7 ways to say “what” in French

“What” in French is quoior que, or quel(le)(s), or qu’est-ce que/qu’est-ce qui, or ce que/ce qui/ce dont. But these can’t be used interchangeably.

What’s going on here is that there is no single word for “what” in French – rather, you could think of it as if the French language has divided up the many roles that “what” plays and made each one its own word.

Let’s look at the most common ways to say “what” in French.

A cockatoo perches outside on a fence and seems to look at the viewer mischievously
Qu’est-ce qui fait ce bruit ? (What is making that noise?)

The “What?!” “what”: quoi 

Quoi is one of the words on this list that always means “what” – but it’s used in specific circumstances.

Quoi is most commonly used as “what” in three essential ways:

1. As a standalone question/reaction of disbelief.

This is similar to one of the ways “What” can be used in English.

For example:

-Hier il a jeté toutes ses cartes Pokémon à la poubelle.

– Quoi?!

(“Yesterday he threw all of his Pokemon cards away.”


2. As “what” within certain phrases and sentences.

In formal or standard, grammatically correct French, quoi is usually preceded by a preposition, especially à, de, or en . For instance:

Á quoi tu penses, mon chéri ? (What are you thinking about, my dear?)

En quoi cela te concerne ? (In what way does this involve you?/What does this have to do with you?)

But in everyday spoken, informal French, you’ll often hear quoi used instead of more formal structures. For instance, it’s very common to come across questions like:

Tu fais quoi ce weekend ? (What are you doing this weekend?)

Tu veux manger quoi ? (What do you want to eat?)

This use of quoi is correct because many French people do it, but it’s very informal, so try not to use this structure when in professional or formal situations. Also, tone is very important. A question that uses quoi this way could be neutral or friendly, or it could be said in anger, as if to minimize or mock what’s being talked about. So when it comes to this kind of quoi question, pay attention to how it’s being said or how you’re saying it.

3. To emphasize or seek agreement.

Sometimes, you might see or hear quoi tacked onto a statement that doesn’t really seem like a question. For instance: C’est trop cher, quoi. In this case, quoi is being used for emphasis or in the expectation that the people listening will agree. You can think of it as “you know?” or the British “innit it?”

If you come across it in an older French movie or novel, it’s more like the old-fashioned British “what?” that you’d find at the end of a statement like “Good weather today, what?”

Note that this use of quoi is very informal. Here are some typical ways you might see quoi used in this way in contemporary, informal spoken French:

Ça me fait chier, quoi! (This is really pissing me off!)

Elle est canon, quoi. (She’s so hot, you know?/She’s fit, innit?)

As a general rule, know that quoi can be a standard grammatical French word for “what”, but that it also has a bit of an informal, rebellious side. Feel free to check out our article on the nuances and uses of quoi if you want to learn more.  

And fellow grammar junkies may enjoy the Wiktionnaire entry for quoi, which looks at quoi’s origins and more obscure uses.

The “what” word (usually): que

Most of the time, que can mean either “what” or “that”, depending on the context of a sentence.

Note that when que is being used as “what” as a standalone word, it almost always comes at the beginning of a sentence or clause. For instance:

Que pensez-vous de ce livre ? (What do you think of this book?)

Que faire ? (What to do?/What can be done?)

Qu’allons-nous lui dire ? (What are we going to tell him?)

But often, que is better translated as “that” – for instance, C’est le film que j’ai le plus apprécié cette année. (This is the movie I liked best this year.)

So a lot of times, it depends on the context.

As we’ll see further on in this list, que is also sometimes used as part of a longer phrase that means “what”, as well.

The “which” “what”: quel

Quel means “what” when there’s a choice between different answers or options. For instance, Quels sont tes personnages préférés ? (What/Which (ones) are your favorite characters?)

Quel must agree with the thing(s) its referring to, so it has several forms:

quel – masculine singularEx: quel restaurant
quelle – feminine singularEx: quelle boutique
quels – masculine pluralEx: quels objets
quelles – feminine pluralEx: quelles chaises

Sometimes, it’s easy to understand the idea of a choice or options when quel is used, but other times it’s more subtle. For instance, a very common quel statement is À quelle heure part le bus? or, in informal, spoken French: Le bus part à quelle heure ? 

Both of these questions mean “What time does the bus leave?” The reason quelle is used is because there is a sense that the bus company chose an hour, or that we’re talking about a choice among all the time in a given day.

If this is melting your brain, don’t think too hard about it – just know that for the same reason, in general, “what” questions involving time will often be paired with quel(le). You probably learned one already, early on in your French learning journey: Quelle heure est-il ? (What time is it?).

Of course, that’s far from the only scenario where this “what” word is used. Here are some other examples of quel(le)(s) used as “what”:

Quel chapeau portera-t-il ce soir ? (Which/What hat will he wear tonight?)

Tu habites à quel étage ? (Which/What floor do you live on?)

On se donne rendez-vous devant quelle boutique ? (Which/What shop do/shall/will we meet in front of?)

Quelles sont tes séries préférées sur Netflix ? (What/Which are your favorite series on Netflix?)

The “What is” phrases:  qu’est-ce que and qu’est-ce qui

Qu’est-ce que and Qu’est-ce qui are a bit long-winded, but they are very common ways to express “What is…” in French.

The que at the end of Qu’est-ce que becomes a qui, making it Qu’est-ce qui, when the “what” refers to some unknown being or object that is performing an action.

For example:

Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? (What are you doing?)


Qu’est-ce qui fait ce bruit ? (What/Who is making that noise?)

In the first sentence, tu is the subject – in other words, the person performing the action. But in the second sentence, the subject’s identity is unknown, so the question phrase takes on a qui.

Note that Qu’est-ce que is often followed by c’est to mean “What it is it/What is this?”: Qu’est-ce que c’est? This phrase is so common that we’ve devoted an entire article to  how to use Qu’est-ce que c’est and some of its variants and alternatives.

Here are some examples of sentences with Qu’est-ce que and Qu’est-ce qui:

Qu’est ce que tu voudrais faire cet après-midi ? (What would you like to do this afternoon?)

Qu’est ce qu’ils vont nous servir pour le déjeuner ? (What are they going to serve us/make us for lunch?)

Qu’est-ce qu’il fout ? (What the heck/What the hell is he doing?)

Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? (What’s happening?/What’s going on?)

Note that Qu’est-ce que is often followed by c’est to mean “What it is it/What is this?”: Qu’est-ce que c’est? This phrase is so common that we’ve devoted an entire article to  how to use Qu’est-ce que c’est and some of its variants and alternatives.

The not-a-question “what”: ce que/ce qui/ce dont

Sometimes “what” isn’t necessarily used to show a question, but more like “that”. For instance, in English you might say something like “This is what I want to do.” The same goes for French – except, as you might have guessed, there’s a specific kind of “what” for that. You’ll usually see it as ce que, ce qui, or ce dont, depending on the structure of the rest of the sentence. There may also be some rarer variations, again depending on the structure of the sentence.

Here are some examples:

Voici ce que nous allons faire. (Here’s what we’re going to do.)

Il a promis de lui donner tout ce dont elle a envie. (He promised to give her everything (that) she wants.)

Ce qui est plus étonnant encore, c’est qu’il pense avoir raison ! (What’s even more surprising is that he thinks he’s right!)

The “What a…!”: Quel…!

Although quel primarily means “which”, we’ve seen that it can mean “what” when some kind of choice is involved or implied. It’s also the word used to express the equivalent of “What a…” in English.

It may seem strange that this is the word that was chosen, but maybe it’s because it implies that of all the things a person could be, this is what they are?

Regardless, here’s what to  know about using Quel or one of its variants this way: Don’t add an article or other modifier to it – it really does mean, not just “What” in this case, but “What a/an”.

Here are some examples:

Quel beau garçon ! (What a handsome fellow!)

Quel con ! (What an idiot/What an asshole)

Quelle surprise ! (What a surprise)

Quels talents ! What talented people/actors!

The rude and polite “What did you say?” : Quoi ? vs. Comment ?/Pardon ?

In English, we have several common ways of signifying that we didn’t hear or understand what someone said. Asking “What?” is informal or even rude, depending on the context, whereas saying things like “Excuse me?” or “Beg pardon?” or “Sorry?” are more polite. The same is true in French.

In French, if you didn’t hear or understand someone, you could say Quoi ? But this is very informal and often rude. So it’s best to opt for Comment ? or Pardon ? – both are easy, polite ways to ask “What did you say?”

Note that, as you may know already, Comment usually means “How”. But for some reason, in this specific context, it takes on a what meaning. If that confuses you or you don’t think it would come naturally to you in conversation, don’t worry: Pardon? is a perfectly good and polite alternative to use.

Other ways to say “what” in French

A blank white notecard hung on a thin black and white string by a black clothespin.

Our list covers the most common ways to say “what” in French. There might be some very specific turns of phrase that could require different equivalents, but in general, if you know this list, you’ll be able to understand and form just about any French “what” question or statement.

Remember that the more you read, watch, and listen to French, the more comfortable you’ll feel with the different ways to say “what”, so keep practicing!

What do you think about all of these different ways to say “what” in French? Feel free to share in the comments.

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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.