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“Est-ce que” and more: How to ask questions in French

Celine Segueg

Have you been wondering how to form questions in French? And what about this est-ce que phrase that appears in so many French questions? These two topics are very closely related!

There are three options for forming questions in French. The most common form uses the expression “est-ce que” to introduce the question, while the other two rely on word order and on intonation.

In this post, we’ll cover the three ways to form questions in French. We’ll start with how to interpret the phrase est-ce que in English, with plenty of examples, allowing you to quickly master this basic conversational element in French. We’ll finish off our lesson with some specific types of questions in French.

Now let’s get started!

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What does the phrase “est-ce que” mean in French?

If we try to translate est-ce que literally, it’s essentially made up of the three French words: is it that. We can never use est-ce que in French all by itself though, as it doesn’t really mean anything on its own.

The power of est-ce que comes when it’s used to introduce a question: any statement that follows becomes a question! We’ll see this in our examples below, but first let’s just be clear on the potential translation of est-ce que in English… there isn’t really one.

Let’s see what happens if we try to translate word-for-word:

  • Est-ce que tu aimes les pommes ? – Is it that you like apples?
  • Est-ce que vous allez au match ce soir ? – Is it that you are going to the game tonight?

Clearly, this is pretty awkward. What’s important here is that est-ce que is indicating that the rest of the sentence is a question. In fact, est-ce que is often omitted altogether in English translations, or else it’s replaced by another auxiliary word in English like do or does.

  • Est-ce que tu aimes le saumon ? – Do you like salmon?
  • Est-ce que vous allez en ville demain ? – Are you going into the city tomorrow?

Note that the correct French spelling of est-ce que is always with the hyphen. It is never written as “est ce que.”

How to ask questions in French: Three ways

Now that we’ve introduced the unique French phrase for introducing questions, let’s see all three options for how to form questions in French.

1. Using “est-ce que” to form French questions

The most common way to ask a question in French is to use the expression est-ce que. We simply place this phrase before a statement and it becomes a question. Let’s see a few examples:

  • Statement: Jean-Pierre joue au basket demain. – Jean-Pierre plays basketball tomorrow.
  • Question: Est-ce que Jean-Pierre joue au basket demain ? – Does Jean-Pierre play basketball tomorrow? – Is Jean-Pierre playing basketball tomorrow?
  • Statement: Son frère est intelligent. – His brother is intelligent.
  • Question: Est-ce que son frère est intelligent ? – Is his brother intelligent?
  • Statement: La lune a une incidence sur les marées. – The moon has an effect on the tides.
  • Question: Est-ce que la lune a une incidence sur les marées ? – Does the moon have an effect on the tides?

When the next word starts with a vowel, est-ce que loses its final letter e and takes an apostrophe instead to become est-ce qu’:

  • Est-ce qu’il aime regarder les sports ? – Does he like to watch sports?
  • Est-ce qu’Elise préfère les romans de romance ? – Does Elise prefer romance novels?

2. Asking questions in French using inversion

Another common way to ask questions in French is using inversion. Inversion may sound complicated, but it really just refers to switching the placement of the subject and the verb in a sentence. The same inversion method is used to ask questions in English:

  • Statement: You are running in the race tomorrow.
  • Question: Are you running in the race tomorrow?

When we write questions in French using inversion, we connect the inverted verb and subject with a hyphen: . Observe how a simple statement is turned into a question using inversion:

  • Statement: Tu achètes du pain. – You buy the bread.
  • Question: Achètes-tu du pain ? – Are you buying bread?

Now let’s see a few more examples of this inversion structure for asking questions in French:

  • Aimez-vous cette chemise ? – Do you like this shirt?
  • As-tu l’heure ? – Do you have the time?
  • Crois-tu en Dieu ? – Do you believe in God?

An important particularity with the inversion structure is that it can generally only be used with the subject pronouns, not with the nouns themselves. This frequently comes into play when we’re asking questions about someone in the third person. If we want to state the subject as well, we need to repeat it before or after the inversion:

  • Ton copain, connaît-il tes parents ? – Does your boyfriend know your parents?
  • Les poulets, peuvent-ils vraiment voler ? – Can chickens really fly?
  • Est-elle malade, Marianne ? – Is Marianne sick?

When it comes to French pronunciation, we often need to pronounce the last letter of the conjugated verb in inverted questions, even though they’re usually silent. This is the case when the subject starts with a vowel, in order to tie the two words together phonetically. In the following examples, the final t of the verbs is pronounced:

  • Mangent-ils avec nous ce soir ? – Are they eating with us tonight?
  • Ont-ils déjà vendu leur maison ? – Did they already sell their house?
  • Sait-elle que tu es avec moi ? – Does she know you’re with me?

The other important French pronunciation rule with inverted questions involves actually adding a written -t- between the verb and the subject. This rule comes into play when the verb ends with a vowel and the subject starts with a vowel sound, thus breaking up the two vowels with a consonant sound. This is known as the t euphonique, and it has no actual meaning. It’s just there to help create a vocal separation between the two inverted words in the question!

Let’s see a few examples of the t euphonique, whose pronunciations are similar to our previous examples where the verb already ended in a t:

  • A-t-il une voiture ? – Does he have a car?
  • Mange-t-on avec des baguettes chinoises au Viet Nam ? – Do they eat with chopsticks in Vietnam?
  • Ose-t-il lui poser la grande question ? – Does he dare ask her the big question?

3. Using intonation to ask questions in French

Another way to ask a question is by using intonation. This just means that we turn a statement into a question by raising the pitch of our voice at the end. Think about how these two identical English sentences sound different, with the second asked as a question:

  • Statement: Arielle is dating our professor.
  • Question: Arielle is dating our professor!?

Using intonation is the most informal way to ask a question in French, but it’s also quite common. You just make your statement sound like a question by the way you say it!

  • Tu vas manger tes frites ? – You’re going to eat your fries?
  • Les demi-finales sont ce week-end ? – The semi-finals are this weekend?
  • Ils ont envoyé une peluche de Snoopy dans l’espace? – They sent a Snoopy doll to outer space?

Comparing the three French question structures

Now that we’ve gone over each of the three ways to structure questions in French, we’ll just provide a few examples in all three formats. These are all asking the same questions!

  • Est-ce que tu as déjà fait tes devoirs ? – As-tu déjà fait tes devoirs ? – Tu as déjà fait tes devoirs ? – Did you already do your homework?
  • Est-ce que Martin lave ton linge ? – Martin lave-t-il ton linge ? – Martin lave ton linge ? – Does Martin wash your laundry?
  • Est-ce qu’elle est contagieuse ? – Est-elle contagieuse ? – Elle est contagieuse ? – Is she contagious?
  • Est-ce que je suis toujours jeune ? – Suis-je toujours jeune ? – Je suis toujours jeune ? – Am I still young?
  • Est-ce qu’il fait froid dehors ? – Fait-il froid dehors ? – Il fait froid dehors ? – Is it cold outside?

Asking specific types of questions in French

Now that we’ve covered how to form questions in French, we can see how these can apply to specific types of questions.

Asking open-ended questions using the French interrogatives

When we want to move beyond simple yes or no questions, we frequently rely on interrogatives like who, what, when, where, why, and how. To learn these French interrogatives in more detail, check out our post on French question words.

We can form open-ended questions using interrogatives by inserting them into any of the three structures we saw in the previous section. Let’s see this in action with a set of examples using the question word for where:

  • est-ce que vous voulez manger ? – Where do you want to eat?
  • voulez-vous manger ? – Where do you want to eat?
  • Vous voulez manger où ? – Where do you want to eat?

Asking questions in the negative using “ne…pas”

When we expect an answer to be no or negative, or when we want to express surprise or doubt, it’s common to ask questions in the negative. You do this in English too:

  • You don’t want to see your family at the concert?
  • Don’t you want to eat before we go to the movies?

In French, we use the words ne and pas to put a sentence in the negative, with the verb in between the two. We use this same ne…pas construction when asking questions in the negative. When asking questions in the negative in French, we can use either intonation or inversion.

With intonation, the French ne…pas structure is the same is with affirmative statements:

  • Tu ne veux pas voir ta famille au parc ? – You don’t want to see your family at the park?

With inversion, the ne goes first, and the pas goes after the inverted verb and subject:

  • Ne voulez-vous pas manger avant ? – Don’t you want to eat before?

We do not use est-ce que with negative questions.

“Isn’t that right?” in French

Adding a little question phrase at the end of a statement can also turn it into a question, right? In French, we often add the expression n’est-ce pas at the end of a statement or question. This little phrase can simply add emphasis as a rhetorical question, or it can be used to elicit a response.

N’est-ce pas in English is essentially isn’t that right?, though the best translation depends on the context:

  • Elle a raison, n’est-ce pas? – She is right, isn’t she?
  • Vous avez déjà mangé, n’est-ce pas ? – You’ve already eaten, haven’t you?
  • C’est très beau en Martinique, n’est-ce pas ? – It’s very beautiful in Martinique, isn’t it?

Conclusion

Now you know how to ask questions in French!

We started by demystifying the vital phrase est-ce que, which doesn’t have a translation in English but whose use easily turns French statements into French questions. We then looked at the other two sentence structures for asking questions in French: inversion and intonation. We took some time to discuss the particular rules regarding inversion, including how to write questions in French with the euphonic t to aid in pronunciation.

For the latter half of our post, we touched on specific types of questions. First we saw how it’s easy to add French question words to any of the three structures. Then we looked at asking questions in the negative using ne…pas, learning that we can apply this structure to either the inversion or the intonation structures. Finally, we saw an easy way to turn statements into somewhat-rhetorical questions by asking n’est-ce pas? at the end.

Est-ce que vous êtes maintenant prêts à poser des questions en français ? C’est facile, n’est-ce pas? – Are you now ready to ask questions in French? It’s easy, right?

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