Understanding questions in French fast is the key to a successful conversation.
In this free French lesson, I’ll explain the 4 ways of asking questions in French and give you lists of common French question words (aka interrogative expressions…)
1 – How To Ask Questions in French?
We have basically 4 ways of asking questions in French:
- To ask a question in a relaxed, everyday conversation, we just raise our voice.
Vous parlez français ?
- To insist on the fact that you’re asking a question, you may use “est-ce que”.
Est-ce que vous parlez français ?
- When we write, or in formal situations, we tend to use “inversion”, a French concept where you invert the subject and the verb.
Parlez-vous français ?
- When you’re pretty sure the answer is yes, you may use the tag expressions “n’est-ce pas ?” or “non ?”
Now let’s study the different ways of asking questions in French in details.
Questions in French: the Modern “Everyday” Way
This is the most common construction, mostly used in spoken French, and it’s also the simplest – hence it’s popularity.
You just raise your intonation towards the end of the sentence!
Vous parlez français ? = Do you speak French?
If you use an interrogative expression (like when, why, where…) It goes all the way at the end of your sentence.
- Tu vas en France quand ?
When are you going to France?
- Tu voyages avec qui ?
With whom do you travel?
Questions in French: “Est-ce que”
“Est-ce que” is nowadays mostly used to ask questions that can be answered by “oui” or “non”, and with “qu’est-ce que” (what do you…).
“Est-ce que” is pronounced [S keu] and it takes elision, so when followed by a vowel or an h, it becomes “est-ce qu’il(s)” [S kil], “est-ce qu’elle(s)” [S kel] etc…
“Est-ce que” means nothing by itself (watch out! It doesn’t always translate as ‘is’), it’s like the inverted question mark Spanish uses before the question: it warns you that a question is coming :-)
- Est-ce que tu vas souvent à Londres ?
Do you often go to London?
- Est-ce que tu peux venir chez moi ?
Can you come to my house?
- Est-ce qu’elle est française ?
Is she French?
- Qu’est-ce que tu fais ?
What are you doing?
Questions in French: Inversion
Inversion is the most formal way of asking a question in French yet it’s still very much used, especially when using an interrogative expression.
In inversion, you pretty much invert the subject verb order, placing the verb first.
Pourquoi vas-tu à Paris ? = Why are you going to Paris?
Avec qui voyagez-vous ? = With whom are you traveling?
If you are studying French to pass exams, it is essential you know how to form your questions using inversion.
However, if you are learning French to communicate, you should be able to understand a question asked using inversion, but I wouldn’t worry about using it right away.
The modern everyday way to ask questions is much easier, if you ask me!
There is more to say about asking question with inversion since the construct can be quite complex.
Inversion, the various French question words etc.. are explained in depth and then illustrated by a level-adapted ongoing novel with audio – in my intermediate level French audiobook method – À Moi Paris L3.
Questions in French: N’est-ce pas?
Grammar makes it a question, so I have to list it here. But it’s only used as a tag question, when you are almost sure the answer is “yes”.
Tu es français, n’est-ce pas ? = You are French, right /aren’t you?
Instead of using “n’est-ce pas ?”, you could also just ask no in French: non ?
Vous aimez la France, non ? = You like France, don’t you?
And now let’s see what question words are used to ask specific informations.
2 – French Question Words
Interrogative expressions – or interrogative adverbs, and sometimes interrogative adjectives – are French question words used to ask for a particular piece of information.
They combine with prepositions to form more complex French questions and this is usually the part that holds students of French back when asking a question.
You can gain a lot of speed (and therefore confidence) by knowing these French question words by heart!
Most Common French Interrogative Expressions
You probably already know these French question words:
- Comment = how
- Où = where
- Quand = when
- Pourquoi = why – Note: to answer, use: parce que (parce qu’il-s, parce qu’elle-s)
- Combien = how many (de + noun)
- Qui = who, whom
- À quelle heure = at what time
Interrogative Expressions Combined with Prepositions
Basic French question words combine with prepositions (from, of, about, to, until, for…) to create more complex interrogative expressions.
Some usually confuse students, so make sure you understand these constructs.
I am going to list the most common ones below, but there are more.
- Jusqu’où = up to where, how far
- D’où = from where
- Jusqu’à quand = until when
- Depuis quand = since when
- Pour quand = for when
- Jusqu’à quelle heure = until what time
- Depuis quelle heure = since what time
- Pour quelle heure = for what time
- Pour combien de = for how much/many
- Avec combien de = with how much/many
- Combien de temps = how long
- Pendant combien de temps = for how long
- Depuis combien de temps = since how long
- Que or qu’ = what + verb… as in what are you doing ? Que fais-tu, qu’est-ce que tu fais ?
- quoi = what (used mostly in Street French: tu fais quoi ? = What are you doing?)
- À quoi = usually used with a verb that is followed by à = penser à = À quoi tu penses ?
- De quoi = usually used with a verb that is followed by de = parler de = De quoi tu parles ?
- Avec quoi = with what
- Avec qui = with whom
- De qui =of, from, about whom
- À qui = to whom
- Pour qui = for whom
- Chez qui = at whose place
- Quel = which/what + masculine singular noun
- quels = which/what + masculine plural noun
- quelle = = which/what + feminine singular noun
- quelles = which/what + feminine plural noun
all pronounced “kel”
- Pour quel = for which
- Avec quel = with which
- Chez quell (ami) = At which (friend’s) place
- De quel = of which / about which
- À quel = at which / in which
- Dans quel = in which / inside which
3 – Watch Out for Prepositions!
In spoken English, it is common to put a preposition at the end of the sentence. Example: Who does she work for?
It is not so in French: you HAVE TO group the preposition with the interrogative expression, in other words, the preposition becomes part of your interrogative expression.
- Elle travaille pour qui ?
- Pour qui est-ce qu’elle travaille ?
- Pour qui travaille-t-elle ?
You can never say in French: “qui elle travaille pour ?”.
Sometimes, English omits the preposition in a question.
How long is she going to play the piano (for)?
In French, you always have to say the preposition.
Pendant combien de temps…(for how long)
Elle va jouer du piano pendant combien de temps ?
4 – The Secrets to a Successful French Conversation
Asking questions fast, and being able to understand them fast as well, is an essential part of French conversation. Most students can’t answer questions fast enough because they are surprised by the word order used in French to ask a question.
You expected: “comment vous appelez-vous ? ” – which is featured in so many learning method to ask “what’s your name”, but is rather formal – and were asked “vous vous appelez comment ?” – same question, but asked in a much more casual way, or “c’est quoi votre nom ?” even more casual.
And that’s were you freeze in “surprise”. You expected one variation and got another one, which you often try to translate word by word. That’s the mistake: in most situations, you don’t need to translate the question. You need to understand it’s a question, and grab the essential parts to be able to, within the context of that particular conversation, guess the rest and answer fast.
So I dedicated a whole audiobook to this subject: secrets of French conversation. 1 hour of audio, plenty of exercises switching between the different ways of asking questions and everything you could possibly want to know about asking questions in French!
I hope this lesson helps. If you’d like to stay informed of new free lesson release, please subscribe to my newsletter.