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In the following sentence (a newspaper headline), why is "que" used and not "qui" or "qu'est-ce qui"?

Mais que sont ces cercles rouges sur le dos de Michael Phelps?

Update: On reflection, I think it might be as simple as this: "que" is merely the interrogative pronoun; the noun phrase "ces cercles rouges" is the subject proper.

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Qui and que are both interrogative words. Interrogative words bear the indication of what kind of information you are looking for in the answer. For example, quand ("when") shows you are expecting information about time, ("where") shows you are expecting information about place.
Qui is used to show you are expecting information about persons and que about things /ideas. Both, qui and que can be subject or object according to their function in the sentence.

Que vois-tu ?

The answer will be a thing/things.

Qui vois-tu ?

The answer will be a person/people. In both cases the interrogative pronoun is object to the verb.

In the following question :

Mais que sont ces cercles rouges sur le dos de Michael Phelps ?

que is the subject of sont and it represents things, namely ces cercles rouges (the red circles) visible on Michael Phelps's back, we want information on those marks, we can only use que here.

We could also say:

Mais qu'est-ce que sont ces cercles rouges sur le dos de Michael Phelps ?

In the sentence:

Qui sont ces gens assis sur le bord de la piscine ?

by using qui we indicate we are asking about the identity of the people.

If we said:

Que sont ces gens assis sur le bord de la piscine ?

que would indicate we want to know about the function of these people (ordinary spectators? journalists ? trainers ?...)

  • Agreed, Mais qu'est-ce que sont ces cercles rouges sur le dos de Michael Phelps ? does not really sound good.. – Steeven Brunner Aug 12 '16 at 8:23
  • @SteevenBrunner Just search qu'est-ce que sont ces in a search engine to see it's quite usual in French. To avoid saying Internet is in no way a reference as far as good use of language is concerned (to which I entirely agree to) here are some more literary uses: Qu’est-ce que sont ces cartes ?, Mais qu'est-ce que sont ces méthodes ?, Qu’est-ce que sont ces hommes qui le tiennent ?, Qu'est-ce-que sont ces fenêtres ?, Mais qu'est-ce que sont ces pratiques ? etc. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 12 '16 at 9:40
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    After a little more study, I think I may have found the explanation. Normally, the forms for "what" in a question are: subject = qu'est-ce qui ; direct object = que/qu'est-ce que ; after a preposition = quoi. Hence my original question. However, qu'est-ce que and que can also act as the subject complement/attribut du sujet with a copula verb/verbe attributif such as être, devenir, sembler etc. I think this is what is happening in my sentence above. And indeed, all of your examples, Laure, also contain être! – Penelope Aug 12 '16 at 10:47
  • @Claudie Your example contains être, but I started with a different example on purpose. Que is indeed an "interrogative subject pronoun" (your question) whenever it refers to things or ideas. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 12 '16 at 11:02
  • @Claudie qu'est-ce qui... : qui is subject of the following verb, not of être (Qu'est- ce qui se passe ?); qu'est-ce que - que impossible in first occurrence - second que is object of the following verb, not of être (Qu'est-ce que tu vois ?). – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 12 '16 at 11:12
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Que means what. Qui means who. In that sentence, que refers to the red circles. So the translation would be "What are those red circles on...."

So qui is only used when referring to people.

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Que... Qu'est ce que... Qu'est ce qui... : What

Qu'est ce que sont ces cercles rouges...(What are those red circles...)

Qu'est ce qui a fait un suçon pareil sur le dos de... (What made such a love bite on the back of...)

Qui... : Who

Qui a fait ces suçons sur le dos... (*Who made those love bites on the back...)

  • For the record, much too big to be love bites (unless by an alien ?). Such marks are bruises left by what is called "cupping therapy". An ancient and popular Chinese practice. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 12 '16 at 7:10

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