When you learn French, or any new language, one of the most basic functions is being able to ask questions. This allows you to obtain any information you require and engage in basic conversations with people.
French questions are not difficult, but there are few different ways to form them. So to help you master them, in this post I tell you everything you need to know about asking questions in French.
By the end of this post, you'll be able to ask French questions with or without question words. That way, you'll be able to chat more easily to your French-speaking friends and make your life much easier on your travels around French-speaking countries.
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French Questions – An Overview
In French, there are several different ways to ask questions, some of which are suitable for informal speech while others are considered more “proper” or “elegant””. However, once you get the hang of it, you will see how mastering a few basic patterns is all you need to be able to use the different forms with confidence.
In this post, I will start by looking at questions without “question words” (words like “when” and “why”) and then move onto the versions with question words. This way, you will be able to see how the same rules apply to both types.
As a general word of advice, with questions in French, always learn the constructions as chunks rather than breaking them down into individual words. Breaking them down won’t help, but if you just remember them as chunks, forming questions in French will be much easier.
So now let’s jump in and get started.
#1 The Easiest Way To Ask Questions In French – Intonation
To begin, let’s start with the very easiest way to ask questions in French.
The most basic way of asking a question in French is simply to use the intonation of your voice to change a statement into a question. For example:
- tu veux une bière (you want a beer)
- tu veux une bière ? (you want a beer?)
As you can see, apart from the question mark, there is no difference on the page. But when spoken, the intonation rises in the second version to indicate that you’re asking a question.
There will probably be some visual clues like the eyebrows being raised or the head being tilted back slightly, but that’s it – how to ask a question in French!
We do this in English too, but it’s much more common in French – which is why you will often hear French speakers using questions like this when they speak English.
#2 Questions With Est-ce Que
The second way of asking questions is where some beginners start to get nervous, but there’s no need because it’s still very simple.
The first form we looked at is an informal version used in casual spoken French. However, to raise the level of language slightly, you just add est-ce que at the beginning of the question.
Some beginners get confused here because they don’t understand what est-ce que means, but you don’t need to worry.
Don’t think about the meaning because it doesn’t really mean anything. All you need to know is that you put this chunk at the start of a statement to turn it into a question – simple!
Here’s an example:
- Est-ce que tu veux une bière ? (do you want a beer?)
As you can see, it’s the same as the statement from the first example – but just with est-ce que tacked on at the beginning.
This is considered a more “proper” or “elegant” way to form a question, although it is common in informal French as well as in more formal settings – so you are just as likely to hear it in a bar as in a business meeting.
Notice that in my English translation, I used the “do” form. When you make a question in English, “do” doesn’t really have any meaning – and this is quite similar to how est-ce que works in French.
#3 Making Questions By Inverting The Word Order
In French, you can also make questions by inverting the word order and adding a hyphen, like this:
- veux-tu une bière ? (do you want a beer?)
- êtes-vous marié ? (are you married?)
- as-tu déjà mangé ? (have you already eaten?)
- a-t-elle déjà mangé ? (has she already eaten?)
In English, we can use this type of construction when the verb is “be” and with the present perfect tense (the “have done” form). However, in French, it can be used with other verbs too, as in the first example with vouloir (to want).
Note that when the verb ends in -a or -e, you need to insert a “t” with hyphens either side, as in the last example. However, this doesn’t change the meaning in any way and is just to make it easier to say.
Finally, also note that this construction isn’t usually used with the je (I) form – except with devoir (must), pouvoir (to be able), être (to be) and sometimes avoir (to have). For example:
- dois-je venir ? (must I come?)
- puis-je venir ?* (can/may I come?)
As with the est-ce que form, these questions can be used in both formal and informal settings.
*Always use puis and never peux – this is just a special form of pouvoir that only appears in this kind of inverted question.
3 Ways To Form French Questions With Question Words
So far, we have looked at questions without question words. But now we need to look at how to make questions with them.
You're in luck as there's a lot of overlap with what you've just seen in the previous section. In fact, you'll see that you can form French questions with question words using the same three methods.
Just like with non-question word questions, there is an easy way to do it, so let’s look at that first.
With many question words, you can simply put the question word at the start of the statement to turn it into a question, like this:
- où tu vas ? (where are you going?)
- pourquoi t’y vas ? (why are you going (there)?)
- quand vous partez ? (when are you leaving?)
These forms are not considered particularly elegant – and you certainly wouldn’t want to use them in writing – but in everyday speech, they are extremely common.
Sometimes, you can also put the question word at the end, like this:
- tu vas où ? (where are you going?)
- vous partez quand ? (when are you leaving?)
- il a fait quoi ? (what did he do?)
- c’est quoi ? (what is it?)
Again, this is not considered super-correct French, but it’s extremely widespread in informal situations – and these forms are easy for beginners to remember.
A point to note here is that you can use this construction with quoi (what) at the end of the sentence but not at the start of the sentence.
Question Words With Est-ce que
You can also use question words with est-ce que, and it works in much the same way as questions without question words.
Have a look at these examples:
- où est-ce que tu vas ? (where are you going?)
- quand est-ce que vous partez ? (when are you leaving?)
- qu’est-ce que nous allons commander ? (what shall we order?*)
- qu’est-ce qu’on commande ? (what are we going to order?*)
- qu’est-ce que c’est ? (what is it?)
- qu’est-ce qu’il a fait ? (what did he do?)
With these forms, all you do is add est-ce que between the question word and the rest of the sentence. You don’t need to know what est-ce que “means” because it doesn’t really “mean” anything – you just need to know that you use this chunk after the question word to make a question. There’s no need to make things any more complicated than that!
Note that here we make a “what” question by using que as the question word (shortened to qu’). Compare qu’est-ce qu’il a fait ? with il a fait quoi ? from the section above.
*These are basically the same question – but the version with nous is a more formal way to say it while the version with on is more colloquial.
Using Question Words & Inverted Word Order
Similar to the forms without question words, you can also make questions with question words by inverting the word order.
Here are some examples:
- comment as-tu oublié ? (how did you forget?)
- pourquoi est-il venu ? (why did he come?)
The only difference here is that you add the question word at the start of the sentence.
In informal spoken French, you can also choose a different word order, like this:
- pourquoi il est venu ? (why did he come?)
- il est venu pourquoi ? (why did he come?)
You might not find these versions in your grammar book – but you will certainly hear them if you talk to native French speakers!
French Questions With Qui – “Who” Questions
“Who” questions are different from other questions since the construction depends on whether the question is about the subject of the sentence (the person “doing” the action) or the object of the sentence (the person “receiving” the action).
If it is about the subject, you can use qui est-ce qui, like this:
- qui est-ce qui t’a dit ? (who told you?)
Here, the question is about the subject of the sentence because we are asking about the person who “did” the telling – so we use qui est-ce qui.
A simpler way to ask this question also exists, like this:
- qui t’a dit ? (who told you?)
The meaning of these sentences is the same – they are just two alternative ways of framing the same question.
On the other hand, if the question is about the object of the sentence, you use qui est-ce que instead, like this:
- qui est-ce que vous avez invité ? (who did you invite?)
In this sentence, the question is about the person who “received” the inviting, so we use qui est-ce que.
However, in more informal spoken French, simpler versions are possible, like this:
- qui avez-vous invité ? (who did you invite?)
- vous avez invité qui ? (who did you invite?)
As with similar constructions we’ve already seen, these are perhaps not the most elegant ways to ask the question, but they are perfectly normal and can be good shortcuts for beginners.
Again, the trick with these forms is to try not to deconstruct the sentence. Instead, just remember the words as a chunk and don’t delve any deeper. You don’t need to know why it’s said like this, you just need to know how to say it.
Master The Patterns & Listen To Native Speakers
In this post, I’ve given you the more “elegant” longer forms using est-ce que and using inversions as well as the shorter informal versions that you are often likely to hear.
While the informal versions are best used only in casual settings, the other forms are in constant use, in both formal and informal situations. Furthermore, French speakers choose one form over another in different sentences because they just sound more natural, and this is something you will pick up with time.
At the beginning, your first job is mastering the patterns to be able to produce all of these forms automatically – and then by practising with native speakers, you will also start to understand which ones to choose naturally and without thinking.