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French question words: The essential guide

Celine Segueg

We use French question words, or interrogatives, to specify the type of information we’re requesting, just as you do in English.

The majority of English question words begin with the letters wh-, such as who, what, when, where, why, and which. In general, each of these corresponds to their equivalent French question words, or mots interrogatifs. Many of these words act as the subject of their sentences, so they can be considered interrogative pronouns, or pronoms interrogatifs.

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In this post we’ll go through these common French question words, providing explanations and examples for each one. First, let’s just start off with this list of French interrogatives:

Common French interrogatives

French interrogatives English interrogatives
qui who, whom
quoi what
que what
quand when
where
pourquoi why
quel which
comment how
combien how much, how many

Who in French

Qui

The French question word qui is used to ask who or whom in French, and is used in many common French expressions. It’s often the first word in a question, but can also appear elsewhere in the sentence.

  • Qui est-ce ? – Who is it?
  • Qui est là ? – Who is there?
  • Tu attends qui ? – Who are you waiting for?

Qui acts as an interrogative pronoun, whether in the place of the subject or the object in a sentence. In general, qui in this case is considered singular, unless the question clearly asks about multiple people.

  • Qui a mangé toute la glace ? – Who ate all the ice cream?
  • Qui sont ces trois belles femmes avec ton frère ? – Who are these three pretty women with your brother?
  • Qui est-ce que tu vois ? – Who do you see?

Qui is frequently used together with French prepositions to ask questions from a different angle, just as in English. In this case the questions are aimed at direct or indirect objects of the sentence, so technically this use of qui is equivalent to whom in French. Whereas in English you commonly revert to using who when the interrogative is separated from the preposition, in French the two always stick together.

  • De qui parlez-vous? – Vous parlez de qui ? – About whom are you speaking? – Who are you speaking about?
  • Avec qui vas-tu à la fête? – Tu vas à la fête avec qui ? – With whom are you going to the party? – Who are you going to the party with?

The following prepositions are frequently used with the French question word qui:

à qui to whom
de qui of whom, about whom
pour qui for whom
avec qui with whom
  • À qui est-ce que tu parles ? – To whom are you speaking? – Who are you talking to?
  • De qui pensez-vous ? – Who are you thinking of? – Who are you thinking about?
  • Pour qui est-ce qu’elle achète le cadeau ? – Who is she buying the gift for?
  • Il va au concert avec qui ? – With whom is he going to the concert?

What in French

How do you say what in French? We actually have two distinct words that both usually translate as what in French, each used in different contexts: quoi and que. We’ll go into each one individually here.

In addition, a couple of other question words are sometimes translated as what in English, though this isn’t their main meaning. We’ll mention these uses below when we introduce quel and comment.

Quoi

We need to use quoi in French when the sentence structure puts what after the action verb as a direct object. This structure is less formal than the equivalent using que, which we’ll see in the next section.

  • Vous faites quoi après l’école ? – What are you doing after school?
  • Les ratons laveurs mangent quoi ? – What do raccoons eat?
  • Tu as fais quoi avec mes vinyles ? – What did you do with my records?
  • Ils annoncent quoi cette fois-ci ? – What are they announcing this time?

Quoi is the French word for what when it’s the indirect object after a preposition:

  • Normalement, tu vas à la plage avec quoi ? – What do you normally go to the beach with?
  • Tu penses à quoi ? – What are you thinking of? – What are you thinking about?

Quoi is used as a stand-alone question when you don’t understand, or when you didn’t hear and need something repeated.

  • Quoi ? Je n’ai pas compris. – What? I didn’t understand.
  • Quoi ? Peux-tu répéter ce que tu viens de dire, s’il te plaît. – What? Can you please repeat what you just said?

Quoi is also used on its own as an exclamation to express surprise or disbelief, just like in English.

  • Quoi !? C’est incroyable! – What!? That’s unbelievable!
  • Quoi !? Comment a-t-il pu rater ce but? – What!? How did he manage to miss that goal?

It can also be used to express impatience just like in English.

  • On part ou quoi ? – Are we leaving or what?

Que

We always use que as the French word for what when it’s the first word of a question sentence. This sentence structure is more formal than the one we saw above where we need to use quoi after the action verb.

To give an idea of when to use que vs quoi, we’ll use the same example sentences here as we used in the first part of the previous sectoin on using quoi. The meaning remains the same, and English translation is generally identical.

  • Que faites-vous après l’école ? – What are you doing after school?
  • Que mangent les ratons laveurs ? – What do raccoons eat?

When we use que before a word starting with a vowel, we abbreviate it to qu’ to create a contraction.

  • Qu’as-tu fais avec mes vinyles ? – What did you do with my records?
  • Qu’annoncent-ils cette fois-ci ? – What are they announcing this time?

Unlike the uses we saw with quoi, we can’t use que with prepositions. It’s also never used on its own as an interjection or an exclamation.

The French question word que is identical to the French conjunction que, meaning that. We differentiate between these two French que words based on their context within a sentence.

  • Que mangent les chats que les chiens ne mangent pas ? What do cats eat that dogs don’t eat?
  • Que penses-tu que j’ai dans ma poche ? – What do you think that I have in my pocket?

This conjunction que is an integral part of the ubiquitous phrase est-ce que that’s used in French to ask questions more formally. This phrase translates roughly as is this that, and is frequently inserted directly after question words to really enunciate the question. Est-ce que is omitted entirely from the English translations.

Let’s see est-ce que used with a few of our same que example questions:

  • Qu’est-ce que vous faites après l’école ? – What are you doing after school?
  • Qu’est-ce que les ratons laveurs mangent ? – What do raccoons eat?
  • Qu’est-ce qu’ils annoncent cette fois-ci ? – What are they announcing this time?

When in French

Quand

Quand is the word for when in French, and is also very straightforward for English speakers. It can be used on its own, as a subject, or as an object of a sentence.

  • Vous avez une réunion ? Quand ? – You have a meeting? When?
  • La Coupe du Monde est quand ? – When is the World Cup?
  • Quand est-ce qu’ils jouent le premier match ? – When do they play the first game?
  • Sais-tu quand ça commence ? – Do you know when it starts?

Where in French

Saying where in French is pretty simple. It’s always the word  and it can be used on its own, at the beginning of a sentence, as a subject, and as an object.

  • Vous allez manger ?  ? – You’re going to eat? Where?
  •  est mon sac à dos ? – Where is my backpack?
  •  vas-tu ? – Where are you going?
  • Savez-vous  sont les toilettes ? – Do you know where the toilets are?

Why in French

Pourquoi

Pourquoi, meaning why in French, is a single word. Many French learners get it confused since it appears to be composed of two words, pour + quoi, meaning for for + what. It’s best to just remember that pourquoi is a separate word that means why.

Pourquoi is used similarly to why in French. The reply often begins with parce que, meaning because in French.

  • Tu es fatigué ? Pourquoi ? / Parce que je viens de courir cinq kilomètres. – You are tired? Why? / Because I just ran five kilometers.
  • Pourquoi est-ce que le drapeau français a trois couleurs ? – Why does the French flag have three colors?
  • Pourquoi aimes-tu ce café ? – Why do you like this café?
  • Comprends-tu pourquoi la voiture ne démarre pas ? – Do you understand why the car won’t start?

Which in French

Quel, Quelle, Quels, Quelles

Quel is the word for which in French. However, it differs from the other French interrogatives because it has four versions, depending on whether we use it to ask about something that’s masculine, feminine, singular, or plural.

Here are the four forms of quel in French:

singular plural
masculine quel quels
feminine quelle quelles

 

Just like in English with which, quel is always used to ask about countable nouns. Let’s see it used to ask about favorite films (masculine) and seasons (feminine):

  • Quel film est ton préféré ? Which film is your favorite?
  • Quels films sont tes préférés ? – Which films are your favorites?
  • Quelle saison est ta préférée ? – Which season is your favorite?
  • Quelles saisons sont tes préférées ? – Which seasons are your favorites?

The noun doesn’t always need to follow immediately after quel, just like in English:

  • Quel est ton livre préféré ? – Which is your favorite book? – What is your favorite book?
  • Quel est ta voiture préférée ? – Which is your favorite car? – What is your favorite car?

As we’ve shown in these examples, the English translation often sounds more natural when you use what rather than which. Be careful when translating from English to French, though! If you’re able to ask which one?, you’ll need to use quel rather than other options for what in French that we saw earlier.

How in French

Comment

Comment in French is used to ask how something is done, or how well someone does something, just like in English.

  • Comment est-ce que ton frère joue au basket ? Bien? – How does your brother play basketball? Well?
  • Comment dit-on «écouter» en anglais? – How does one say “listen” in English?
  • Comment ont-ils réussi à battre les champions du monde ? – How did they succeed in beating the world champions?

Comment is also used in many typical French expressions.

  • Comment ça va ? – How is it going?
  • Comment allez-vous ? – How are you doing?
  • Comment vas-tu ? – How are you?

In some contexts, comment is better translated as what in English. One common example is in the question asking someone’s name using the verb s’appeler. This is a factor of this verb’s meaning as to call oneself, which doesn’t translate well into English:

  • Comment t’appelles-tu ? – What is your name? – [How do you call yourself?]
  • Comment s’appelle-t-il ? – What is his name? – [How does he call himself?]

The other main use of comment as what in French is on its own as an emphatic response in disbelief. Whereas a lighter response could be pardon, which is pardon me in French, if you’re shocked you’d rather just say comment !?, or what!?

  • Je viens de gagner à la loto. / Comment !? – I just won the lottery. / What!?
  • Pour les réparations de votre voiture, ça va coûter €3900. / Comment !? – For your car repairs, it will cost €3900. / What!?

How much or How many in French

Combien

In English, you use how much with uncountable nouns to ask about the quantity, and how many with countable nouns to ask about the number. We use combien in French for both of these.

  • Combien vaut ta maison ? – How much is your house worth?
  • Combien coûte ce vélo? – How much does this bike cost?
  • Ils en veulent combien? – How many do they want?

Combien is frequently used in combination with the preposition de, meaning of. We use combien de to ask about a specific number of items or about a quantity of something.

  • Combien de pommes veux-tu ? – How many apples do you want?
  • Combien de temps as-tu ? – How much time do you have?
  • Combien de beurre est dans ce gâteau ? – How much butter is in this cake?

Conclusion

For the most part, les mots interrogatifs, or French question words, are used in the same ways that their corresponding question words are used in English. Knowing these basic question words in French is fundamental in order to interact, communicate, and request information.

You now know all of the most important French question words: qui, quoi, que, quand, , pourquoi, quel, comment, and combien. We saw explanations for each of these, as well as tons of examples of them in use. For more practice in using these French interrogatives to form questions, we recommend our post on using est-ce que in French.

The main differences with English to remember are that there are a few ways to say what in French (que and quoi, and sometimes quel or comment), that the French word for which is used in a lot more contexts than in English (plus, quel has four forms!), and that combien is used for both how much and how many.

With all this in mind, you’re ready to put these French question words to use!

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