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As opposed to "qui a dit ça ?" or "qui est-ce qui a dit ça ?", which I always assumed to be a less formal/informal way of posing the same question "qui a-t-il dit ça ?". I recently was told otherwise however, that the inverted form is just nonsense and not correct at all. Is that true, and if so, why can't inversion be used with the pronoun qui?

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Qui” is the interrogative pronoun which inquires about a person. Because you can’t “dire” a person1, the only logical grammatical function “qui” (without a preposition such as “à”) can have is to be the subject of the verb “dit”. Now take the (incorrect) sentence

*Qui a-t-il dit ça ?

Qui” is the subject. What function does “il” have? Well “il” is always subject! So in this sentence, “dit” has two different subjects: “il”, who refers to a known male singular person, and “qui” which refers to and inquires about the unknown author of “dit”.

This is obviously incorrect.

Now, when a verb is transitive and can have a person has a complement, the structure is correct.

For exemple, “inviter quelqu’un”:

Qui a-t-il invité ?
Whom did he invite?

  1. In English, you can “tell someone something” or “say something to someone”; in French, you can’t “*dire quelqu’un quelque chose”, you can only “dire quelque chose à quelqu’un”.
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La règle est d'avoir un sujet au centre de l'interrogation.
Dans la phrase « qui a-t-il dit ça ? », il y a deux sujets représentés par :

  • Qui

  • Il (et son -t- qui représente simplement la structure interrogative).

On doit donc en éliminer un, ce qui peut donner respectivement :

  • Qui a dit ça ?

  • A-t-il dit ça ?

Cependant, à la deuxième phrase, on peut remarquer que le sens de la phrase change.
Donc si on suit la logique, on choisit la première proposition.

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This would be correct, although with a different meaning (Who did he tell that to ?) :

À qui a-t-il dit ça ?

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