Have you ever been to a French “boulangerie” (bakery)? The French take their bread very seriously. A French “boulangerie” is nothing less than a vast cornucopia of different baked goods. From pain au chocolate to baguettes there will probably be more than one unknown item on display. The phrase “qu’est-ce que c’est”, which means “what is it?” in French will serve you well in situations like this. In this post we’ll break down the expression “qu’est-ce que c’est?”, teach you about the grammar behind it, and touch on the many situations in which you can use this phrase.
The Components of “Qu’est-ce que c’est”
Many French learners have trouble remembering and pronouncing “qu’est-ce que c’est” at first or confuse it with the many other French questions that there are. Understanding which components go into the expression can be helpful at this stage.
Qu’ – the “qu’” is actually the abbreviation of que, which means what (at the beginning of a question) or that. We skip it’s final “e” and replace it with an apostrophe because the next part of our sentence starts with a vowel as well.
Est – the “est” simply means is. It’s the third person present form of the verb être.
Ce – the “ce” means it or that.
Que – you might recognize this from the first one! It’s the full form of the abbreviated “qu’” that we saw previously and in this case, means that.
C’est – you can probably put together “c’est” from the “ce” and “est” we looked at before. Together it means “it is”.
Do you need a moment to put the full sentence together? The literal translation of “qu’est ce que c’est” turns out to be “What is it that it is?”. Are you more or less confused now than you were five minutes ago? No worries, if those mental gymnastics are too much for you simply remember, “qu’est ce que c’est” altogether just means “what is it”?
Why “Qu’est-ce que c’est” and not “Qu’est-ce”?
Now that you understand what components “qu’est-ce que c’est” consists of, you might wonder why not simply use “qu’est-ce”?
If you break down “qu’est-ce” it would be translated to “What is it?” right? While this is technically true, it is hardly ever used in spoken or written language. The best way to look at it is understanding that all questions in French use “est-ce que” (or est-ce qui) in between their question word (que, qui, ou, quand, comment) and their verb and object. Let’s look at some examples:
Qui est-ce qui est là? – Who is there?
Qu’est-ce qui se passe? – What’s up?
Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? – What is there?
Qu’est-ce que tu veux? – What do you want?
Ou est-ce qu’il vit? – Where does he live?
Looking at these examples we understand that est-ce que (or est-ce qui) is more of a placeholder than a literal translation of “what is it?”. Therefore to say “what is it?” always opt for “qu’est-ce que c’est?”.
“Qu’est ce que” vs “Est-ce que”
In your French studies you might also have come across questions which start with“est-ce que” such as the following:
Est-ce que tu as faim? – Are you hungry?
Est-ce qu’ elle est à Paris? – Is she in Paris?
Est-ce que ton frère aime les pommes? – Does your brother like apples?
Est-ce que nous allons partir bientôt? – Are we leaving soon?
We observe that these questions don’t have a question word such as que, qui, ou, quand, comment at the beginning of the sentence. “Est-ce que” in fact initiates a question to which you can only answer yes or no. In English these kinds of questions are initiated by the verbs “to do” or “to be”. These examples also illustrate the point that we have made in the previous paragraph – “est-ce que” isn’t a stand-alone translation for “what is it?” but rather a vehicle for a question to launch.
“C’est quoi ça?” vs “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
Now we know how to say “what is it?” But what about when you want to ask for one specific thing? “What is THAT?” can be directly translated to “c’est quoi ça?” You might have already recognized that the question omits the “est-ce que” that usually goes into a question between the question word and verb. While we need this structure for correct written and spoken language, many French speakers use abbreviated forms such as “c’est quoi ça?” in an informal setting.. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Q: C’est quoi ça? – What is that?
- A: C’est un livre. – It’s a book.
When you might use “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
You can use “qu’est ce que c’est” in a variety of situations. You can ask for an unknown object, add emphasis to your question, express your disbelief or even show that you’re upset. Let’s look at a few examples below/
Ask for an unknown object
If you are in a shop and don´t recognize an item or don’t know what it is you can use “qu’est ce que c’est” to ask for it. If you are in a “boulangerie” and want to know what the fluffy white dough is you can point to it and say:
Qu’est ce que c’est, une brioche? – What is that, a brioche?
Qu’est ce que c’est, un portable? – What is that, a phone?
Qu’est ce que c’est, une omelette? – What is that, an omelette?
Add emphasis to a question
To add emphasis to a question, or expression, similar to verbally adding emphasis to “is” in the English “what IS it?” you can use “qu’ est-ce que c’est?”:
Qu’est-ce que c’est l’amour? – What IS love?
Qu’est-ce que c’est la vie? – What IS life?
Qu’est-ce que c’est l’amitié? – What IS friendship?
If you are stunned by your new French friends’ eating habits you can express your doubts and disbelief with a well placed “qu’est-ce que c’est?”. Check out the following examples:
Qu’est ce que c’est dans ton assiette?! – What is that on your plate?!
Qu’est ce que c’est ces cuisses de grenouilles!? – What are these frog legs?!
Qu’est ce que c’est ces huîtres!? – What are these oysters?!
You can also use “qu’est ce que c’est” in a situation where in English you would say “Excuse me?!” expressing your indignation. Look at this example:
Qu’est-ce que c’est cette accusation?! – What is that, this accusation?
Qu’est ce que c’est ce ton que tu utilises avec moi?! – What is that tone you are using with me?!
Although “qu’est ce que c’est” doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue easily, it’s an important and versatile expression which can open you a lot of doors with French speakers. It’s important to know the difference between the various types of French questions to avoid a painful faux-pas. As a French learner you should definitely include them in your repertory early on. As always, practice the pronunciation by yourself, to become more comfortable with it.