More specifically, I saw a question in French written like this: "Qu'arrive-t-il à Lucas". Why is the "il" necessary; isn't this a repetition of the "que" (therefore making it redundant) and therefore this question reads "What arrives it at Lucas"? I simply don't see why they added that "il".

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    Que is a direct object here, with an impersonal subject. The declarative equivalent would be "il arrive quelque chose à Lucas" Mar 1, 2017 at 21:58
  • @Eauquidort Wait; why would "que" be a direct object here? For example, in "qu'est-ce que c'est", que is the subject because it is an object. Why would it be different here?
    – user11876
    Mar 1, 2017 at 22:07
  • Because the declarative sentence would be, as @Eauquidort wrote, "Il arrive quelque chose à Lucas." Consider: the subject is the expletive "il", the direct object is what is happening, and the indirect object is Lucas. Also consider the similar sentence "Il se passe quelque chose à Monopolis" where you even have this impersonal "non-subject" being reflexive. :) In both cases, the meaning is exactly what you'd expect if the thing happening were the subject.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Mar 2, 2017 at 2:21
  • Similarly, you could also have a construction where the direct object is a verbal clause acting as a noun phrase, as in "Il m'arrive maintenant de te regarder différement": "il" is the subject, "me" is the indirect object, and "te regarder différement" is the direct object. Note that @Julep gives good examples below of other sentences that typically use the expletive (impersonal) subject.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Mar 2, 2017 at 2:23
  • To explain the syntax of "qu'est-ce que c'est", think of this exchange: "It's something." — "Oh! What is it?" — "Huh? What is what?" — "What is it that it is?" :p The first "que" is not a subject but the object of the first "est", whose subject is the first "ce", which is itself the object of the second "est", whose subject is the second "ce". ... But I don't think it actually has much to do with expletive subjects. :)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Mar 2, 2017 at 2:39

1 Answer 1


In your example, the Qu' (for que) points to whatever is happening to Lucas, and the il is impersonal. Like in the statement It rains. It here isn't really something or someone.

So just as you could say and ask the followings :

It rains.

Does it rain?

You can say and ask :

Il arrive quelque chose à Lucas.

Qu'arrive-il à Lucas?

Careful though! In other situations, il in a question would be a personal pronoun. Like in :

Lucas est à l'école.

Où est-il?

And in that case il replaces Lucas and it would be redundant to ask :

Où est-il, Lucas?

To conclude, some sentences use impersonal pronouns, and if you flip those sentences into questions, you will find again the impersonal pronoun. The more you read and speak French, the more you will be able to recognise them! For a start, here are a few examples :

Il arrive que..

Il pleut, Il neige, Il vente...

Il faut...

Il est tard, Il est tôt...

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