How to form questions

There are essentially three ways to form a question in French. The first and easiest way is colloquial, or informal. You simply say the sentence in the normal way, just raising your voice at the end, or putting a question mark if you are writing, for example:

Vous avez des frères?” – “Have you got any brothers?”

The second way, often used in conversation, is to put the phrase “Est-ce que…” in front of a sentence. It literally means “Is it that…”, which sounds strange in English, but it is another easy way to make a question such as:

Est-ce que nous partons demain?” – “Are we leaving tomorrow?”

The third way to make a question is similar to English, where the subject and the verb are inverted, or switched round. (The verb is the ‘doing word’, and the subject is the person or thing doing the action.) Take the sentence “Vous aimez le chocolat.” – “You like chocolate.” We can turn this into a question by changing the order like this:

Aimez-vous le chocolat?” – “Do you like chocolate?”

In the present tense with the third person singular, we need to insert a letter ‘t’ when we make an inverted question, e.g.:

Regarde-t-elle la télévision?” – “Is she watching television?”

Aime-t-il le tennis?” – “Does he like tennis?”

This is not necessary if the verb already ends in ‘t’, for example:

Veut-elle sortir?” – “Does she want to go out?”

If we make an inverted question with a compound tense such as the perfect or passé composé, we treat the auxiliary as the verb and put it before the subject:

Avez-vous fini vos devoirs?” – “Have you finished your homework?”

Es-tu arrivé en retard?” – “Did you arrive late?”

Question words:

‘Que’ or ‘Qu’est-ce que’ mean ‘what’, e.g.:

Que faites-vous?” or “Qu’est-ce que vous faites?” – “What are you doing?”

‘Quel’ (m.s.), ‘quelle’ (f.s.), ‘quels’ (m.pl.) and ‘quelles’ (f.pl.) mean ‘which’, or sometimes ‘what’, e.g.:

Quel temps fait-il?” – “What’s the weather like?”

Quelle heure est-il?” – “What’s the time?”

Quel âge avez-vous?” – “How old are you?” (literally, “What age have you?”)

‘Qui’ means ‘who’, e.g.:

Qui est là?” – “Who is there?”

Qui a mangé les bonbons?” – “Who ate the sweets?”

‘Quand’ means ‘when’, e.g.:

Quand est-ce que vous partez?” – “When are you leaving?”

Quand est-ce que ça va finir?” – “When is it going to finish?”

‘Où’ means ‘where’, e.g.:

Où allez-vous?” – “Where are you going?”

Où sont les enfants?” – “Where are the children?”

Où est-ce que vous habitez?” – “Where do you live?”

‘Pourquoi’ means ‘why’, e.g.:

Pourquoi veut-il rentrer?” – “Why does he want to go home?”

Pourquoi est-ce que vous pleurez?” – “Why are you crying?”

‘Comment’ means ‘how’, e.g.:

Comment allez-vous?” – “How are you?”

Comment vous appelez-vous?” – “What’s your name?” (literally, “How do you call yourself?”)

Comment est-ce qu’on fait une tarte aux pommes?” – “How does one make an apple tart?”

With thanks to Elizabeth Allen

Read more on French Grammar: The negative – saying ‘no’

More on learning French

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