A simple way to understand the six ways in which you can say “what” in French.

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The word “what” is deceptively complicated when you translate it. It looks like a simple one-to-one word translation, but the reality is that “what” is used in many expressions that are translated using many different words in other languages.

It’s tempting to just say “what” in French is quoi — and it is, sometimes — but the reality is you need to understand a few other expressions in English.

(French speakers have the same problem coming the other way, by the way. When they want to translate a word like “quoi”, suddenly they realise there are so many ways in which it can be used!)

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Que

Using que has a simple rule of thumb: Use que at the beginning of a sentence.

There is just one common kind of sentence that uses que standalone.

Note that que gets abbreviated through liaison if followed by a vowel.

See the following examples of when to use que to say “what” in French.

EnglishFrench
What do you think (of it)?Qu‘en pensez-vous?
What do you see?Que voyez-vous?
What do you want to eat?Que veux-tu manger?
Examples of “what” in French: Qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

Quoi

The word quoi is very useful in French.

Here’s when you use it to say “what”:

Use quoi after a preposition, like à or deUse quoi after a verb or at the end of a sentence (which is less formal/more colloquial grammar)Use quoi as an exclamation standalone.

See the following examples of when to use quoi to say “what” in French.

EnglishFrench
What are you thinking about?À quoi pensez-vous?
What’s it about?De quoi s’agit-il?
I wonder what it’s made with.Je me demande avec quoi il est fait.

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What does that mean then?Ça veux dire quoi alors?
He wants… what??Il veut… quoi??
What’s the time? (casual)C’est quoi l’heure?
What’s that thingamajig?C’est quoi ce truc-là?
What???Quoi???
Examples of “what” in French: Qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

As you can see, quoi is pretty useful! But remember, use que at the beginning.