Everything you need to know about “Qu’est-ce que c’est”

Qu’est-ce que c’est means “What (is it)” in French.

Despite being a mouthful, it’s an extremely common phrase in both everyday and formal French, and also has several somewhat subtle variants.

What’s the deal with qu’est-ce que c’est?  

Let’s look into this inquisitive phrase!

What does Qu’est-ce que c’est mean?

Qu’est-ce que c’est means “What (is it)”. It can be used to ask about objects or ideas. It can stand on its own or be used with other words and phrases. The most common translation of qu’est-ce que c’est would therefore be “what is it.”

Why do French people say Qu’est-ce que c’est?

As an etymology fan, I have to admit that Qu’est-ce que c’est puzzles me. In many languages, as a general rule commonly used words are relatively short, but this one is a major exception.

If you break it down, it’s easy to understand where Qu’est-ce que c’est comes from:

Que (What (Que takes an apostrophe in this phrase because the following word starts with a vowel)) + est-ce que (is it that) + c’est (this/it is).

The good news is that the phrase never changes to reflect gender or number. But why not a one- or two -word “what” instead? I haven’t been able to find any concrete answers in my usual etymology sources.

You might point out that there are other ways to say “what” in French, but with the exception of one that we’ll look at a little further on, these are all used in different ways.

And so, this surprisingly clunky phrase is a must-know if you want to speak and understand French.

Still, don’t worry: you will get used to it. In the meantime, one way to practice could be to break it down the way I did a few paragraphs back, so that you can understand each component of the phrase and what’s really being said.

How do you use Qu’est-ce que c’est?

A woman holds out a small gift wrapped in brown paper and tied with a shiny red ribbon and bow.

There are several slight variants of Qu’est-ce que c’est, and a few different ways to use it. Here are the most common ones you’ll come across.

The standalone: Qu’est-ce que c’est ?

On its own, Qu’est-ce que c’est ? means “What is it?” or “What is that?”

Example:

J’ai trouvé ça sous son lit.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?

(“I found this under her bed.”

“What is it?”)

The question about a concrete noun: Qu’est-ce que c’est + article + noun

When talking about a physical person, place, or thing, you simply add an article and noun to the end of Qu’est-ce que c’est.

For instance:

Qu’est-ce que c’est ce tableau ? (What’s this painting?)

Qu’est-ce que c’est un taco? (What is a taco?)

An interesting side observation: Because French children also have to get used to using Qu’est-ce que c’est and its variants, you’ll often hear them use this one when asking about both concrete and abstract nouns.

The question about an abstract noun: Qu’est -ce que + article +noun?

When talking about abstract ideas and topics, you drop the c’est from Qu’est-ce que c’est.

For instance:

Qu’est -ce que la philosophie ? 

What is philosophy?

Qu’est-ce que l’amour ? 

What is love?

When dealing with abstract topics, you’ll often see this phrase replaced with a more familiar, somewhat easier interrogative phrase: C’est quoi – for instance, C’est quoi l’amour ?  We’ll talk more about c’est quoi further on in this article.

The question with a verb: Qu’est-ce que + subject + verb

As with the last example, the c’est in qu’est-ce que c’est is replaced by something else – in this case, a subject and a verb or a phrase with a verb. Here are some examples:

Qu’est-ce qu’il veut ? (What does he want?)

Qu’est-ce que tu voudrais faire aujourd’hui ? (What would you like to do today?)

Qu’est-ce qu’ils en pensent ? (What do they think of it?)

The What is this/that ___? with emphasis: Qu’est-ce que c’est que____ ?

In this variant, the core phrase Qu’est-ce que has c’est que added to it.

It’s most common incarnation is the phrase Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?, meaning “What is this?” or “What is that?”

As the phrase’s length might show, it’s often used to indicate a sense of emphasis or surprise.

Because Qu’est-ce que c’est que __ typically indicates some kind of emphasis or strong feeling, the meaning of phrases used with it can sometimes vary depending on tone or context.

For instance:

Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce film ? (What movie are you watching? or What the heck kind of movie is this?/What on earth am I watching?)

Qu’est-ce que c’est que ces vêtements par terre ? (What are these clothes (doing) on the floor?)

Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce bordel ? (What is this shit?/What the hell is going on?)

Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce mec ? (Who the heck is this guy?/Get a load of this guy!)

In everyday informal French, you may also hear this phrasing used for questions in general, even if there’s no particular emphasis or stress implied.

For instance, if you do an online search for Qu’est-ce que c’est que, you’ll come across autocomplete answers like the examples here, as well as for neutral questions like Qu’est-ce que c’est que le crowdfunding ? When you click, you’ll find that the results instead use the abstract noun question form Qu’est -ce que + article +noun: Qu’est-ce que le crowdfunding.

The exclamation : Qu’est-ce que + subject + verb (+phrase)!

Sometimes, Qu’est-ce que is part of a phrase that isn’t exactly a question. Saying Qu’est-ce que  followed by a subject and verb and additional words is a way to emphasize a statement.

Think of it as a rough equivalent to the English phrase “Isn’t it/he/she ___?” or “How __ it/he/she is!”

For instance:

Qu’est-ce qu’il est beau ! (Isn’t he handsome!)

Qu’est ce que ça coûte cher ! (How expensive this/that is!)

Qu’est-ce qu’il fait chaud aujourd’hui ! (How hot it is today!/It’s so hot today!)

Qu’est-ce qu’elle est bête ! (How stupid she is!)

The action change-up: Qu’est-ce qui ____?

What if you want to ask a question with a subject that does something? For instance, “What’s making that noise?”

In this case, the final que becomes qui: Qu’est-ce qui fait ce bruit ?

In French, even if you’re talking about an inanimate object or idea, it needs a sort of life or agency, grammatically speaking, to perform an action. So, que (what) becomes qui (who), even if qui isn’t referring to a living being.

The most common way you’ll see this variant used is in the extremely common phrase Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? (What’s happening?/What’s going on?)

Here, the qui refers to an event or state of being, not a living being.

Another common one is Qu’est-ce qui t’arrive ? (What’s happening to you?/What’s happened to you?)


You can learn more about qu’est-ce que and its variants in this impressively thorough Wiktionnaire entry.  

A risky alternative to Qu’est-ce que c’est: C’est quoi (ça) ?

A hand pours chipolte sauce over three freshly made soft-shell tacos
C’est quoi un taco ?

Although you will get used to it (I promise!), you might be worried that when you first start having conversations in French, you’ll forget the exact phrasing of qu’est-ce que (c’est).

Fortunately, there is an alternative if you really need one – but it comes at a price.

C’est quoi ? (literally: It’s what?) essentially means the same thing as Qu’est-ce que (c’est), and C’est quoi, ça ? more or less means the same thing as Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça ?

C’est quoi is easy to use: just add an article and noun, or a verb (or in certain cases an adjective) after it, like so:

  • C’est quoi l’amour ? (What is love?)
  • C’est quoi la philosophie ? (What is philosophy?)
  • C’est quoi ce bordel ? (What’s this mess/What’s this shit?)
  • C’est quoi un taco ? (What’s a taco?)

See? Simple.

But as I mentioned before, using C’est quoi instead of Qu’est-ce que c’est isn’t a perfect solution.

In most contexts, C’est quoi is, at best, informal. For instance, you’ll often see it used to phrase questions on shows, websites, etc, that are meant to be friendly or for children.  In other contexts, it can be downright rude or vulgar-sounding.

The same goes for replacing Qu’est-ce que with quoi in phrases like Qu’est-ce que tu aimes faire ?. Tu aimes faire quoi ? Can sound familiar/friendly, informal, or even rude or derogatory, depending on tone and context.

For instance, if someone gives me a gift and I take the wrapped package and say, Qu’est-ce que c’est ?, we understand that I’m surprised and curious, maybe excited as well. But in most cases, asking C’est quoi ?, unless I’m a young child, would imply annoyance, impatience, or disdain for the gift or the person giving it. If the person and I know each other very well and it’s clear that I wouldn’t feel any of these negative sentiments, C’est quoi ? could be used, but even then, I’d have to be really confident that there could be no misunderstanding.

So, that said, there are always exceptions – for instance, referring to something that isn’t present/concrete is less likely to be rude (C’est quoi la liberté ? vs C’est quoi ce gâteau ?) but in general, be cautious with C’est quoi and try to opt for something else.

As for using quoi at the end of a phrase like Tu voudrais faire quoi ?, that’s often a bit more polite than C’est quoi ? and is usually considered familiar/informal rather than rude, but it depends on things like tone and context, as well.

Now you may be thinking, C’est quoi ce bordel ? (What’s this shit?).  But by listening to enough French people, whether in real life or in movies and TV shows, you’ll quickly be able to differentiate between a rude C’est quoi and a neutral one.

That said, if you slip up, people will probably give you a pass, since you’re not a native French speaker. But the better you get at French, the less likely they are to let you get away with it without at least an afterthought. That’s why it’s best to know Qu’est-ce que c’est and its variants.

How to practice Qu’est-ce que c’est and its variants

As with just about any French vocabulary, the best way to remember and get familiar with using Qu’est-ce que c’est and its variants is by listening to, reading, and speaking French. It’s such a common phrase that you’ll come across it often.

When you get a chance to use it in conversation, whether it’s with someone you’ve just met, a French friend or colleague, or a French conversation partner,  go for it! Even if you don’t get it perfectly right, you’re unlikely to make a faux pas, which can’t be said for using C’est quoi instead.

And trust me, you will get used to seeing, hearing, and using it really quickly. It’s all a matter of practice.

Though it’s a bit clunky, Qu’est-ce que c’est and its variants are important and very common French question phrases. Luckily, with a little practice, those words will start coming naturally. Qu’est-ce que c’est rassurant ! (How reassuring!). 

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

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    • You might try:

      What are those things?

      « Que sont ces choses-là? »

      or:

      What are these things?

      « Que sont ces choses-ci? »

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  1. What’s the difference between “ ce bordel” and “merde”? I just learned the word for this guy from your conversation today. So, “ ce mec” means this guy or dude or person, rt? I was a college French major over 30 years ago and I never learned half of the straight language that you present. I love the slang thank you

    Reply

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