Asking Questions in French: Est-ce que vs. Qu’est-ce que

Qu’est-ce que” and “Est-ce que” are frequently used in French to ask questions. They look and sound similar, but they’re actually quite different. What’s the difference between these French questions, and how can you use them in everyday French conversation?

A student asked me this question in a previous Q&A on learning French. Today, I’ll clear up any confusion you might have… And you’ll get to learn more ways to ask questions in French!

Learning goals: This is what you’ll be able to do after watching this lesson

  • Beginner: Don’t be confused when you read or hear “Qu’est-ce que” or “Est-ce que”, because you know what they mean
  • Intermediate: Ask Yes / No questions in a new way
  • Advanced: Make sentences with “Qu’est-ce que” and “Qui est-ce qui

Bonjour I’m Géraldine, your French teacher.
Welcome to Comme une Française!

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1) Qu’est-ce que… ?

Qu’est-ce que is a French way to start a question. Literally, it’s built with three French words:

Que + est + ce“What + is + it/that?…”

As a French question, it’s a longer way to ask: “What… ?” It’s correct French, but in real, everyday spoken French, we tend to ask shorter questions.

For instance, you can ask: Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (= What is it?)

But, in everyday spoken French, we would rather use: C’est quoi? (= What is it?) or C’est quoi ça? (=What is this thing?)

You can also use “Qu’est-ce que…” with other sentences, such as:

Qu’est-ce que tu fais ce soir ? (= What are you doing tonight?)
In spoken French, you can use : Tu fais quoi ce soir ? (= What are you doing tonight?)

To go the extra mile, you can also use the same expression with Qui (= “Who?”).

For instance, we would ask Qui est-ce ? (= Who is it?) – or C’est qui ? in spoken French.

Using the French question Qui est-ce qui… (= “Who is it that…” = “Who… ?”), you can also ask:

  • Qui est-ce qui a appelé ? (= “Who is it that called?” literally)
  • Qui a appelé ? (= “Who called?”, same meaning, simpler question)

In everyday spoken French, we could also say C’est qui qui a appelé?, but “qui qui” sounds bad, aesthetically – so, in this case, we would rather use “Qui est-ce qui” instead.

2) Est-ce que… ?

Est-ce que…” is another French way to ask a question. But, while “Qu’est-ce que” asks for “What…?”, “Est-ce que…(= “Is it that… ?” literally) asks “Is it true that… ?.”

It’s an easy way to announce that you’re asking a “Yes / No” question!

Est-ce que tu es prêt ?(= Are you ready ?)

There are several ways to turn an affirmative sentence (“Tu es prêt” = “you’re ready”) into a Yes / No question (“Are you ready ?”):

  • Add “Est-ce que” in front of it Est-ce que tu es prêt ?
  • Invert the verb and subject Es-tu prêt ? (more formal)
  • Just add an interrogation point! Tu es prêt ? (spoken French)

3) Your turn now!

How would you turn these sentences into questions?

  • Tu es là. You’re here.
  • On fait des gâteaux pour ce soir. We’re baking cakes for tonight.
  • Michel danse la salsa. Michel is dancing salsa.

You can try different ways for each sentence!
Do it before looking at the corrections below.

Are you ready to see the answers?

You’re sure?

OK, great!

So, you can ask:

For Tu es là.

  • Tu es là ? Est-ce que tu es là ? Es-tu là ?
    (= Are you here? In spoken French / correct French / formal French)
  • Qui est-ce qui est là ? Qui est là ?
    (= Who’s here? Who’s there? In correct but longer French, and in normal French)

For On fait des gâteaux pour ce soir.

  • On fait des gâteaux pour ce soir ?
    (= “Do we bake cakes for tonight?” in spoken French)
  • On fait quoi pour ce soir ?
    (= What do we make for tonight? In spoken French)
  • Qu’est-ce qu’on fait pour ce soir ?
    (= What do we make for tonight? In correct French)

The more formal way to ask “What do we do for tonight?” would be “Que faisons-nous pour ce soir?” – with both the subject-verb inversion, and using “nous” instead of “on.”

For Michel danse la salsa.

  • Michel danse la salsa ? 
    (= “Is Michel dancing salsa?” in spoken French)
  • Michel danse quoi ?
    (= “What is Michel dancing?” in spoken French)
  • Qu’est-ce que Michel danse?
    (= “What is Michel dancing?” in correct French)
  • Qui est-ce qui danse la salsa ?
    (= “Who is dancing salsa?” in correct but longer French)
  • Qui danse la salsa ?
    (= “Who is dancing salsa?” in correct and shorter French) 

There are many more possible questions you could ask around these sentences, try to make your own!

4) Recap: What did you learn today?

  • Qu’est-ce que… ?” = “What… ?
  • Qui est-ce qui… ?” = “Who… ?
  • Est-ce que… ?” = Announcing a “Yes / No” question
  • How to ask more simple questions in everyday, spoken French

If you want to learn more about asking questions in French, you can watch my lesson on how to ask a question in French.

À tout de suite.
See you in the next video!

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