If you struggle using formal French questions like “As-tu” or “Sommes-nous?”, you likely learned formal, written French in school, which is great for reading and writing but not everyday chatting. But spoken French has simpler rules!
I’ll explain why inversions aren’t common in casual conversations and suggest alternatives. Ready to sound more natural and understand real spoken French?
C’est parti !
1) “Correct French” grammar: inversion
In “correct” French grammar, we ask questions by inverser le sujet et le verbe (= inverting the verb with the subject pronoun.) Really, it’s the same as in English – and that’s what you probably learned in French lessons in school.
For example, with “yes/no” questions:
- Elle est ici. = She’s here. → Est-elle ici ? = Is she here?
- Tu as faim. = You are hungry. → As-tu faim ? = Are you hungry?
Or even with an interrogative pronoun, like Qui (= Who) :
- C’est moi. = That’s me.
- C’est Julie. = That’s Julie. become
→ Qui est-ce ? = Who is it? It’s just like in English!
The extra mile :
- Poser une question = Asking a question
- Demander quelque chose = Asking something / asking for something
When the subject is not a pronoun, then we add a subject pronoun so we can make that inversion:
- Martin est là. = Martin is here. → Martin est-il là ? = Is Martin here?
- Les enfants sont fatigués. = The children are tired. → Les enfants sont-ils fatigués ? = Are the children tired ?
We do not simply say “Est Martin là ?” or “Sont les enfants fatigués ?”
Click here to learn more:
- Interrogation directe – “Official” rules by French dictionary Le Robert
- Grammar 101: How to ask a Yes/No question in French – Comme une Française lesson
- Asking Questions in French: “Est-ce que” and “Qu’est-ce que” – Comme une Française lesson
The extra extra mile :
First person questions are less common, but same rules apply:
Je suis là. → Suis-je là ? = Am I here? Où suis-je? = Where am I?
Exception: when the verb ends in a silent “e”, it becomes “é” :
Je danse. = I’m dancing. → Dansé-je ? = Am I talking?
“Dansé-je” is very formal though. Even in books you wouldn’t find that construction often. It’s unwieldy. Instead, we’d use Est-ce que je… (see below)
You might find some first-person questions like these in some books or theater plays, and even then, only with a few verbs like être or aller : Où suis-je ? Que vais-je faire ?… (It still sounds formal) Or for some specific situations, such as:
- Que sais-je ? = “What do I know?”, a famous French book collection of high-quality popularization on a variety of topics, from “the bees” to “moral philosophy.”
- Où cours-je ? = “Where am I running? / What am I running towards?”, a question that sounds philosophical yet sounds like “une courge” (= a squash, a pumpkin) – the resulting bathos makes it funny.
2) Everyday spoken French: never say “As-tu”
In everyday life, we don’t use correct grammar! Learning only formal French grammar makes you struggle to understand people speaking French in real life and modern French culture (movies, TV shows, etc.). The secret is: we never use this inversion in casual French or in modern culture.
Instead of using the correct rules of inverting verbs and pronouns in France, we’d rather just add an interrogation point to an affirmative sentence.
Elle est ici. → Elle est ici ? = Is she here?
Tu as faim. → Tu as faim ? = Are you hungry?
We would never casually say As-tu faim ? in France because it’s too formal for actual conversation! It applies to all questions you can answer with “yes” or “no.”
In spoken French, we also cut the vowel “u” of the pronoun “tu” before a verb that starts with a vowel: Tu + vowel → T’.
T’as → T’as faim ? (Tu as faim ?); T’as vu ça ? (Tu as vu ça ?)
T’es : T’es où ? (Tu es où ?); T’es parti quand ? (Tu es parti quand ?)
P. S. All my lessons only cover what we could call “Parisian” French, the one you’ll hear on French TV. In particular, French from Québec follows its own rules.
Questions with interrogative pronouns are more complex:
- Qui = Who.
T’as vu qui hier soir ? (informal) = Qui as-tu vu hier soir ? (formal) (= Who did you see last night?)
- Où = Where.
T’es où ? (informal) = Où est-ce que tu es ? (less formal) = Où es-tu ? (formal) (= Where are you?)
- Que = What.
Tu fais quoi ce soir ? (informal) = Qu’est-ce que tu fais ce soir ? (less formal) = Que fais-tu ce soir ? (formal) (= What are you doing this evening?)
- Quand = When.
On arrive quand ? (informal) = Quand est-ce qu’on arrive ? (less formal) = Quand arrive-t-on ? (informal) (= When will we arrive?)
- Quel = Which.
Tu préfères quel film ? (informal) = Quel film est-ce que tu préfères ? (less formal) = Quel film préfères-tu ? (formal) (= Which movie do you prefer?)
- Pourquoi = Why.
Pourquoi t’as fait ça ? (informal) = Pourquoi est-ce que tu as fait ça ? (less formal) = Pourquoi as-tu fait ça ? (formal) (= Why did you do that?)
In correct French, the interrogative words are placed at the beginning of the question, right before an inversion: Où es-tu ? = Where are you? (and the subject “tu” comes after the verb). But in everyday spoken French, we place it after the verb: Tu es où ? = You’re where? /Where are you?.
3) Four Questions: Practice and exceptions
Let’s practice this with a few examples of questions and correct written grammar. How would we ask these in spoken French, and which exceptions will turn up?
1 – Quand arrive-t-on ? = When are we arriving?
Here is the “t” in the middle that doesn’t mean nor add anything to the sentence. We add it for an aesthetic reason with third-person pronouns, after a verb ending in a vowel, because “Quand arrive on” or “Quand arrive il” sounds weird. That “t” makes the pronunciation easier.
To turn this question into everyday spoken French, you only need to place “quand” (= when) after the verb and eliminate the inversion, which makes:
On arrive quand ? = When are we arriving?
2 – Que faisons-nous ? = What are we doing? / What should we do now?
Using “nous” is too formal for everyday French. We use “on” instead: Que faisons-nous ? → Que fait-on ? The interrogative “Que” (= What) at the beginning of a question will turn into “Quoi” when it’s at the end of a sentence or on its own. So finally, we have: Que faisons-nous ? → Que fait-on ? → (“On fait / que ?”) → On fait quoi ? = What do we do?, in everyday spoken French.
3 – Où est Martin ? = Where is Martin?
This sentence is short enough without a pronoun, so it wouldn’t be surprising to hear it in spoken French, too. However, we would still rather say “Martin est où ?” without the inversion. Or we would use another more common but complex construction in spoken French: Il est où, Martin ? = He’s where Martin? = Where’s Martin? We add the relevant subject pronoun “il”, then the informal question with a pronoun, like “Il est où ?” and after a comma, the explicit subject, Martin.
4 – Quel est le meilleur film sur Paris ? = What’s the best movie about Paris?
It sounds too formal and official, like a written question on a quiz show. However, with our previous rules, the informal version would make: “Le meilleur film sur Paris est quoi ?” = The best movie about Paris is what? But it doesn’t work: it sounds like you’re upset about their choice! So when you’re talking with a friend and asking for a recommendation, you would say instead: C’est quoi (pour toi), le meilleur film sur Paris ? = What is the best movie about Paris (according to you?)
Or for another quick example: sometimes, sounding formal is OK. For example, instead of Où est le bonheur ? = Where is happiness? we could say Il est où, le bonheur ? But it might sound too informal and much less poetic or interesting.
5 – Pourquoi est-il ici ? = Why is he here?
Probably, you’d try to put the interrogative word “Pourquoi” at the end: “Il est ici pourquoi ?”. However, it’s common to keep it at the start of the sentence and then get rid of the inversion after. So, the question in everyday French will be: Pourquoi il est ici ?
French rules can be fuzzy, but it’s crucial to remember that written and spoken French follow different rules. Don’t fixate on just one set of rules!
4) Between formal and informal: “Est-ce que”
In your French lessons, you might have read questions with the construction “Est-ce que”.
Est-ce que c’est correct ? = Is that correct? or
Qu’est-ce que c’est ? = What is it?
Literally, “est-ce que” means “is it that”. But it’s mainly a construction that’s both correct French grammar and often used in everyday spoken French.
Because, when you say Il est là ? = Is he here? it might not be clear whether you’re asking a question or asserting that Il est là. = He’s here. That’s why we can add Est-ce que at the start: Est-ce qu’il est là ? = Is it that he’s here? literally = Is he here?, clearly a question.
“Est-ce que” looks weird, long and complicated. There’s an inversion in there, too! But once you know it, it’s a helpful construction to ask any French question.
For all yes / no questions, we just add Est-ce que at the beginning:
Tu es prête. = You’re ready. → Est-ce que tu es prête ? = Are you ready?
Des enfants jouent dans le jardin. = Children are playing in the garden.
→ Est-ce que des enfants jouent dans le jardin ? = Are children playing in the garden?
Vous êtes là. = You’re here. → Est-ce que vous êtes là ? = Are you here?
With interrogative pronoun, it’s :
Pronom interrogatif + est-ce que + [sujet + verbe sans inversion]
- Qui est-ce que tu connais ? = Who do you know ?
- Quand est-ce qu’on arrive ? = When are we arriving? (and “que” loses its “e” before a vowel)
- Quand est-ce qu’on mange ? = When are we eating?
5) Practice: Cathedral
Here’s an affirmation in French: La cathédrale a été construite au treizième siècle. = The cathedral was built in the 13th century. Ask: “When was the cathedral built?” in four different ways.
First, how would you ask that in formal French, with the rules of written French that you find in grammar books? Use the inversion.
1 – Quand a été construite la cathédrale ? (formal)
Construction: interrogative pronoun “Quand” (= When) + verb “a été construite” (= was built) + subject “la cathédrale” (inversion)
This version sounds formal. To be honest, you can use it. It’s allowed. But you probably won’t hear it as often as the other versions, and it will sound a little pompous and ornate – which is fine if that’s your vibe.
Notice la liaison, by the way, “Quand” + vowel = kant with a “t” sound.
Click here to learn more :
- How to Use ‘La Liaison’ Properly (Rules + Examples)
- French Pronunciation Fundamentals Part 4: La Liaison
- French Pronunciation Lesson: Use This To Be Better Understood
Let’s try using Est-ce que: how can we ask, “When was the cathedral built?” with this construction?
2 – Quand est-ce que la cathédrale a été construite ? (less formal)
Construction: Interrogative pronoun “Quand” + “est-ce que” + subject “la cathédrale” and verb without inversion.
It is the correct French grammar version we use frequently in everyday spoken French.
Let’s get informal: what would we ask in everyday spoken French? There are several ways, but keep it very simple.
3 – La cathédrale a été construite quand ? (informal)
Construction: the affirmation, but with an interrogation point + replacing what we don’t know (“in the 13th century”) with the interrogative pronoun (“when”).
Let’s practice the more complex construction often used in informal French, sentences like Il est où, le bonheur ? (= Where is the happiness?) or C’est quoi, ça ? (= What is that?) We’ll apply that option to our informal question:
4 – Elle a été construite quand, la cathédrale ?
Construction: Subject pronoun (“elle” for “la cathédrale”) + verb + interrogation + comma + full subject.
It is a typical spoken French sentence that will make you sound fluent and confident.
Correct and informal French have different rules, and once you know that, you can better pick what to focus on if your goal is to understand real French conversations. Even more importantly, once you know that French people speak differently than we write, you can notice when that happens and understand what’s going on there!
And now, you can create your own question in informal French! Write down your question in the comments in the style of everyday spoken French. Be creative, be bold, and ask away!
Or you can keep learning about understanding fast-spoken French with me!
Click here to get your next lesson:
- Understand Fast Spoken French: Questions Aren’t Obvious
- Asking Questions in French: Est-ce que vs. Qu’est-ce que
- Avoid Asking These 5 Questions to French People
- The list of 11 questions you must stop asking (yourself and the others)
- Understanding Spoken French (Even When It’s Fast)
À tout de suite.
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