I know that in French there are three different ways to ask a question:

  • Simply with intontation
  • With inversion
  • With "est-ce que" (and therefore no inversion)

I'm specifically asking about the last two ways for this question. In particular, I want to know if these phrases are correct:

  • Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?
  • Que veut dire ça?
  • Qu’est-ce que “maman” veut dire?
  • Que veut dire “maman”?
  • Qu’est-ce que “maman” est en anglais?
  • Qu'est “maman” en anglais?
  • Qu'est-ce que c'est?
  • Qu'est ça?

Note that I'm simply using "maman" as an example; I do know what it means!
If some of these are not correct, please explain to me why not; since I always thought you simple take out the "est-ce que/qui" and switch the position of the verb(s) and subject.

Also, I'm not quite sure how when to use "qui/que". I used to think the "qui" would refer to the subject and "que" to the object but since you say "qu'est-ce que c'est" and not "qu-est-ce qui c'est" I'm not so sure anymore. Some clarification on this would be nice as well.

EDIT: I really would like the last part of my question answered as well. Why is it "Qu'est-ce que c'est" and not "Qu'est-ce qui c'est"? Why is "qui" not appropriate here?

  • You wouldn't ask "what is this in English" but rather (among others) "comment dit-on ça en anglais?" or "quel est l'équivalent en anglais?", literally "how does one say that in english" and "what is the English equivalent"
    – asac
    Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 18:40
  • @antoine-sac My understanding is the question raised by the OP is asked by someone who do not understand some French word and ask for its English equivalent while "Comment dit-on xxx en anglais ?" is asked by someone who know what means the French word but want to know its English translation. That's a different situation.
    – jlliagre
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 13:02
  • EDIT : qui is about a person and que for inanimated things.
    – Yohann V.
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 14:42
  • @YohannV. But is it not also that "qui" is for subjects and "que" is for objects of a sentence? For example, wouldn't you ask "Qu'est-ce qui lui a fait plaisir?" since you are asking about the subject of the sentence?
    – user11876
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 14:47
  • "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" = What is that? & "Qu'est-ce qui lui fait plaisir?" = What is making him happy?
    – Yohann V.
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 14:51

1 Answer 1



  • Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ?

Correct, you need to clearly separate maman from the rest of the sentence, otherwise would mean "what does mum want to say?" :

  • Qu’est-ce que « maman » veut dire ?
  • Que veut dire « maman » ?

Not appropriate, this would be used for some unknown thing, not a word:

  • Qu'est-ce que c'est ?

Non idiomatic / incorrect:

  • Que veut dire ça ?
  • Qu'est « maman » en anglais ?
  • Qu’est-ce que « maman » est en anglais ?
  • Qu'est ça ?

Note that I made some typographic changes, a space is required before a question mark in (France) French, and double quotes should be guillemets.

  • There is another form that OP didn't mention. I remember on kids cereal packs for example, when there was an informative question like "what's an Okapi ?" the question would be "Qu'est-ce qu'un Okapi ?". It's mostly literal though. Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 9:53
  • @TeleportingGoat Yes, "Qu'est-ce qu'un Okapi ?" is how it is written and the form that is taught to children. The actual question you are likely to hear is usually not that formal and would be "C'est quoi un Okapi ?".
    – jlliagre
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 11:10
  • @jilliagre Thanks for such a detailed and descriptive answer! However, could you please explain to me why the last four phrases are incorrect? Did I not inverse the subject and the verb correctly for some of them? I also would like to know the clarification on "qui" and "que". Again, thank you for your response, but I need some more detailed on it.
    – user11876
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 13:46
  • @jlliagre Also I realize that "Qu'est-ce que c'est" doesn't refer to words, but for objects, as in "What is this?"
    – user11876
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 13:47
  • @jlliagre Finally, I think you made a mistake in your answer which you should edit: You wrote "exclamantion mark" but I think you meant "question mark"; an exclamation mark is "!" not "?".
    – user11876
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 13:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.