There is more than one way to translate “what” in French, depending on which “what” you mean and its function in the sentence:

  • Quoi (used mostly alone);
  • Qu’est-ce que, qu’est-ce qui (used in questions);
  • Ce que, ce qui  (used to connect sentences together);
  • Quel (used as “which” and for exclamations).

And yes, all are used!

Let’s explore them together. (For listening, right click on the link and choose “open in a new tab”. It will let you read as you listen. Don’t forget to close tabs afterwards).


Pronounced /kwa/, this is the most obvious translation, the one you were probably taught first.

It is mostly brought into play in the single word question “What?”.

quoi pouvez-vous

/kwa? poovay voo ray pay tay/ What? Say that again?  (LISTEN)

“Single word” being the idea here, because as soon as you want to add more, you can’t use it anymore.

c'Est faux


Well, I lied. You could encounter quoi in a sentence, but then it is considered slang, a bit like the expressions ain’t or me sayin’, etc. in English.

cest quoi

C’est quoi? /Say kwa/ Whazzat?  (LISTEN

mais quoi


Mais quoi? /meh kwa/ (What? Haven’t you seen a lived-in living room before?) LISTEN


chéri on mange quoi

Dear, what we havin’ tonight? – Burnt roast!  (LISTEN)


qu'est-ce qui qu'est-ce que


With longer questions asking “what…”, such as “What is it?” or “What’s the matter?” you must use either:

  • qu’est-ce qui /keskee/ (LISTEN)


  • qu’est-ce que (or qu’est-ce qu’) /keskuh/ (LISTEN) 



Qu’est-ce que c’est? /keskuh say/ What is it?    LISTEN

Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas? /keskeen vah pah/ What’s the matter?    LISTEN


What’s the difference between the two?

It’s purely grammatical. Qu’est-ce qui is used when the thing asked about is a subject in a sentence, qu’est-ce que, when the thing asked about is an object. In other words, while Qu’est-ce qui asks What…?, Qu’est-ce que asks …what?.



qu'Est-ce qui phrase


Qu’est-ce qui fait du bruit? /keskee feh dü brüee/ LISTEN 
WHAT‘s making noise?

Qu’est-ce qui te dérange? /keskeet day ronj/ LISTEN
WHAT‘s bothering you?

Qu’est-ce qui te ferait plaisir? /keskeet fray pleh zeer/ LISTEN
WHAT would make you happy?

In all the above examples, “what” is in the position of the subject.

qu'Est-ce que phrase

Qu’est-ce que tu manges? /keskuh tü monj/ LISTEN
(Tu manges quoi?)

What are you eating? (You eat WHAT?)

Qu’est-ce qu’on fait? /keskohn feh/ LISTEN
(On fait quoi?)

What are we doing? (We do WHAT?)

Qu’est-ce que c’est? /keskuh seh/ LISTEN
(C’est quoi?)

What is it? (It is WHAT?)

 In the above sentences, “what” is an object in relation to the verb.



ce qui ce que


When using “what” inside a sentence, not as a question word, but rather to connect phrases together, then you must use ce qui /ski/ LISTEN and ce que (or ce qu’)/skuh/  LISTEN.


Elle aime ce qui est mignon.  /el em ski ay me gnaw-hn/ LISTEN
She loves cute things (what is cute).

I know

Je sais ce que je veux. /sh say skuhj vuhr/ LISTEN
I know what I want.

If you start thinking this “what” business is getting complicated, don’t despair. This segment (ski, skuh) is indeed a little tricky to get. But after a while, I promise, it becomes second nature, like learning how to drive manual.

The difference between ski and skuh is also grammatical. Ce qui /ski/ stands for the subject; ce que (or ce qu’/skuh/ stands for the object in a sentence.

Consider the sentences below:

he is waiting1LISTEN


Here ce qu’ stands for son avion when you add “Je sais”:



he is waiting2


Why ce qu’ and not ce qui? Because son avion is an object in the original sentence.


Now this:

il apporte1LISTEN

When you add “Il apporte”, subject La pizza becomes ce qui:


il apporte2



Before I let you practice, I have to admit something to you. I haven’t told you the whole truth. There is more, besides ce qui and ce que: ce dont /suh don/ LISTEN. And also ce à quoi /suh ah kwa/ LISTEN.

Cause, you see, it’s… complicated. Objects in French are never simple. Because of those prepositions, you know?


If the verb is followed by “de“, as in, “avoir envie de“, then you can’t use “ce que” anymore. No, it has to be ce dont:

Elle fait ce dont elle a envie1LISTEN

Because there is “de” after the verb and before the object, ce que became ce dont:

Elle fait ce dont elle a envie2


Click here for a list of verbs with which you would use “ce dont”.


If the verb is followed by “à“, as in s’intéresser à, then you must use ce à quoi:

tu expliques ce à quoi1LISTEN

à la littérature russe becomes ce à quoi:

tu expliques ce à quoi2

Click here for a list of verbs with which you would use “ce à quoi”.









Quel /kell/ LISTEN comes before a noun in a question, and is used for asking “which”. I also agrees with the nouns it goes with. However, pronunciation remains the same:

Quelle heure est-il? /kell uhrette eel/  LISTEN
What time is it? 

Quels sont vos plans? /kell sohn vow plohn/ LISTEN
What are your plans? 

Quelles dates vous conviendraient? /kell datte voo kohn vee yen dreh/ LISTEN
What dates work best for you? 

Quel dessert choisissez-vous? /kell dess air shwa zee say voo/ LISTEN
Which dessert will you be having?




Quel may also come at the start of an exclamation.

quelle aventure LISTEN



common idioms



WTF : CQCM  C’est quoi ce merdier (France)  /sekkwass maird yeh/    LISTEN

               C’est quoi ce bordel (France)  /sekkwass boar dell/    LISTEN

               Qu’est-ce c’est ça, estie? (Québec) /kess say saw, stee/  LISTEN


So what? : Et après? /ay app reh/ LISTEN


What for? : Pour faire quoi? /poor fair kwa/  LISTEN


What now? : Quoi encore? /kwa on car/ LISTEN


What do you know! : Voyez-vous ça! /vwa yeh voo sah/ LISTEN


What if… : Et si… /eh see/ LISTEN


What about… : Et si on…? /eh see ohn…/ LISTEN


What have you : Et des choses dans ce genre /eh deh shows donsuh johr/ LISTEN


It takes what it takes : Ça prend ce que ça prend /sah pronskuh sa prohn/ LISTEN




© Ouicestca 2014, tous droits réservés.


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