In French, is there a word for "What" like in "What did that to you"? In the sentence "What's happening?" "What" is often translated as "qu'est qui" and qu'est-il" why is this? And does this apply to questions that aren't "What's happening"? I don't understand how "qu'est-il" or "qu'est qui" can translate to "what" since "qu'est-ce qui" translates to "what is it that".

  • Then how would you say "what did that to you" in French? Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 13:01
  • Also why is the t-il necessary? Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 13:06
  • Your question isn't very clear, maybe you should reformulate your question after you have looked a litlle into "est-ce que". Numerous posts on est-ce que on French Language and maybe this page on how to ask questions in French.
    – None
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 13:24
  • "What" is just "que". "What's happening?" → Que se passe-t-il ? or Qu'est-ce ce qui se passe ? "What did that do to you?" → Qu'est-ce qui t'a fait ça? The est-ce que construction is the part of the verb that bears the interrogation in "est-ce que questions" and the fist que is subject of être.
    – None
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 14:28
  • is "que cela t'a-t-il fait?" correct or no? Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 14:37

1 Answer 1


“Qu'est-ce qui” does not translate to “what is it that”. It translates to “what”. “Est-ce que” is a fixed idiom, it's one of the three ways of formulating a question:

  • formal: verb-subject inversion, e.g. “Qu'as-tu fait ?”
  • neutral: “est-ce que”, e.g. “Qu'est-ce que tu as fait ?”
  • informal: same word order as a positive statement, e.g. “Tu as fait quoi ?” (for a yes/no question, the fact that the sentence is a question is only conveyed by intonation)

The word corresponding to what is either quoi or que. In simple cases, it's que when the interrogative pronoun comes before the verb and quoi when it comes after. There are many exceptions, see your grammar books or Wiktionnaire for more detailed rules.

When the interrogative pronoun is the subject of the sentence, you can use qui if it stands for a person, but not if it stands for a thing. There is no neutral subject interrogative pronoun, you need to use “que'est-ce qui”. For example, “What did that to you?” = “Qu'est-ce qui t'a fait ça ?” As you can see, “qu'est-ce qui” is the translation of what when it's the subject of the sentence.

  • 1
    In all of those sentences, what is the object of the verb. OP wanted to know what interrogative word to use when what is the inanimate subject of a question. Think about it: as interrogative pronouns, que and qu'est-ce que and quoi can only be used as objects, both animate and inanimate. Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 21:59
  • @Eauquidort Oh, yes, good point, I added that. Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 22:07

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