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How To Say “What” in French — The 6 Ways to Express It

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A simple way to understand the six ways in which you can say “what” in French.

The word “what” is deceptively complicated when you translate it. It looks like a simple one-to-one word translation, but the reality is that “what” is used in many expressions that are translated using many different words in other languages.

It’s tempting to just say “what” in French is quoi — and it is, sometimes — but the reality is you need to understand a few other expressions in English.

(French speakers have the same problem coming the other way, by the way. When they want to translate a word like “quoi”, suddenly they realise there are so many ways in which it can be used!)

What in french question mark

In this guide, we’ll explore some common ways in which “what” is used in English, and then examine how to translate “what” in French in context.

You might also like our article on 300+ indispensable French words for a beginning learner.

What in french summary graphic
The main ways of saying “What” in French

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What in French — Quick Summary Table

This summary table gives an overview of the main ways to say “What” in French.

1. Qu’est-ce que/qui2. Quoi
“What is it that”

E.g. Qu’est-ce que ce truc-là? Qu’est-ce qui se passe?

Learn more about “Qu’est-ce que/qui”

Versatile — After a verb, preposition, or at the end of a sentence

E.g. À quoi pensez-vous? Ça veut dire quoi? De quoi tu parles? Quoi??

Learn more about “quoi”
3. Que4. Quel
At the beginning of a sentence only

E.g. Que veux-tu manger?

Learn more about “que”
“Which…? “, “At what”, and “What a … !”
Variants: quelle, quels, quelles

E.g. À quelle heure vas-tu partir? Quels sont les plats les plus populaires ici? Quelle bonne idée!

Learn more about “Quel”
5. Ce que/qui/dont/à quoi6. Et si…?
“That which”, in the middle of a sentences
Variants: celle/ceux/celles

E.g. Dis-moi ce que tu veux.

Learn more about “ce que/qui”
“What if…?”

E.g. Et si on allait manger ensemble? Et s’il découvre la vérité

Learn more bout “et si”
How to say “What” in French — A simple guide

Qu’est-ce que/Qu’est-ce qui

The phrase qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui looks huge and unwieldy to someone looking for a one-syllable translation, but people use it a LOT in French.

It literally is “what is it that…” and is used about as often as in English saying “what is… ?”

Really only the first part of it, the qu in qu’est, is the “what”. But the whole phrase is used together quite often in a variety of situations.

Before showing examples of this, let’s talk about two variants. One is qu’est-ce que, and one is qu’est-ce qui. You use que when talking about an “object”, and qui when talking about a “subject”.

Let’s understand this through some examples.

EnglishFrench
What’s that? (object)Qu’est-ce que c’est?
What do you want, then? (object)Qu’est-ce que tu veux alors?
What are you doing? (object)Qu’est-ce que tu fais?
What is making that noise? (subject)Qu’est-ce qui fait ce bruit-là?
What’s happening? (subject, the thing that’s happening)Qu’est-ce qui se passe?
Examples of “what” in French: Qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

In practise, I think I rarely say qu’est-ce qui, and the times that I do, it’s a stock phrase that’s in my head, like qu’est-ce qui se passe? But it’s good to get right — get it wrong and it sounds awkward.

What in french artwork - what do you mean graffiti on pavement

Que

Using que has a simple rule of thumb: Use que at the beginning of a sentence.

There is just one common kind of sentence that uses que standalone.

Note that que gets abbreviated through liaison if followed by a vowel.

See the following examples of when to use que to say “what” in French.

EnglishFrench
What do you think (of it)?Qu‘en pensez-vous?
What do you see?Que voyez-vous?
What do you want to eat?Que veux-tu manger?
Examples of “what” in French: Qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

Quoi

The word quoi is very useful in French.

Here’s when you use it to say “what”:

  • Use quoi after a preposition, like à or de
  • Use quoi after a verb or at the end of a sentence (which is less formal/more colloquial grammar)
  • Use quoi as an exclamation standalone.

See the following examples of when to use quoi to say “what” in French.

EnglishFrench
What are you thinking about?À quoi pensez-vous?
What’s it about?De quoi s’agit-il?
I wonder what it’s made with.Je me demande avec quoi il est fait.
What does that mean then?Ça veux dire quoi alors?
He wants… what??Il veut… quoi??
What’s the time? (casual)C’est quoi l’heure?
What’s that thingamajig?C’est quoi ce truc-là?
What???Quoi???
Examples of “what” in French: Qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

As you can see, quoi is pretty useful! But remember, use que at the beginning.

Pro tip: Using Quoi vs Que

These two words are similar so I want to mention them together to make sure you understand the difference. French learners frequently ask about when to use quoi vs. que when asking “what” in French.

Remember the rules:

  • Use que at the beginning of a sentence
  • Use quoi after a preposition, like à or de
  • Use quoi after a verb or at the end of a sentence (which is less formal/more colloquial grammar)
  • Use quoi as an exclamation. If you learned Spanish at some point, you’ll be tempted to say que? as a question. Don’t do that; it’s always: quoi?

Quel

The word quel (or quelle, or quels, or quelles) translates naturally to “which” in English, but it appears in many expressions where we’d normally say “what”.

You use quel or a variant when it addresses a specific object that exists.

Here are some examples for when to use quel to say “what” in French:

  • Use quel or quelle (singular, but masculine/feminine) when enquiring about a specific noun, like the date, an object, or someone’s name
  • Use any form of quel (singular/plural, masculine/feminine) when exclaiming about something’s quality, like “What a big house!”

Examples of quel and its variants:

EnglishFrench
What’s your name, sir?Quel est votre nom, Monsieur?
What’s the time?Quelle heure est-il?
What’s the date today?Quelle est la date aujourd’hui?
What/which book do you want to borrow?Quel livre veux-tu emprunter?
What a big house!Quelle grande maison!
What an interesting book!Quel livre intéressant!
What are the things that you need?Quelles sont les choses dont vous avez besoin?
Examples of “what” in French — using quel and quels

Ce que/Ce qui/Ce Dont/Ce À quoi — “What” as an object

Finally, the phrases ce que and ce qui translate more naturally to “that which”, but we use them a lot to translate phrases from English where we’d have used “what”.

As mentioned in the quoi section, you use quoi after a preposition. So you use ce à quoi or ce dont to say “what” when referring to an object.

You can also use ce with other prepositions, of course, but this is just a starter pack.

As usual, it’s less boring to just look at examples:

EnglishFrench
We don’t know what’s going to happenOn ne sait pas ce qui va se passer.
I just want to know what’s going on.Je veux juste savoir ce qui s’est en train de passer.
It is what it is.C’est ce que c’est.
Tell me what you want.Dis-moi ce que tu veux.
I know what he’s capable of.Je sais ce dont il est capable.
That’s what I need.C’est ce dont j’ai besoin.
That’s what I’m afraid of!C’est ce dont j’ai peur!
What you’re thinking about is, frankly, absurd.Ce à quoi tu penses est, franchement, absurde.
This is what I aspire to for our people.C’est ce à quoi j’aspire pour notre peuple.
Using ce to say “what” in French – examples of ce

Et Si? — “What if?”

Finally, there’s a specific expression that in French is used to say “what if?” or “And what if…?”

You might occasionally hear Francophones say “And if…?” to start a sentence. It sounds almost natural in English.

Here are some example ways of saying “what” in French to say “what if”.

EnglishFrench
What if they find us?Et s’ils nous découvrent?
What if we went to eat together?Et si on allait manger ensemble?
What about we do it tomorrow?Et si on le faisait demain?
Examples of using “what if” expressions in French
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