I was taught that one ought to use "qu'est-ce que c'est que..." to ask what something specific is. Is there any way around this construction, that is, is it possible to remove the final "que"?

I saw the sentence, "qu'est-ce qu'un dîner sans vin?" and I also saw the sentence "qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un symbole?". Are both of these sentences correct, and why? What is the rule? Thank you.


Removing the final que is possible but would lead to a slight pause:

Qu'est-ce que c'est, un dîner sans vin ?

Removing que c'est from the long form will raise its formality from spoken French to standard French without substantially changing the meaning:

Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un dîner sans vin ? (or C'est quoi, un dîner sans vin ?)

Qu'est-ce qu'un dîner sans vin ?

It is possible to go even further and write:

Qu'est un dîner sans vin ?

This is formal and literary and the meaning is also slightly stronger. Here the question is rhetorical.

Same for qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un symbole ? although qu'est un symbole ? is not very idiomatic.

  • Thank you. So if I were writing an essay in French, for example, I ought to omit the "que c'est"? Also, I've heard that "quoi" is only used as an object to a preposition, but you did not use it in this way in your answer. Can "quoi" only be used after a preposition? Thank you.
    – CMK
    Nov 6 '17 at 11:08
  • Yes, dropping que c'est would improve the style. Que is used before the verb while quoi is used after the verb: Que veut cet homme ? = Cet homme veut quoi ? (informal)
    – jlliagre
    Nov 6 '17 at 11:30
  • Okay, merci beaucoup.
    – CMK
    Nov 6 '17 at 12:40

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