French Question Words

Rachel Hanson
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French question words differ slightly from those in English. While there are direct translations of the question words, the usage in French is sometimes, but not always, different from the usage of the translation equivalent in English.

Question Words and Phrases

French has a series of words (think 'who, what, where, when, why, and how') that individually deal with question phrases. In addition, some combinations of words are also necessary in order to ask questions correctly in French. Practice the words and phrases below by looking at the examples given for each one and you'll be asking questions in no time, which is important in the vocabulary for those traveling in France.

French Question Words

The following words are used frequently. Be sure to also check out the French question phrases below since in many contexts the phrase is required.

Quand

The word quand means 'when', and can be used both as a question and as a general marker of a moment or time or a situation.

Examples:

  • Il arrive quand? (When will he arrive?-informal…a more formal formulation: Quand est-ce qu'il arrive?)
  • Depuis quand habites-tu en France? (How long have you been living in France?)

Quel/Quelle/Quels/Quelles

Though there are four forms of this word, they all mean the same thing: what. This translation of the English word 'what' can only be used when you are asking a question about a specific thing (noun), which is why there are four forms: masculine singular and plural, and feminine singular and plural. If you want to ask a question like 'What are you doing?', refer down to the question phrase 'Qu'est-ce que'.

Examples:

  • Quel est ton nom? (What is your name?)
  • Quels sont tes livres préférés? (What are your favorite books?)

Qui

This word means 'who', as in 'Who ate my cheese?'. In many situations, you'll need the question phrase Qui est-ce qui… (see below), but for simple questions such as those given here, the one word will suffice:

Examples:

  • Qui t'a dit cela? (Who told you that?)
  • Avec qui vas-tu? (With whom are you going?)

This French question word is very often confused with the word or: ou; make sure the question word (meaning 'where') always gets the accent on it.

Examples:

  • Où habites-tu? (Where do you live?)
  • D'où vient-elle? (Where is she from?)

Pourquoi

The French word for 'why' is most often used in a question phrase. Sometimes however, the word is used on its own, not to mention that anytime you would like to simply ask 'Why?', this one word does the trick, just like its translation equivalent in English.

Examples:

  • Pourquoi dirais-je cela? (Why would I say that?)
  • Pourquoi m'aimes-tu? (Why do you love me?)

Combien

This one word translates to 'how many' or 'how much', and its usage is very easy because it is almost always a direct translation of 'how many' or 'how much'.

Examples:

  • Combien de frères et sœurs a-t-il? (How many siblings does he have?)
  • Combien coûte celui-ci? (How much does this one cost?)

Comment

This translation for 'how' presents difficulties for English speakers because the translations are not direct on this word. For example, 'what is your name?' is a question often formulated with comment (see the first example below):

Examples:

  • Comment t'appelles-tu? (What's your name? or 'How are you called?', the latter of which sounds strange in English.)
  • Comment va-t-il? (How is he doing?)

French Question Phrases

Phrases are very commonly used in French questions. In many cases, one of the single words above is insufficient, so learn these phrases well.

Qu'est-ce que

The translation is 'what is it that', which may sound odd and overdone in English, but this phrase is very frequent in French.

Examples:

  • Qu'est-ce qu'elle mange? (What is she eating?)
  • Qu'est-ce que tu veux faire? (What do you want to do?)
  • Qu'est-ce qu'on a dit au sujet de ton mariage? (What did they say about your wedding?)

Qui est-ce qui/Qui est-ce que

Just like the phrase above, this is a longer, but more common, way to ask 'who'. Note the difference between the two 'who' phrases: the first one does not take an additional subject, whereas the second one does (read more about relative pronouns to understand this distinction).

Examples:

  • Qui est-ce qui a pris cette photo? (Who took this picture?)
  • Qui est-ce qui m'a laissé ce message? (Who left this message?)
  • Qui est-ce que tu aimes? (Who do you love?)
  • Qui est-ce que vous allez prendre? (Who are you going to take/hire?)

All of these question words and phrases should enable you to ask an abundance of questions in your next French class or on your next trip to a French-speaking region. Now you'll need to know how to respond to questions in French as well.

French Question Words