If you’ve encountered the word “what” in French during your studies or in a French course and have found yourself a little bit puzzled, you’re not alone.
The word “what” in French has multiple versions and variations compared to English.
Since you’ve got to remember the different versions and know when to use them, this can make it a little bit challenging to learn how to say it in French.
This guide will let you know the different options you can use to say “what” in French and when it’s appropriate to use each one.
How do you say ‘what’ in French?
Here’s how you say ‘what’ in French (+ variations):
See below for explanations and examples.
What makes saying “what” in French difficult?
The word “what” has many functions: not only is it an interrogative pronoun, but it’s also an exclamatory adjective. It can be a relative pronoun, an adverb, or an adjective as well.
In English, we have just the one word that serves all of these parts of speech — we use the word “what” when we’re exclaiming something, or when we’re asking someone a question, or when we’re telling a story and want to state “what” a character was unaware of.
Since we’re used to having just the one word for saying “what” in English, no matter which part of speech you’re trying to use, this can cause some confusion when learning French.
If you need to use the word “what” in French, it helps to remember that there are multiple words that can correspond to these different parts of speech.
“What” in French: A quick explanation of the different phrases
Here’s a very brief explanation and summary of each of them, and then we’ll go into detail about all of them.
The use of the word quoi? in French is flexible.
You’ll find that it can be used in many contexts, and it can even feature as the final word of a sentence.
Qu’est-ce que / qui?
Qu’est-ce que / qui translates to English as “what is that?”.
Although this interrogative phrase uses the word qui, remember that it doesn’t mean “who” in this context.
Ce que / qui / dont?
Ce que / qui / dont in English mean “that which” and are frequently used as part of a subordinate clause, forming the direct object of this part of the sentence.
It can also feature in the middle of a sentence that uses an imperative.
Quel / quelle / quels / quelles?
Use quel / quelle / quels / quelles when you want to say “which” or “during what point” or “at what” in French.
There are four different forms of this word for “what” in French, including the masculine, feminine, masculine plural, and feminine plural forms.
Que is another word that you can use to say “what” in French.
Keep in mind that this word must be used at the start of a sentence.
If you want to say “what if” in French, this is the option you’ll need to use.
You can remember this one without much difficulty since the word si in French means “if”.
The word comment is usually used to ask someone to clarify what they’ve just said if you failed to hear them clearly the first time.
It’s a polite way to say “what” in French in this context.
Critical examples for the numerous ways to say “what” in French
If you’re seeking more information about the alternatives for saying “what” in French, the examples and in-depth explanations just below will help with this. Take a look!
Using quoi? to say “what” in French
There are a few critical moments where you’ll use quoi to say “what” in French.
The term can be used following a preposition, such as de.
It can be used in informal language to ask a question or reiterate shock or surprise. Or you can use it without any other words, on its own, as an exclamation.
Here are three examples for each of these usages:
Example 1 (using quoi after a preposition):
Du quoi tu parles ?
Example 2 (using quoi informally):
Tu as fait… quoi ?
Example 3 (using quoi with no other words in its sentence):
Je ne crois pas que. Quoi ??
Using qu’est-ce que / qui?
Qu’est-ce que / qui? translates to English as “what is that”, but if you’re wondering which part the “what” belongs to, it’s the first bit of qu’est—which is qu.
Now, one thing to keep in mind is that que is normally part of your sentence if you’re referring to the object of the sentence, and qui is part of your sentence when you’re talking about the subject of the sentence.
Here are two examples for each of these usages:
Example 1 (using qu’est-ce que as a subject of the sentence):
Qu’est ce que c’est censé vouloir dire ?
Example 2 (using qu’est-ce que as the object of the sentence):
Que souhaitez-vous acheter à la bijouterie ?
How to use ce que / qui / dont
There are two examples where you can use ce que.
The first is when “what” is classed as the object of the sentence, while the second is when “what” is the subject of the sentence.
But the ideal way to tell the difference between these two situations is with examples.
Example 1 (using ce que when “what” is the object of the sentence):
Donne moi ce que tu as.
Example 2 (using ce que when “what” is the subject of the sentence):
Je me demande quel est le sujet de cette phrase ?
How to use quel / quelle / quels / quelles
When quel accompanies a noun, and we’re using an exclamatory phrase to describe a noun we must modify it so that it complements the gender and number of that noun.
For this reason, there are four different versions of the word quel (as there are masculine and feminine, singular and plural versions of nouns in French).
We can use just quel or quelle (the singular masculine or feminine versions), if we want to ask a question about the day of the week, or the month of the year, or the time.
Example 1 (using quel / quelle / quels / quelles to exclaim or use exclamatory phrases to describe a noun):
Quel film inspirant !
Quelle belle voiture !
Example 2 (using quel / quelle to ask about the day of the week, etc):
Quel est le mois ?
How to use que
Two of the most crucial rules to keep in mind when using que to say “what” in French is that it is generally used at the start of a sentence and that you must abbreviate the word que when using it before a word that features a vowel at the beginning.
This second rule is known as liaison.
Example 1 (using que at the beginning of a sentence):
Que devons-nous faire demain ?
Example 2 (using que that has undergone liaison):
How to use et si
There are particular moments when you might want to use et si when asking “what” in French.
If an outcome is conditional, or dependent on other factors, you might use et si to indicate that this outcome could happen.
Et si normally begins a sentence as a sort of “what if” opener.
The following are some examples of this being used.
Example 1 (et si at the beginning of a sentence):
Et si le festival du film était annulé ?
Example 2 (et si at the beginning of a sentence with liaison):
Et s’il n’était pas possible d’apprendre cinq langues en même temps ?
How to use comment
As mentioned, this frequently used French word is a polite way to say “what”.
It means “pardon?” and can be used on its own as a way to ask someone to repeat themselves.
Example (using comment to ask someone to repeat what they’ve said):
Comment ? Je ne t’ai pas compris.
When to use que and when to use quoi
Many French learners get a little unsure about when to use que and when to use quoi.
Since differentiating between their usages is a little tricky sometimes, this explanation might help.
- Que is always used at the very start of a sentence.
- Avoid using que when you’re exclaiming something. In cases like these, you’ll need to use quoi.
- Quoi is always used following a preposition.
- In colloquial sentences, quoi can be used as the final word of a sentence or following a verb.
Start revising how to say “what” in French
With these examples and explanations in mind, it’s now time to think about the best ways to remember all of them, and the best ways to practice them.
Flashcards are a useful technique to remember words like these.
For instance, with the four types of quel, you might write each of the forms on four different flashcards and, on the other side, whether they’re masculine or feminine, singular or plural.
Do the same with the other ways to say “what” in French, only this time, write the translation on the other side.
Practice with your flashcards until you’re fully aware of the meanings and forms of each of these ways to say “what” in French.
Crank it up a notch by starting to use these words in written sentences.
There are several French resources that you can use, such as grammatical exercises, and these can help you get a feel for when to use que vs quel, or quoi, vs qu’est-ce que.
Most of these grammatical exercises consist of completing the blanks and will require you to choose which word is grammatically correct for each question.
Practice your grammatical knowledge of these words each day to notice the best progress.
Formal and informal contexts
Since quoi can be used in informal contexts, it’s a good idea to grow accustomed to situations like these, so use these in different contexts and practice in formal and informal situations.
The word comment is another example of why formal and informal contexts are important when learning to say “what” in French.
Since you’ll need to be polite when asking someone to repeat themselves, recognizing that formal contexts require comment and not quoi is also crucial.
How listening and speaking with native speakers is vital
The more you hear these words being used, the more you’ll notice which word is required to say “what” in French.
Practice using these words in conversations with native speakers, or, to get started, record yourself using these words and take note of your errors to improve your confidence first.
Learn how to say “what” in French with a bit of practice
Don’t forget that regular, frequent practice is what is required to take your French knowledge to the next level.
Think of your French skills as muscles that require exercise; the more you exercise, the stronger you’ll get—the more you practice, the more advanced you’ll become.
It might seem like you’re struggling now, but follow some of the tips in this article and you won’t go wrong.