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I have heard people use "que" in place of "qu'est-ce que", for example "Que fais-tu ?" and "Qu'est-ce que tu fais ?". Is this difference in formality, or situation? Can they be used interchangeably?

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They are equivalent in meaning. The form with the subject and verb inverted is more formal.

In general, the order of question formality from most to least looks like this:

  1. Subject-verb inversion

    Dors-tu ? Que fais-tu ? Fais-tu quelque chose ?

  2. Relative clause

    Est-ce que tu dors ? Qu'est-ce que tu fais ? Est-ce que tu fais quelque chose ?

  3. Intonation alone

    Tu dors ? Tu fais quoi ? Tu fais quelque chose ?

Note that to all appearances, qu'est-ce and que fais-tu have the exact same syntax. But in practice, est-ce que and qu'est-ce que each function more or less as a unit.

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  • I think it's curious that for example "Que fais-tu?" is more formal than "Qu'est-ce que tu fais?", I mean I would think the less "complex" sentences would be more formal. Oct 8, 2022 at 0:17
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    @BorisValderrama True, but Qu'est-ce que is only as formal as aujourd'hui — both can be decomposed into four parts, but in reality are just analyzed as one. Ask an undereducated person to spell it and they might well write "kesk"!
    – Luke Sawczak
    Oct 8, 2022 at 1:19

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