qui est-il? doesn’t include est-ce que.
But in the question qui est-ce qui lit? we have a subject and verb that could be a complete sentence, so we add the est-ce que, but of course since the answer to this question is a person and the subject of the sentence, we say est-ce qui.
In the case where the answer to the question is both a person and direct object, we say qui est-ce que, for example:
Qui est-ce que tu connais ici? (Who do you know here?)
Asking “what” and “which” questions
In French, “what” can be translated as que or quoi, and “which” can be translated in several ways depending on the number and gender of the subject it modifies: quel, quels, quelle, quelles. Let’s look at an example involving que. Usually que uses est-ce que as follows:
Qu’est-ce que c’est? (What is it/this?)
This extremely common question breaks down as follows: que + est-ce que + subject + verb
We’ll put est-ce que right after the question word in the majority of questions in French.
In addition to que, we also have the option of using the less formal alternative quoi. For example:
C’est quoi ça? (What is it/this?)
Asking “when” questions
The French word for “when” is quand, and as you can expect, we can make questions using our hack.
Quand est-ce que tu veux aller au cinéma? (When do you want to go to the movies?)
Note how we put est-ce que after the question word here, since what comes afterward could be a stand-alone sentence.
We could also just change the order of the words and use raised intonation:
Vous arrivez quand? (When will you arrive?)
Asking “where” questions
“Where” is translated as où (note the accent). To ask where something is, you can formulate a question like:
Où est mon chat? (Where is my cat?)
Again, remember that we only use est-ce que when what follows could be a complete sentence (subject + verb + object). That’s why a sentence like Où est mon chat? doesn’t include est-ce que.
Note the difference between the last sentence and this one:
Où est-ce que tu veux aller? (Where do you want to go?)
Here we have a complete sentence (tu veux aller) following est-ce que, whereas in the first sentence, we only had a subject: mon chat.
Finally, we can simplify our question, eliminating the est-ce que and using the hyphen:
Où veux-tu aller? (Where do you want to go?)
Asking “why” questions
Asking “why” is one of the most important things you can ask. The French translation is pourquoi. Let’s look at an example:
Pourquoi est-ce que vous mangez trop? (Why do you eat too much?)
Once again, the same formula used above applies to why questions: you can use inversion and drop the est-ce que to ask the question in a different way.
Pourquoi mangez-vous trop? (Why do you eat too much?)
Asking “how” questions
We’ve covered the principal “who, what, when, where and why” questions, but there are other question words, such as “how,” or comment. Check this out:
Comment est-ce qu’on sort d’ici? (How do we get out of here?)
As always, we can also ask questions by reversing the subject and verb. For example:
Comment parle-t-on là-bas? (How do people speak there?)
Let’s stop for a quick teaching moment. You might be asking, “why is there a t between parle and on?“ When we ask a question by inverting the verb and the subject, if the last letter of the conjugated verb is a vowel as well as the first letter of the subject, we have to add a t that acts as a sort of pronunciation break.
Asking “how many” questions
In French, we have a word for “how many”: combien. Let’s check out a complete example:
Combien de chats est-ce qu’il y a dans la maison? (How many cats are there in the house?)
This sentence looks complicated, but it isn’t. Let’s break it into pieces:
Combien de + plural noun + est-ce que + il y a + dans la maison?
The est-ce qu’il y a is like saying “are there”. Notice the de after combien. This is always used, whether the subject that follows is countable or uncountable.
We can also replace the est-ce qu’il y a with y a-t-il which also means “are there”:
Combien de chats y a-t-il dans la maison?
Finally, we can start with il y a as follows:
Il y a combien de chats dans la maison?
Asking Essential French “Survival” Questions
Many questions fall neatly into the categories we studied above, and you can learn them over time just by applying some basic formulas.
However, some French questions are so important that they should be learned early on by all French learners, even if that means sitting down with a flashcard deck and memorizing them word-by-word.
Let’s take a look at some of these “survival” questions. You’ll notice that many of them are applications of the “question formulas” we’ve already learned!
How to ask someone’s name
If you want to know someone’s name, and you’re in an informal setting, you say:
Comment t’appelles-tu? (What is your name?)
In a formal setting, you’ll want to change up the verb slightly and ask:
Comment vous appelez-vous? (What is your name?)
Notice how we’re using the “invert subject and verb” method. Here, the key word is comment (how). The French question translates literally into, “How do you call yourself?”
How to ask someone’s age
If you’re asking someone’s age in an informal setting, say:
Quel âge as-tu? (How old are you?)
In a formal setting, ask:
Quel âge avez-vous?
Again, we’re inverting the subject and verb. Notice that in French, we discuss age with avoir (to have) and not être (to be). The question translates to: “What age do you have?”
How to ask for the price of something
If you need to buy something, you can simply ask:
Combien ça coûte? (How much does it/this cost?)
You can also say:
Quel est le prix de …? (What is the price of …?)
Quel est le prix du billet d’avion? (How much does the plane ticket cost?)
How to ask what time it is
To have someone tell you the time, you usually say:
Quelle heure est-il? (What time is it?)
Or more informally:
Il est quelle heure?
How to ask how to say a French word
This is a very important question that you have to memorize by heart in French. It’s especially important for anyone taking a French class. If you don’t know how to say something, you simply ask:
Comment dit-on … en français? (How do you say … in French?)
Note how we reverse dit and on, thus avoiding est-ce que. Then, to know how to spell the word, you ask:
Comment ça s’écrit? (How is it written?)
How to ask what’s happening
The plight of the foreign language learner is frequently having no idea what’s going on around you.
If you need some clarification, you can say:
Qu’est-ce qui se passe? (What is happening?)
Note that when est-ce que is followed by a verb, it changes to est-ce qui. You can also use the inversion method:
Que se passe-t-il? (What is happening?)
Remember that rogue t that showed up above? Here it is again, separating the vowels at the end of passe and the beginning of il.
Although asking questions in French sounds like a big topic, once you memorize the formulas you can ask questions about more or less anything. Once you can make statements and ask questions, you’re having a conversation. That’s to say: you’re officially speaking French. So ask away!