Quel definition: Understanding all the forms of Quel in French

Celine Segueg

Quel in French is one of the fundamental words that learners get to know early on. At first glance, our French quel is just a question word meaning which, right? That’s certainly the easiest quel definition we can point to, but is it the only one?

Today we’re going deep on this multi-faceted little word, seeing how to use quel in three distinct grammatical categories: as an interrogative adjective, as an interrogative pronoun, and as an exclamatory adjective.

  • Interrogative adjective: Quel vélo est le tien? – Which bike is yours?
  • Interrogative pronoun: Quel est ton vélo ? – Which one is your bike?
  • Exclamatory adjective: Quel beau vélo ! – What a nice bike!

The first two grammatical categories are pretty similar, since they’re both used in questions to ask for details about something. We covered this quel meaning in our post on French question words, lumping both grammatical categories into the same lesson.

Quel as an exclamatory adjective carries a very different meaning, however, so we’ll spend a bit more time on that quel definition in today’s post. We’ll also be sure to introduce a number of common French exclamations that are built on quel.

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Four forms: quel, quelle, quels, quelles

Before we get into grammar, we need to note that quel has four forms to account for the gender and number of whatever noun it refers to. This applies to all of the grammatical roles that quel can play, so we’ll see all four of these forms of quel in the following sections.

singular plural
masculine quel quels
feminine quelle quelles


All four of these forms of quel are pronounced identically. Note that there are also two very common homonyms with very different meanings: qu’elle and qu’elles. These are contractions of the subordinating conjunction que and the subject pronoun elle or elles, meaning simply that she or that they.

Quel: interrogative adjective

This is the easiest grammatical category for our quel meaning, since it’s a straight question word.

The best quel translation in English is which, though sometimes what sounds better. Be careful about trying to translate what into French though. If you can frame the question as which one?, the French question word should be quel rather than quoi.

  • Quel film est ton préféré ? – Which movie is your favorite?
  • Quelle langue parlez-vous à la maison ? – What language do you speak at home?
  • Quels concepts grammaticaux sont les plus difficiles en français ? – Which grammatical concepts are the most difficult in French?
  • Quelles équipes seront en quarts de final ? – Which teams will be in the quarterfinals?

Remember that an adjective modifies a noun, so our interrogative adjective needs to be followed directly by the noun it’s asking about. If quel is followed by a verb, it’s acting as an interrogative pronoun; let’s move on to the next section to see this grammatical category.

Quel: interrogative pronoun

Quel is frequently used as a pronoun, directly followed by a conjugation of the verb être. In this way, we’re basically just switching around the word order from what we saw in the previous section. The meaning is essentially the same, but the grammar is different.

  • Quel est ton film préféré ? – Which is your favorite movie?
  • Quelle est la langue que vous parlez à la maison ? – What is the language that you speak at home?
  • Quels sont les concepts grammaticaux les plus difficiles en français? – Which are the most difficult grammatical concepts in French?
  • Quelles sont les équipes en quarts de final ? – What are the teams in the quarterfinals?

Quel here is technically considered an interrogative pronoun, since it’s taking the place of a noun. Its equivalent in English could still be which, or perhaps which one.

For further lessons on different aspects of asking questions in French, check out our related posts on the other French question words, using est-ce que, and using n’est-ce pas.

Quel vs Lequel

You may be familiar with the French relative pronoun lequel, which is used in somewhat similar circumstances to the interrogative pronoun quel we’re considering today. So how do we know when to use lequel vs quel?

The short answer is that quel is used as a question word to form questions, even when its grammatical category is indeed a pronoun. Lequel, on the other hand, always acts as a pronoun first, with any role in a question coming secondary. Its sentence structure usually translates as which one of or which of.

In other words, lequel is not a question word, it’s a pronoun; quel is a question word first, even if it’s acting as a pronoun.

  • Quel est ton film préféré ? – Which is your favorite movie?
  • Lequel de ces films est ton préféré? – Which one of these movies is your favorite?

Our focus today is on quel, so we’ll leave the comparison at that for now. To go more in depth on the relative pronoun lequel, including all 12 of its forms, check out our dedicated post on lequel in French.

Quel: exclamatory adjective

Now we’ll get into an entirely different use of quel in French, since here it doesn’t have any interrogative meaning in the sense of which. Instead, its best translation is often another exclamation like what a … or oh what a ….

  • Quel trafic ! Je déteste quand le métro fait grève. – What traffic! I hate when the metro goes on strike.
  • Quelle magnifique voiture ! On dirait qu’elle est toute neuve. – What a gorgeous car! It looks like it’s brand new.
  • Quels gros morceaux de gâteau. Pas étonnant qu’ils coûtent €13 chacun. – Oh what huge pieces of cake! No wonder they’re €13 each.
  • Quelles exigences ridicules ! J’en ai tellement marre de l’administration française. – What ridiculous requirements! I’m so sick of French bureaucracy.

Remember that an exclamation is just that: a stand-alone phrase that serves to really emphasize some detail. Quel is used as an exclamatory adjective in such phrases to put emphasis on some noun, often alongside other adjectives.

We included additional context in our first set of examples, but we can often just make quel exclamations where no additional context is needed.

  • Quel bruit ! – What a loud racket!
  • Quelle offre ! – Wow, what an offer!
  • Quels talons ! – OMG those high heels!
  • Quelles belles vaches ! – What beautiful cows!

In these last examples, the exclamatory phrase is enough for the speaker to just make a point of expressing awe at each of the things they’re observing. If someone makes such a statement to you, your best response is probably just to nod wide-eyed in agreement. Here are a couple of other easy replies:

  • Oui, c’est impressionnant! – Yes, it really stands out! – Yes, they really stand out!
  • Tellement! – Really! – So much!
  • Incroyable! – Incredible!
  • J’allais dire la même chose! – I was going to say the same thing!

Common Quel exclamations

As we’ve seen so far, quel can be used as an exclamatory adjective with any noun to express amazement; this goes for all four forms of quel.

Certain exclamatory quel phrases in French are nonetheless somewhat common, so we’ll mention a few of them here. If you spend much time in conversation with native French speakers, chances are that you’ll hear these before long!

  • Quelle surprise ! – What a surprise!
  • Quelle coïncidence ! – What a coincidence!
  • Quelle chance ! – What luck!
  • Quel talent ! – What talent!
  • Quelle joie ! – What a joy!
  • Quelle scandale ! – What a scandal!
  • Quelle honte ! – What a shame!
  • Quel dommage ! – What a pity!
  • Quelle horreur ! – How terrible!
  • Quelle misère ! – What misery!
  • Quels idiots ! – What idiots!
  • Quelle audace ! – What audacity!

Conclusion: Quel meanings

Today we went deep on quel in French, looking at each quel definition and seeing examples of all four forms of quel used in each case.

First we saw that the question word quel can actually be categorized as either an interrogative adjective or an interrogative pronoun, depending on whether it’s used to modify a noun or if it takes a conjugation of être.

Then we explored how to use quel as an exclamatory adjective, where its best translation is generally along the lines of what …! or what a …!.

If you’ve followed along with all our explanations and examples, you may now be even more familiar with the grammatical aspects of quel than many native speakers.

Quel mot intéressant! – What an interesting word!