Any beginning learners out there confused by all the wide range of questions you get asked in French?
I know I was confused when I was a new learner.
Yes, once upon a time I was a complete beginning learner as well and I was so confused by all the different ways there were to ask a question.
More importantly, I had no idea how to form my own questions to become a part of the conversation.
And I wanted to be a part of the conversation.
A part that made the conversation feel more natural.
I didn’t expect to be a major player in my French conversations as a beginner, but I did want to show that I was willing to put in the work and do my best to participate.
Willingness and desire go a long way when attempting to communicate with someone in their native language.
1. So how does one go about asking a question in French?
Let’s start with a question that gives you a YES/NO answer. If you’re looking for questions that will open up the conversation, you’ll want to check out this post.
There are three basic formats you can use to as YES/NO questions in French. The biggest difference between the three is the occasion in which you would ask the question.
Remember, in French culture, there are formal ways to say things, a standard (or informal) way to say things, and a familiar way to say things.
Such is the case with most things in French conversation.
Let’s look at the three different ways to ask a YES/NO question, and then we’ll discuss how to chose which format to use.
2. The 3 Formats for Questions
This is the most formal way to ask a question. You simply invert the verb and the subject to ask a question.
The sentence structure is: Verb + Subject (remainder of sentence).
Par example: Êtes-vous Français?
Aimez-vous les chiens?
Faites-vous des courses?
2. Using “est-ce que” or “qu’est–ce que“
These questions words can only be used as a question. Use the phrase before the subject and verb to ask the question. This is your standard method.
The sentence structure is: “Est-ce que”/”Qu’est-ce que” + Subject + verb + (remainder of sentence).
Par example: Est-ce que vous Êtes Français? // Est-ce que tu es Français?
Est-ce que vous aimez les chiens? // Est-ce que tu aimes les chiens?
Est-ce que vous faites des courses? // Est-ce que tu fais des courses?
3. Intonation or “n’est-ce pas”
The easiest and most familiar method is to simply raise the tone of your voice at the end of the sentence. You could also add the phrase, “n’est–ce pas” (right?) at the end of the sentence. Simply structure the sentence like you would normally but with those small changes at the end.
This form is the MOST COMMON if you want to learn “street french” or real spoken French you would hear wandering the streets of Paris.
Subject + verb + (remainder of sentence) + “n’est-ce pas”/tone.
Par example: Tu es Français, n’est-ce pas?
Tu aimes les chiens? (with a rise in the voice at the end)
Tu fais des courses? (again with a rise in the voice at the end of the sentence.
3. How do I know which question form to use?
Well, that really depends on your situation.
Use method #1 (inversion) in very formal settings, like the ones you would specifically dress up for (a formal party, a job interview, meeting someone in a position of respect.
In your day-to-day interactions with people, use method #2. You probably won’t go wrong with using “est-ce que” in the majority of situations. If it’s too formal, then whomever you are talking with will ask you to use method #3.
Use method #3 ONLY when speaking to close friends and acquaintances, just to be sure you aren’t misjudging the situation.
You definitely want to err on the side of caution and use one level closer to formal than you think is necessary. People can always ask you to use more familiar speech, but you don’t want to risk offending someone by not showing enough respect right off the bat.
You can also pay attention to the conversation and look for clues. If the person you are talking to is using “tu” in their sentences, stick with method #2 or #3. If other people around you are using “vous” to address one person, it’s probably wise to stick with method #1 unless you hear otherwise.
Take clues from the other people around you as well as the context to figure out what method you need to use!
Be brave and ask away mes amis!