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Quel and quoi both translate to what.

Is there any rule that tells which one should be used?

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Really? I always worked under the assumption that quel translated to which... –  Circeus Mar 8 '13 at 6:11
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You will notice that Quel is always followed by a noun, whereas Quoi is never. –  Rerito Mar 8 '13 at 13:50
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2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

1. Quoi = what (indirect object)

Don't use quoi in written French without a preposition, as quoi stands for indirect objects -- except in fixed expressions like quoi qu'il en soit (nevertheless).

Quoi only appears in questions as the second word, directly after the preposition. Typical prepositions are de, à, sur, sous, en, pour (in this case, both words are written together in pourquoi). For example: de quoi parles-tu ? (what are you talking about?); à quoi fais-tu allusion? (what are you referring to?)

Quoi is misused in the spoken French in a grammatically incorrect but sadly very common way as a substitute for que in non-inverted questions: tu fais quoi ? standing for que fais-tu ? (what are you doing?)

2. Quel

Quel exists in two forms: as a pronoun and as an adjective:

Quel as a pronoun = what (direct object)

Quel as a pronoun is variable, depending on the object is refers to, and is often subject of a question: quel est ce film ?; quelle est cette plante ?; quels sont ces pays ?; quelles sont ces couleurs ?

Quel as an adjective = which

Quel as an adjective is variable, depending on the noun following it; Quelle heure est-il ?; Quel film aimes-tu ?; Quels pays as-tu visités ?; Quelles couleurs préfères-tu ?

3. Qu'elle = that she

Don't mix up quelle and qu'elle. Qu'elle stands for que elle which means that she as in l'homme qu'elle aime (litt. the man that she loves)

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Quelle heure est-il ? -> What time is it?

Quel est celui que tu préfères ? -> Which one do you prefer?

Tu fais quoi ? (fam.) -> What are you doing?

Quel ou quoi peuvent être utilisés dans de nombreux contextes, et avec des déclinaisons :

Lequel ? Que fais-tu ?

Quel est utilisé pour désigner une chose, tandis-que quoi est plus abstrait.

Quel chien préfères-tu ? Quoi de mieux qu'une journée de pêche ?

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