Quoi: The Hidden Meanings of the Versatile French Word

There are some words that just seem perfect. Quoi isn’t the prettiest word in French – at least not in my opinion – but when it comes to using it to express astonishment or outrage, there is nothing more satisfying. Quoi?! – it makes me think of an outraged cartoon bird honking in disbelief. 

That being said, quoi has also been used in countless beautiful French novels, essays, poems, and songs. 

I think this contrast actually sums up the word quite nicely.  While it seems simple, maybe even silly, on the surface, quoi is a word with many facets. It’s actually kind of mysterious – which is fitting, since it does mean “what”, after all. 

Yes, quoi means “what.” But so does que (in certain contexts), which means that you can’t just slip quoi into a sentence to replace its English equivalent, unfortunately.

Since it’s so common, it’s essential to understand and know how to use quoi in order to speak even basic French. Let’s try to get a handle on this often surprising word. 

The three main uses of quoi

Quoi is often used to express surprise

On its own, quoi tends to be used in three main ways: 

#1 Quoi used as a stand-alone word for “what”

Note that when French people usually use quoi this way, it’s not neutral.  It’s typically an informal way to express incomprehension or astonishment – think “What?” or “What?!”.  

For example:

Danielle : Tu dis que tous les mecs du lycée veulent sortir avec toi, mais hier soir j’ai vu Maxence au cinéma…avec Lucille. (You say that all the guys at school want to go out with you, but last night I saw Maxence at the movies…with Lucille.)

Vanessa: Quoi ?!

In English, if you didn’t hear someone, simply saying “What?” would be considered informal or even rude, and the same goes for quoi.

As someone who’s slightly hard of hearing, I learned this the hard way. Instead of reacting to a statement you didn’t hear with Quoi?, opt for Pardon ? (Excuse me/I beg your pardon?) instead. Ideally, you should do this even with family, close friends, romantic partners, etc., since Pardon also sounds calmer and kinder in general (another hard lesson I learned).

#2 Quoi used as “what” in certain phrases or sentences

In official French grammar, quoi replaces an indirect object, which means it’s supposed to follow prepositions – for example, A quoi penses-tu ? (What are you thinking about?).  Notice that it never directly follows a verb.

BUT language is a living thing, which means that everyday, real French speakers don’t always follow this rule, especially in spoken language. It’s more common, especially among younger generations and in an informal context, to hear something like, Tu fais quoi ce weekend ? (What are you doing this weekend?) than the grammatically correct Que fais-tu ce weekend ? or Qu’est-ce que tu vas faire ce weekend ?

This means that when you want to learn how to speak and write French like a bona fide French person, there are no hard and fast answers.

Try to find out which is actually correct: Que faire? or Quoi faire? or Je ne sais pas quoi faire/Je ne sais que faire*, and you’ll get a myriad of answers from French people, not to mention French learning forums and websites.  The explanations here and here are the best concise ones I could find, and even certain points they make could be disputed.

*Bonus complication: You don’t always have to use pas in a negative statement with the verb savoir…but you do when you use quoi with a verb.

Ultimately, if you want to sound formal and/or professional, if you’re writing anything other than a text message or email to a friend, or if you just want to be sure your French is shiny and perfect, avoid using quoi directly after a verb, with the exception of the common quoi expressions you’ll see later in this article.

#3 Quoi used as a way to emphasize a statement and seek agreement

I have written about French reality megastar Nabilla’s iconic phrase, Non, mais allô, quoi  ! before. It literally translates to, “No, but, hello, what!” Which doesn’t make sense, since she wasn’t trying to be heard on a phone. Here, quoi is used for emphasis. 

For comparison, in American English, you would probably italicize “Hello!” You could also add a word, in some cases, like “um” at the start of the phrase. For fellow “Jersey Shore” fans: Think of Angelina’s “Umm, Hello?!  

But using quoi for emphasis or agreement actually has a direct equivalent in British English. As you can see in this Oxford English dictionary entry, “what” is an outdated, informal way to emphasize a point, usually when you expect a person to agree with you. 

You’ve probably seen an old-timey movie or read an old British book where someone said a phrase like, “Lovely day for a drive, what?” or something along those lines.  

In French, as the Nabilla example shows, using quoi this way is far from outdated. You’ll often hear a statement like, Ce mec est trop beau, quoi !  (“This guy is sooo hot, you know/what?”)

If you’re looking for an equivalent in French, think n’est-ce pas?. 

UPDATE: In the comments at the end of this article, Kyle made a really good suggestion – you can also think of “quoi” as an equivalent of “innit?”/ “isn’t it?” – bearing in mind, of course, that you would only translate quoi as “innit” if the person saying it would be a lower class or young person.

So, as I replied in the comments, for Nabilla, absolutely!  On the other hand, for someone speaking in a formal setting or someone who wouldn’t use slang or modern/informal language, think of quoi as “isn’t it”, “don’t you think?”, “you know?” (a little more informal), etc.

Quoi’s cousins

why

In addition to being a word in its own right, quoi makes up part of – and gives meaning to – three other French terms you’ve probably used or seen:

Pourquoi

The main French word for “why” literally means “for what”. Example: Pourquoi aimes-tu le français ? (Why do you like French?). 

Quoi que (whatever) and  quoique (although/however)

For a long time, I found these very similar words pretty intimidating. Their association with the subjunctive just made them seem complicated and higher-level. But as I got better and French and then became fluent, they became familiar friends. 

I especially like the fact that quoique can work as a stand-alone word, sort of like if you just said “But…”  Example: Je ne devrais pas manger un autre pain au chocolat. Quoique… (I shouldn’t eat another pain au chocolat. But…)

Here are a few other examples: 

Quoi que tu achètes, tu regretteras avoir dépensé de l’argent. (Whatever you buy, you’ll regret having spent the money.)

Quoiqu’elle fasse du sport chaque jour, elle n’arrive pas à perdre du poids. (Although she does sport every day, she can’t lose weight.)

Common phrases with quoi

Cheerless sad man not knowing what to do

Look up quoi in any French dictionary (online or otherwise), grammar guide, or language-learning forum, and you’re almost certain to find a list of expressions that it’s used with. 

Note that while these are all commonly used in France today, and no one would bat an eye at your saying them, they may not always follow official grammar rules:

A quoi bon

What’s the point? /What’s the good in that? This phrase can stand alone, but is also often used with the infinitive of a verb, to mean “What’s the good in [verb]?”  For example: 

Jeanne: Apelle-le ! (Call him!)

Patricia : A quoi bon ? (What’s the point?)

Jeanne : Au moins tu sauras s’il t’aime ou non. A quoi bon pleurer pour rien ? (At least you’ll know if he loves you or not. What’s the point in crying for nothing?)

A quoi ça sert/Ça sert à quoi (de)…

What is this used for/What’s the use in…? /What’s the point… As you can tell, these two phrases are very similar but very different. A quoi ça sert is usually used for actual questions about the way things work. For example, my son might find something he’s never seen before and ask, A quoi ca sert? – or, if he knows the name of the object, À quoi ça sert un clou ? (What is a nail used for?) Or he could ask about something we do: À quoi ça sert de se brosser les dents ? (Why do we brush our teeth?)

Ça sert à quoi, on the other hand, tends to be for more philosophical matters: Ça sert à quoi de se marier ? (What’s the point of getting married?) Ça sert à quoi de vivre? (What’s the point in living?).

This said, Ça sert à quoi is often used interchangeably with A quoi ça sert. If you type “Ca sert à quoi de” into a search engine, you’ll also see questions like, “Ça sert à quoi de remercier le chauffeur ?” (What’s the point of thanking the bus driver?). 

Avoir de quoi faire

To have a lot of work to do/have a lot to keep one occupied.

Préparer Cendrillon pour le bal ? Sa bonne fée a de quoi faire ! (Get Cinderella ready for the ball? Her fairy godmother has a lot of work to do!) 

N’importe quoi

Nonsense.

This phrase can be used on its own – for example, Les chevaux savent voler ? N’importe quoi ! (Horses know how to fly? Nonsense!).  Or it can be used in a sentence. For example, here’s one my son often hears at nursery school and likes to repeat when I tease him: Maman, tu dis n’importe quoi. (Mom, you’re talking nonsense.)  You’ll also often hear the phrase C’est du n’importe quoi ! (That’s nonsense/What nonsense!) quite a lot in France.

Comme quoi

Who’d have thought? /It goes to show. 

Example: Comme quoi, la belle est tombée amoureuse de la bête ! (Who’d have thought, Beauty fell in love with the Beast!)

Et puis quoi encore ?

Come on! /What’s next?/and then what?

This is a common thing for French people to say when they’re exasperated or overwhelmed, although it could also be used if they’re simply listing something (this latter is especially common for children to do). Example: Tu veux que je paye le billet d’avion de ta sœur, que j’aille la recuperer à l’aeroport, et puis quoi encore ? (You want me to pay for your sister’s airplane ticket, pick her up at the airport – and then what?)

Il n’y a pas de quoi

You’re welcome.

As a culture, the French tend to be very polite, so it’s no wonder there are many ways to say “You’re welcome.” Il n’y a pas de quoi essentially means, “No worries.”

A word of warning: Be very careful how you pronounce this phrase.

When my father came to visit me in France a few years ago, he was proud that he at least knew some basic, polite French phrases. At a shop in my neighborhood, he bought a souvenir. The shopkeeper thanked him, and he meant to say Il n’y a pas de quoi, but it sounded like N’importe quoi, which, as you know from this list, means “Nonsense.” Luckily, I explained the situation to the shopkeeper and all was well.

Il n’y a pas de quoi + infinitive

There’s no reason to… – Example : Il n’y a pas de quoi pleurer. (There’s no reason to cry.)

Quoi de neuf ?

What’s new? 

Example : 

Quoi de neuf ? (What’s new?) 

Georges a gagné au loto ! (Georges won the lottery!)

Quoi ?  (What?)

Je dis n’importe quoi – c’est une blague. (I’m talking nonsense – it’s a joke.)

Ou quoi

Or what. 

As in English, this is an informal expression. You’ll usually hear it from young or lower-class people, or when someone is so angry that all propriety flies out the window. Example: Tu es bête ou quoi ? (Are you stupid or what?) is a very common phrase on TV, in the movies, and in everyday life in France.

Non mais ça va pas ou quoi ?

What’s wrong with you/What the hell?. This phrase literally means, “No but you’re not all right or what?” In other words, what’s your excuse for being so rude?  

C’est quoi ce/cette/ces….

What is this…/What are these… (usually in a negative or even disgusted way).  Example: C’est quoi ces godasses ? (What are these (implied: ugly/ridiculous) shoes?). 

You can find many, many more phrases and expressions with quoi on the excellent list included here.

The famous and often misunderstood je-ne-sais-quoi 

Quoi may not be a word most non-French speakers know, but many of them have probably heard the phrase je-ne-sais-quoi before. In fact, so many people have that it’s a very common search engine term. It’s no wonder; unlike other common French words that have been borrowed into other languages, this is a compound term with no easily recognizable elements to foreign speakers. Even as someone learning French, you may not be able to understand it completely, because its meaning goes beyond the words that make it up.

So, what does je-ne-sais-quoi mean? Quite simply, “I-don’t-know-what.” 

In French, the term can be used either as individual elements of a sentence (Remember Je ne sais quoi faire from earlier in this post?). 

But when it’s a hyphenated phrase-turned-masculine-singular-noun, in French and English, je-ne-sais-quoi means a certain appeal or charm that you can’t quite explain.

You could translate the sentence Cette fille a un je-ne-sais-quoi qui la rend inoubliable as ‘This girl has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes her unforgettable.’ Or, if you wanted to only use English words: ‘There’s something indefinable about this girl that makes her unforgettable.’

In English, some people call je-ne-sais-quoi simply, “It” (not to be confused with the scary clown).  You’ll often hear this in Hollywood parlance; there are even entertainment magazines and websites that put out an annual “It List” of charming, intriguing people.

Of course, je-ne-sais-quoi depends on your own opinions. One person might say that an actor or writer or singer has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, while another completely disagrees. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that je-ne-sais-quoi doesn’t just apply to famous people.  You might have a friend, relative, love interest, neighbor, coworker, etc. who has it. Works of art or design or other kinds of object might, too. For example, if a painting appeals to you, personally, and you can’t quite say why – especially if it’s not conventionally crowd-pleasing – you could say it has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

Animals and plants can also have je-ne-sais-quoi, as you might have guessed. This is something I think about a lot. Maru, for example, is an utterly adorable Scottish fold cat whose videos fill many of us with serene joy. On the other hand, black and white shorthair Princess Cheeto’s Tumblr account catches our eye, and not just because of its colors and slick graphic design: Princess Cheeto herself has a quirky, unforgettable face, a certain charm – je-ne-sais-quoi.  At least, in my opinion she does. And I’m not alone, since she’s been featured in several ad campaigns, including one I see quite a lot on the streets of Paris. 

It’s fitting that the term je-ne-sais-quoi is a phrase that hasn’t been translated out of French. French culture that seems to seek out and celebrate different kinds of charm and appeal. One of my favorite things about French culture is that while conventionally beautiful people are as admired and desired as they are in most other places, it’s a lot easier here for someone with genuine talent, a sparkling personality, or simply that je-ne-sais-quoi to be equally admired and revered and embraced as a celebrity. The “hip” French channel Canal + annually chooses a conventionally sexy woman to do the weather report, but they’ll also eagerly invite Beth Ditto to walk in a fashion show. 

Do you know a person, animal, work of art, or anything else with je-ne-sais-quoi?  

Quoiqu’il en soit (Whatever the case), I hope this post about quoi was helpful and hasn’t left you shaking your head, thinking, C’est quoi cet article?

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. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.

12 thoughts on “Quoi: The Hidden Meanings of the Versatile French Word”

  1. What do think about using quoi in an English brand. Specifically, do you believe that quoi would be hard to pronounce for most English speaking people.

    Reply
  2. Great article! I’ve heard the sentence capstoning quoi explained like the British “innit / isn’t it”. Il fait beau quoi. It’s a beautiful day innit.

    What do you think?
    Kyle

    Reply
  3. Great article! I’ve heard the sentence capstoning quoi explained like the British “innit / isn’t it”. Il fait beau quoi. It’s a beautiful day innit.

    What do you think?
    Kyle

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Kyle, and for your very interesting comment. I think “innit” would work – but only in informal contexts, for a certain class of people. For example, Kate Middleton would never say “innit”, innit? 🙂 And thus neither would people like Macron, or stuffy bourgeois Parisians, etc. But on the other hand, Nabilla, who I used as an example in the article, DEFINITELY would say “innit” if she were British! Thanks for this insight. I’m going to talk to Benjamin and see if we might be able to add it into the article – giving you credit, of course!

      Reply

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