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Bonjour à tous!

I'm a bit confused when it comes to choosing how to word a question in French. Like most, if not all of you, I learned that there are 3 ways to ask questions:

  1. Intonation: just raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the question
  2. Est-ce que: add est-ce que to the beginning of the question
  3. Inversion: ask the question in verb-subject order instead of subject-verb

However, despite understanding how to construct questions, I'm often unsure as to which form is most appropriate in which situations. Through schooling, I currently think of each question form in the following ways:

  1. Intonation: reserved strictly for oral communication, informal setting
  2. Est-ce que: the safest bet; just about always appropriate
  3. Inversion: the most formal/polite question form

With that being said, here are some experiences that have contradicted what I learned in school:

  • I once asked my French friend, "Il est gentil?" (intonation) in person, but he told me that what I should've asked was "Est-il gentil?" (inversion). Confusion: why must I use inversion here if I'm talking to a friend? Is the difference comparable to a "He's nice?" (confirming what the asker thinks before having his/her question answered) vs. "Is he nice?" (asking because the asker really does not know)?
  • My friend recently asked me "As-tu lu l'article que je t'ai envoyé?" over text. Why is there inversion here? Is it a question of oral vs. written communication? Is this something friends would ask each other in person, or would they go with "Tu as lu l'article que je t'ai envoyé?" (intonation)?
  • I said "tu pourrais bouger un peu s'il te plaît?" to an acquaintance once and was told that it's "pourrais-tu." Is this just particular to pouvoir in the conditional?
  • I've been noticing more and more that inversion is used when question words like "pourquoi", "comment", "que" are used. Is this the case for all questions words like these, in all cases (formal/informal, written/oral)?

Thanks in advance for any input. Really curious to hear what you have to say :)

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    I think you've been a victim of hypercorrection from people reverting to school French in the presence of a learner. The characterisation of each variant you gave is broadly correct, although as you've noticed the interaction of writing and an informal setting messes things up. "Que" is formal and automatically triggers inversion, the informal version is "Qu'est-ce que", which is best analysed as a single word (native children start using it at the same time as the other question words) – Eau qui dort Feb 8 '17 at 22:05
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    In addition to agreeing with all of @Eauquidort 's observations, I'd add that perfecting the intonation expected by native/fluent speakers is not an easy task. My attempts to ask questions via intonation (e.g., "Il est gentil?") are often met with a non sequitur as an "answer" in the form of either an approving/disapproving nod/shrug or else "Oui, tu as raison" or "Non, tu as tort." – Papa Poule Feb 8 '17 at 22:51
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    @PapaPoule Talking about intonation, I think it's difficult for a non native french to use it because the whole intonation of the phrase is wrong, since every language has a particular way to tone a sentence. So the tone of the sentence will first look wrong, and then have a correct question intonation, which would be confusing and I would ask to confirm with "C'est une question ?"... – Random Feb 9 '17 at 8:14
  • Watch some modern French movies with "educated", "middle-class" speakers. There are no strict and fast rules. As one's French improves, one just gets to know when to use which. (As a furreigner I had to navigate these waters myself). Also, in things like: Tu pourrais bouger un peu, s'il te plait, it's pousser, not bouger, and probably would be said informally as: Oh, pousse -toi un peu, (an imperative) Funnily enough move over is pousser not bouger. Bouger is more like to get out and walk around/stretch your legs> On est assis lá depuis ce matin. J'ai envie de sortir and bouger un peu. – Lambie Feb 9 '17 at 17:27
  • There are even times when informally, one uses the inversion. Also, in texting, it's shorter to write: as-tu lu than Est-ce que tu as lu, of course. I agree with Eau qui dort but somewhat disagree with Papa Poule. I think I did use intonation when I first when to live in France at 21 after having studied French since second grade and visited for long stints prior to that. It's hard to remember, though. Bear in mind that my comments come from someone who has lived through this experience...that's all. – Lambie Feb 9 '17 at 17:30
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I would tend to agree with your characterization of tone as informal (only when speaking anyway), est-ce que being fairly standard/neutral/common these days, and the inversion being more formal - although as you note, there are expressions where the inversion is natural.

At least for the first two examples you give, I would see nothing wrong with the way you asked the question. Even the third example feels just fine to me. To insist on saying pourrais-tu instead is a bit much, if you are between friends :-) But some people like to use that inversion even in everyday life. That inversion is not always perceived as completely formal, but certainly always as "correct/more correct" than est-ce que. It depends on the people and situations.

Note that even with pourquoi, comment ..., we don't have to use the inversion in spoken language:

Pourquoi est-ce que tu ne viens pas?

Comment est-ce qu'il va?

sound very informal, maybe broken to some, but you will hear those all the time in familiar conversation.

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    Agreed. As an additional note for "tu pourrais": there's a slight incongruity with lack of inversion but use of the conditional for politeness. "Tu peux bouger ?" would have been more "even" in its tone. – Luke Sawczak Feb 9 '17 at 5:19
  • Incongruity or ... level in between? :-) – Frank Feb 9 '17 at 5:32
  • Also, "Comment vas-tu" is a non formal inversion, I think it sounds more natural than "Comment est-ce que tu vas ?" – Random Feb 9 '17 at 8:16
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What your friends recommended seem overly formal to me. I see three options:

  • They're old or work at the Académie Française
  • Your tone is not quite right and it makes it hard to understand if you're asking a question or not, so they recommend you use inversion for no ambiguity (but that's not what I would recommend at all)
  • Or... maybe they're Canadian? It's much more common for French speakers in Québec to use inversions, is that it? They often say stuff like "As-tu vu ... ?". Spoken French, especially spoken by young people, can change a lot between France and Québec.

If it's not any of that, I don't understand. I agree completely with your first part, it's normal to find that weird, I would disagree with them if they corrected someone with these arguments.

  • TeleportingGoat - I think it is best to preserve the accent on Québec even in English :-) – Frank Feb 9 '17 at 15:24
  • @Frank You're right, thanks! – Teleporting Goat Feb 10 '17 at 13:23

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