Have you ever spotted something that you couldn’t identify at first glance? Perhaps you’ve visited a modern art gallery in a French-speaking country and couldn’t quite identify what the painter was trying to depict?
Or perhaps you’ve been to the zoo and struggled to identify what the strange looking animal in front of you was?
Did you know that there’s a French expression to help you identify these things?
Qu’est-ce que c’est?
In this guide, I’m going to cover the phrase qu’est-ce que c’est in detail, so you can use it confidently.
What does qu’est-ce que c’est mean?
Qu’est-ce que c’est is a French interrogative that means “what is it” in English.
When you look at the phrase, you might notice that there are many other words in this phrase.
We can reduce it to five individual words/phrases:
- We have qu’, which is the French word que (without its e, due to elision), which means “that”
- There’s the word est, which is the French, third person verb of être in the present tense, which means “is”
- We have the demonstrative adjective ce, which means “that”
- There’s the word que, again, in its full form (as a conjunction)
- We’ve got the word c’est, which means “it is”
Even though this long phrase might seem complex, just remember two things:
- It’s not the same as the interrogative phrase est-ce que, which is also used to ask questions in French but in different contexts such as to ask “will” something happen, “does” something happen or “is” something or someone there.
- Qu’est-ce que c’est is used specifically when you want to use the interrogative word “what”—not “will”, “does”, or “is”. It’s specifically for times when you need to ask “what is that?”
Using c’est quoi ça in informal contexts instead of qu’est-ce que c’est
There’s an alternative way to say qu’est-ce que c’est in informal contexts, which is c’est quoi, ça.
C’est quoi, ça is the French equivalent of using the interrogative phrase “what’s that?” in English.
Is qu’est-ce que c’est more formal than c’est quoi, ça?
If you wanted to know whether qu’est-ce que c’est is more formal than c’est quoi, ça, the answer is that yes.
Qu’est-ce que c’est is slightly more formal when compared with c’est quoi, ça.
You’ll normally hear it in formal conversations between people who don’t know each other well.
How else can you say c’est quoi, ça?
You might also use the phrase c’est quoi to ask “what is it?” in French.
This is normally used in everyday language and, again, is an informal phrase. It translates to English as “what’s this”, with the phrase c’est containing the words ce “that”, est “it is” and quoi, “what”.
C’est quoi is basically a shortened version of c’est quoi, ca?
Use it with friends and family, not with colleagues or people you don’t know.
When should you use qu’est-ce que c’est?
There are a few different contexts in which you can use qu’est-ce que c’est.
As well as for trying to identify unknown things, you can also use it to show your frustration, and you can use it to express your stunned emotion.
Let’s take a look at several usage examples of each of these contexts to clarify how qu’est-ce que c’est is used.
Using qu’est-ce que c’est to identify unknown things
Say you’re an art teacher and one of your students draws a picture that you cannot identify.
This calls for the phrase qu’est-ce que c’est. You might say to your student:
Cela a l’air très bien. Mais qu’est-ce que c’est ?
Or you might have heard someone practising a song on the piano and want to know the genre of the song. Again, you can use qu’est-ce que c’est to find out:
J’aime cette chanson. Qu’est-ce que c’est, la musique classique ?
Using* qu’est-ce que c’est* to show frustration
If you’re in a terrible mood because someone has upset you or insulted you, you might express that frustration with qu’est-ce que c’est:
Je ne pense pas être une personne arrogante. Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça!
Or someone might have insinuated that you’re a terrible driver when you always drive carefully. In this case you might use the same expression to show your frustration:
Je ne suis certainement pas un mauvais conducteur. Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça!
Using qu’est-ce que c’est to show that you are shocked or stunned
If you’re shocked by something scandalous, like the fight that happened at the bar, you can use qu’est-ce que c’est que ça to express how shocked you are:
Cette personne était très arrogante. Mais qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?
Or, perhaps your friend has shaved their hair and changed their look, and you barely recognize them anymore. You might say:
Wow, c’est un style intéressant. Mais qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?
How to respond when someone asks you a question using qu’est-ce que c’est
So, you now know how qu’est-ce que c’est is used, but what if someone asks you this question in French. Do you know how to respond?
Well, when you’re answering someone, your response will typically begin with the phrase c’est. C’est, which combines the words ce (this) and est (the third person present verb être), means “it’s” in English. It is the same as when you say “this is…” in English
Of course, you’ll need to complete the sentence with the noun or object that the person is curious about to identify it, so let’s look at some examples to clarify how to respond.
If you’re growing plants in your garden and a neighbour visits your home, they might complement your garden and then ask what a particular plant is:
Ton jardin est magnifique. Qu’est-ce que c’est ?
When responding to this question, you might say “thanks a lot” and then identify what the plant is. But remember to begin with c’est when you’re identifying it:
Merci beaucoup. C’est un pommier.
If you’re trying out a new exciting recipe and your friends are curious to know what you’re cooking, they might say to you:
Ça sent délicieux. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Contient-il du chocolat ?
In response, you might say:
C’est une recette secrète. Je ne peux pas te dire les ingrédients !
What are some related phrases that are similar to qu’est-ce que c’est.
There are a few related phrases that are similar to qu’est-ce que c’est.
Some of the main ones are qu’est-ce que tu fais, qu’est-ce est arrive.
Let’s look at these phrases in turn and think about the contexts in which you would use them.
When do we use qu’est-ce que tu fais?
We use qu’est-ce que tu fais when we want to ask “what are you doing?” perhaps using an incredulous tone of voice for emphasis.
You can remember this one by keeping in mind that the verb faire means “do” in English. In this phrase, the verb faire is conjugated in the second person present tense fais, but you can use this phrase in the plural version as well.
For example, if your students are misbehaving, you might ask them:
Qu’est-ce que vous faites ?
When you use this in the singular version, note the different verb conjugation and personal pronoun.
Instead of vous we use tu and instead of fais we use faites.
When do we use the phrase qu’est-ce est arrivé and qu’est-ce qui se passe?
Qu’est-ce est arrive is normally used when we want to ask someone “what happened?”
It is similar to the phrase qu’est-ce qui se passe, but is slightly different in structure. If the event has happened already, you would use qu’est-ce est arrive.
If the event is in progress, you would use qu’est-ce qui se passe.
This reflexive phrase means “what happened”, with the reflexive verb se passe meaning “to occur”.
Qu’est-ce que c’est is a handy French phrase
Since there’s always room for curiosity, and curiosity helps you learn, I’d recommend that you have the phrase qu’est-ce que c’est in your vocabulary.
Use it to ask questions and deepen your understanding of something that you wish to identify.
Whether you’re stuck on a French verb, or are looking to identify a beautiful modern painting, or want to know what the animal is at the zoo, keep qu’est-ce que c’est in mind to help you learn more.