How do you say in French

Share this: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

How do you say in French

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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.

Its 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, well 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

What in French  Quick Summary Table

This summary table gives an overview of the main ways to say What in French.1. Quest-ce que/qui2. QuoiWhat is it that

E.g. Quest-ce que ce truc-là? Quest-ce qui se passe?

Learn more about Quest-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 quoi3. Que4. QuelAt the beginning of a sentence only

E.g. Que veux-tu manger?

Learn more about queWhich? , 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/quiWhat if?

E.g. Et si on allait manger ensemble? Et sil découvre la vérité

Learn more bout et siHow to say What in French  A simple guide

Quest-ce que/Quest-ce qui

The phrase quest-ce que and quest-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 quest, is the what. But the whole phrase is used together quite often in a variety of situations.

Before showing examples of this, lets talk about two variants. One is quest-ce que, and one is quest-ce qui. You use que when talking about an object, and qui when talking about a subject.

Lets understand this through some examples.EnglishFrenchWhats that? (object)Quest-ce que cest?What do you want, then? (object)Quest-ce que tu veux alors?What are you doing? (object)Quest-ce que tu fais?What is making that noise? (subject)Quest-ce qui fait ce bruit-là?Whats happening? (subject, the thing thats happening)Quest-ce qui se passe?Examples of what in French: Quest-ce que and quest-ce qui

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

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


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.EnglishFrenchWhat do you think (of it)?Quen pensez-vous?What do you see?Que voyez-vous?What do you want to eat?Que veux-tu manger?Examples of what in French: Quest-ce que and quest-ce qui


The word quoi is very useful in French.

Heres 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.EnglishFrenchWhat are you thinking about?À quoi pensez-vous?Whats it about?De quoi sagit-il?I wonder what its 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??Whats the time? (casual)Cest quoi lheure?Whats that thingamajig?Cest quoi ce truc-là?What???Quoi???Examples of what in French: Quest-ce que and quest-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, youll be tempted to say que? as a question. Dont do that; its always: quoi?


The word quel (or quelle, or quels, or quelles) translates naturally to which in English, but it appears in many expressions where wed 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 someones name
  • Use any form of quel (singular/plural, masculine/feminine) when exclaiming about somethings quality, like What a big house!

Examples of quel and its variants:EnglishFrenchWhats your name, sir?Quel est votre nom, Monsieur?What time is it?Quelle heure est-il?Whats the date today?Quelle est la date aujourdhui?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 wed 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, its less boring to just look at examples:EnglishFrenchWe dont know whats going to happenOn ne sait pas ce qui va se passer.I just want to know whats going on.Je veux juste savoir ce qui sest en train de passer.It is what it is.Cest ce que cest.Tell me what you want.Dis-moi ce que tu veux.I know what hes capable of.Je sais ce dont il est capable.Thats what I need.Cest ce dont jai besoin.Thats what Im afraid of!Cest ce dont jai peur!What youre thinking about is, frankly, absurd.Ce à quoi tu penses est, franchement, absurde.This is what I aspire to for our people.Cest ce à quoi jaspire pour notre peuple.Using ce to say what in French  examples of ce

Et Si?  What if?

Finally, theres 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.EnglishFrenchWhat if they find us?Et sils 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 FrenchShare this:

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