How do I ask questions in French?

There are a number of ways of forming questions in French and the ins and outs of some of them are rather complicated. But 99 per cent of the time, you don't need the complicated forms. Here are some simple rules of thumb to get you through.

The simple case: questions in informal speech

In relaxed spoken French (i.e. probably in about 95% of usage), the following is generally all you need to remember:

  • To form a yes-no question (i.e. one that can be answered by 'yes' or 'no'), you just need to put est-ce que at the beginning of the sentence:
est-ce que tu travailles? do you work?
est-ce que tu fais ça demain? are you doing it tomorrow?
est-ce que tu as des frères et soeurs? have you got any brothers and sisters?
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  • You can also form a yes-no question simply by keeping the same words as in the equivalent affirmative sentence but by saying the final syllable on a rising pitch:
tu travailles? do you work?
tu fais ça demain? are you doing it tomorrow?
tu as des frères et soeurs? have you got any brothers and sisters?
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  • To form a partial question (who..., when..., where... etc) you just need to put the appropriate French question word (quand, , qui) at the end of the sentence.
tu pars quand? when are you leaving?
tu vas où? where are you going?
tu travailles avec qui? who do you work with?
tu fais quoi? what are you doing?
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Notes

It is also often possible to use est-ce que with partial questions and that is the normal way to use pourquoi:

quand est-ce que tu pars? when are you leaving?
où est-ce que tu vas ? where are you going?
pourquoi est-ce que tu ne viens pas? why aren't you coming?

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The construction qu'est-ce que... (and not quoi est-ce que...) is also a very common way of asking what... questions:

qu'est-ce que tu fais? what are you doing?

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When the question would begin with a preposition, it's less usual to use est-ce que. So one would tend to say tu travailles avec qui? rather than %avec qui est-ce que tu travailles?.

More complex cases: formal speech and writing

In formal speech and writing:

  • Putting the question word at the end of the sentence can often sound too informal..
  • The est-ce que construction can sound a bit long-winded in written French.
  • A more usual way of forming a question in formal French is to use inversion.

Inversion

In formal French, it is possible and usual to form a question by inverting the order of the subject and the verb. In English, most verbs require 'do' support: do you work? In French, no extra verb is required, but to ensure life isn't too easy, there are other complications instead:

  • When a third person singular pronoun and verb are inverted, an extra -t- may need to be inserted.
  • If the subject is a noun phrase, there are situations where it cannot be directly inverted and a corresponding subject pronoun must be introduced.
  • If the subject is je, the inverted form is often not possible at all!

Inversion with il, elle, on

These third person pronouns all begin with a vowel. When the verb is placed before one of these pronouns, a -t- sound will always occur between the verb and the pronoun. If the spelling of the verb doesn't already end in a t sound (either spelt -t or -d), then one is added explicitly:

prend-il?
finit-il?
voulait-elle?
travaille-t-il?
mange-t-elle?
couvre-t-on?

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Noun phrase subject

When the subject is a noun phrase (i.e. not a pronoun), it may, depending on the circumstances:

The following table gives an indication of when each form is possible, with examples.

SituationBasic formExtended form
Yes-no question---Le chien a-t-il mangé aujourd'hui?
With short question word Où travaille votre père? Où votre père travaille-t-il?
With longer question word Unusual Comment Madame Thatcher est-elle devenue premier ministre?
Where inversion would put noun phrase subject and object next to each other --- Où votre père prend-il ses vêtements?

Inversion with je

Inversion with je is reasonably common with a handful of common short verbs or in the odd set expression:

dois-je faire une réservation?
puis-je faire une réservation?
suis-je obligé de faire une réservation?
il est... comment dirais-je?... un peu stupide he is... how shall I put it...? a bit stupid

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Other than that, inversion with je occurs only in literary usage.

Further reading...

Correct Your French Blunders

For basic to intermediate students. See the chapter Questions and Answers (pp. 252-274) for further examples of questions. Although it does not handle the tu pars quand? type of question, this book does go into detail on other types of questions plus gives handy lists of expressions for translating particular question words from English into French. Three pages of exercises (with answers) are also provided. See this site's review of Correct Your French Blunders.

Comprehensive French Grammar

See sections 581-593 for information on direction questions, plus the following sections on indirect questions. This book is less prescriptive and aimed at more advanced students; it also includes information on slang question forms such as combien que je vous dois?.

Foundations of French Syntax

For advanced university-level students, Chapter 10 of this book (Inversion and QU-movement) devotes some 70 pages to question forms and related structures. It is aimed at readers studying syntax from a technical perspective, and goes into detail on fine points such as the (marginal) grammaticality of ??la question de si Jean partira, the grammaticality difference between je ne sais pas pourquoi/comment le faire or the grammaticality difference between l'homme à la femme de qui j'ai téléphoné and l'homme la femme de qui j'ai insultée.

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This page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.