Understand Fast Spoken French: Questions Aren’t Obvious


French can be a confusing language for many reasons. One of these reasons being: questions aren’t always obvious. It’s not always clear if a sentence is a question in French – especially informal spoken French, that we speak in everyday life.

In today’s lesson, you’ll learn how to properly identify a question in fast spoken French. We’ll even play a game to see if you can really distinguish between a statement and a question in French. Are you ready to test yourself? Let’s go.

C’est parti.

1) Understanding French questions: Yes/No questions

Here’s an affirmation:
Il a faim. (= He’s hungry.)

How can you turn it into a “yes / no” question, in correct or informal French?

a) Correct and formal French

The first option is to use l’inversion, switching the places of the subject and the verb. Just as in English.

A-t-il faim ? = Is he hungry?

Notice: What’s that “t” in the middle here? Well:

  1. Most French verbs end in third person with a silent “t” that gets pronounced during l’inversion. It’s la liaison.
  2. However, “avoir” is a rare verb ending with a simple “a”, a vowel
  3. We don’t like to pronounce la diphtongue (= diphtong, pronouncing two different vowel sounds in row.)
  4. So correct French added a full “t” in there, so we can get that sweet consonant sound. It’s not a word with any meaning – only a pronunciation patch that became part of correct French grammar!

By the way, for you blog readers, here’s a little extra – the full conjugation of être and avoir in the present with l’inversion:

The second option is to use: Est-ce que… (= “Is it that…” literally) before the affirmation.

Est-ce qu’il a faim ? = “Is it that he’s hungry?” = Is he hungry?

However, both of these options are a bit too formal for everyday conversations. There’s an easier option still.

b) Informal French: inflexion sound

In informal French from France, you only need to add un point d’interrogation (= “?”) at the end of an affirmation to turn it into a Yes / No question. In spoken French, it’s an inflection in your voice.

Il a faim ? = Is he hungry?

Tu as faim ? = Are you hungry?
Or better yet: T’as faim ?

Because Tu (and most one-syllable words ending in a vowel) often loses its final vowel before another vowel in informal spoken French.

In spoken French, the difference between statement and question can be hard to hear:

In the video lesson, can you hear the difference in inflection between the following sentences?

  • Est-ce que vous êtes là ? = “Are you here ?” (Question)
  • Êtes-vous là ? = “Are you here ?” (Question)
  • Vous êtes là. = “You’re here.” (Affirmation)
  • Vous êtes là ? = “Are you here ?” (Question)

2) Understanding French questions: Tags, “n’est-ce pas ?” and more

Small tags at the end of a statement can turn it into a question.

a) N’est-ce pas ?

When asking for confirmation: “n’est-ce pas ?” = isn’t it?

In English, the tag changes with the verb and person of the sentence (“aren’t you ? isn’t she? wouldn’t they ?”…) In French though, it’s always “n’est-ce pas ?”

Vous habitez à Grenoble, n’est-ce pas ? = You’re living in Grenoble, aren’t you?

However, “n’est-ce pas ?” is actually quite formal.

b) Non ? Si ?

Non ?” and “Si ?” are more informal, but still grammatically correct.

“Non ?” is the tag question after affirmations:
T’es de Grenoble, non ? = You’re from Grenoble, aren’t you?

Then you can answer, for instance:
Oui, je suis de Grenoble. = Yes, I’m from Grenoble.
Or shorter: Oui. / Voilà. / C’est ça. / Exactement. = Yes / That’s it / Exactly

For negative sentences, we add “si ?” instead:
Tu veux pas de poulet, si ? = You don’t want chicken, do you?

And you can answer:
Non. / Non, j’en veux pas. = No. / No, I don’t.
J’en veux pas, non. = I don’t want chicken, no.

(Here, we add a “non” at the end of the statement. But it’s not a question. It’s only an extra negation to a negative sentence.)

Or positively:
Si ! / Si, si ! / Si, j’en veux. = Yes, I do want some.

Si means “oui” but after a negative sentence. It can have other meanings as well.

Click here to learn more:
Meaning of “Si” in French

c) Hein ?

Even more informal: hein ? (= “Right ?”, spoken French only.) It can have different meanings too.

On part à huit heures, hein ? = We’re leaving at 8, right?
On part à huit heures, hein ! = We’re leaving at 8, I remind you (you know)!

Or on its own:
Hein ? = What did you say ?

(Not very elegant, but to the point!)

3) Interrogative pronouns

Some questions aren’t yes / no. They use interrogative pronouns instead, such as:

  • Qui… ? = Who?
  • Que… ? = What?
  • Quand… ? = When?
  • Où… ? = Where?
  • Combien… ? = How much / How many ?
  • À quelle heure… ? = At what time… ?
  • Quel… ? = Which?

And more.

After an interrogative pronoun, correct French grammar asks you again to use l’inversion or est-ce que.

For instance:

  • Où va-t-on ? / Où est-ce qu’on va ? = Where are we going?
  • Quand est-ce qu’il arrive ? / Quand arrive-t-il ? = When does he arrive?
  • Qu’est-ce que tu as dit ? / Qu’as-tu dit ? = What did you say?
  • Qui est-ce ? (Qui est-ce que c’est ?) = Who is it?
  • Qu’est-ce ? / Qu’est-ce que c’est ? = What is it?

(I’m not sure why, but for some reason, Qu’est-ce que c’est ? is a very common question while Qui est-ce que c’est ? sounds very weird and ugly.)

Just like Yes / No questions though, French people would rather use informal grammar:
→ The affirmative statement + adding the pronoun at the end.

  • Où va-t-on ? → On va où ?
  • Quand est-ce qu’il arrive ? → Il arrive quand ?
  • Qu’est-ce que tu as dit ? → Tu as dit quoi ? T’as dit quoi ?
  • Qui est-ce ? → C’est qui ?
  • Qu’est-ce ? → C’est quoi ?

(For grammatical detail: “Que” is the subject form of the pronoun, “quoi” is the object form, so we use “quoi” here.)

Click here to learn more:
Quoi in French: What It Means and How to Use It

4) Game: Test yourself

Finally, let’s play a game!

In the video lesson above, listen to the sentences at the end. Which ones are questions? Which ones are statements?

Here are the answers and translations:

J’ai faim. = I’m hungry.

Il est là ? = Is he there? (informal French)
→ Correct French version: Est-il là ? Est-ce qu’il est là ?

Il est huit heures. = It’s 8 o’clock.

On est presque arrivés. = We’re almost there.
→ Question version (informal French) : On est presque arrivés ? = Are we almost there? Are we there yet?

On est samedi, non ? = It’s Saturday, isn’t it?
→ The tag makes it a question!

T’as pas un euro ? = Do you have one euro? or literally “don’t you have one euro?”
→ Correct French version: As-tu un euro? Est-ce que tu as un euro ?

Je crois pas, non. = I don’t think so, no.
→ Informal French: we cut the “ne” from: Je ne crois pas, non.

C’est combien, la carte postale ? = How much for the postcard?
→ Correct French version: Combien coûte cette carte postale ? = How much does this postcard cost?

Elle est pas là. = She’s not here.
→ Correct French version: Elle n’est pas là.
→ Question version: Elle est pas là ? (informal French)

Il a fait quoi ? = What did he do ? (literally: He did what?)
→ Correct French version: Qu’est-ce qu’il a fait ?
→ Formal French version: Qu’a-t-il fait ?

And we’re done, congrats!

Click here to learn more about informal French:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂

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