The best ways to ask questions in French

Knowing the best ways to ask questions in French is essential to keep improving. Going to the restaurant, shopping, getting to know people, and other activities may require obtaining information.

You will see in today’s post that asking questions in French can range from simple to quite complex. Indeed, there are a lot of straightforward questions but also a few more challenging structures. This requires a careful choice of question words and a correct placement of a preposition.

ask questions french

Summary :

  1. Est-ce que or Qu’est-ce que ?
  2. Forming questions with French interrogatives
  3. Sentence structure in questions

Est-ce que or Qu'est-ce que ?

Firstly, knowing the differences between est-ce que and qu’est-ce que is key for conversational French.

Est-ce que

In French, est-ce que is a closed question and the answer is Yes or No. Literally, it means ‘is it that’. However, in reality, it is rarely interpreted like this. Let’s see a few examples :

  • Est-ce qu’elle va bien ? = Is she alright ?
  • Est-ce que vous avez des croissants ? = Do you have croissants ?
  • Vous n’avez pas soif ? / Est-ce que vous n’avez pas soif ? = Are you not thirsty ?

Remember that est-ce que is the inversion of c’est que. For that reason, a hyphen is required between est and cec’est = ce + est.

Qu’est-ce que

Contrastingly, ‘qu’est-ce que’ is an open question in French and means what is it that. It’s the combinaison of que (what) + est (is) + ce (it) + que (that). For instance :

  • Qu’est-ce qu’ils font ? = What are they doing ?
  • Qu’est-ce que tu voudrais comme dessert ? = What would you like as desert ?

To get more practice about French questions, you could as well visit the TV5 Monde website.

Don’t forget that, in French, the polite tense used for questions in shops or restaurants is the conditional.

est-ce que or qu'est-ce que

Forming questions with French interrogatives

Now that you understand the difference between ‘est-ce que’ and ‘qu’est-ce que‘, let’s look at more complex questions.

Interrogative wordTranslationExamples
Combien ?How many ?
How much ?
Combien ça coûte ?
Comment ?How ? What ?Comment ça va ?
Quand ?When ?Quand viens-tu me voir ?
Où ?

Preposition + où ?

Where ?Où vas-tu ? 

D’où venez-vous?

Pourquoi ?Why ?Pourquoi tu es en retard ? 
Que / Qu’/ Quoi ?

Preposition + quoi ?

What ?Que se passe-t-il?

A quoi tu tu penses ?

Quel /Quelle/Quels/Quelles ?Which ?Quelle est ta couleur préférée?
Lequel/Laquelle/Lesquels/Lesquelles ?Which ones ?Lequel tu veux ? 
Qui ?

preposition + qui ?

Who ?

to/with/for whom?

Qui est là ? 

Avec qui tu parles ? 

To go further, feel free to check our post about the pronouns qui and que.

interrogative words

Sentence structure in French questions

Most students learn formal French whereas locals speak using a more familiar register. And, the particularity of French is that the language register will affect the whole sentence structure of questions.

Formal vs informal French

First of all, spoken French is a mix of ‘light’ slang and formal French. But it varies depending on age, education, job and above all, the context. Equally important, the register affects not only the vocabulary but also the language structure and pronunciation.

Formal French is mainly used by politicians, in medical situations, during interviews and when you meet someone for the first time. In contrast, a more informal French will be used with family, friends and for your everyday form of questions.

  • Langue courante = current language
  • Langue familière = familiar/colloquial language
  • Soutenu = formal

Structure of questions by registers

As shown in the tab below, the questions using a current French language will keep the ‘est-ce-que’. However, the colloquial French won’t need it. A third option with the formal language is to have subject inversion.

  • Current : (interrogative word) + est-ce-que + subject + verb + complement
  • Colloquial/familiar : (interrogative word) + subject + verb + complement
  • Formal : (interrogative word) + verb + subject + complement

Note that for familiar French, there are exceptions, in particular with qui, quoi and quand. The structure may vary for some interrogative words and several possibilities are possible. For example, both options could work : Vous mesurez combien ? / Combien vous mesurez ? 

interrogation

To conclude, I hope this post will help you with your French studies. To ask questions in French with confidence and boost your communication skills, you could also get online French classes. Whatever your learning style, one of my courses is sure to help you on your journey to becoming fluent in French.

Sign up for a first class today to dramatically improve your fluency with a French native certified teacher. With a flexible class schedule, you decide when’s the best time to take private French lessons. 

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