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I have been watching a French TV series (Les Témoins / Witnesses) with English subtitles.

In one scene a cop was interrogating a kidnapper about the whereabouts of his victim (another cop), and clearly asked "Il est où?".

In another completely unrelated scene a distraught mother was talking to herself about her missing baby, and also said repeatedly "Il est où?".

This got me wondering about the difference between "Il est où?" vs "Où est-il?":

  • Both of the scenes I described above were tense and emotional. Was that a factor in the use of "Il est où?" rather than "Où est-il?", or would using "Où est-il?" have been equally appropriate?
  • In general, when would one form be preferred over the other?
  • Are there any situations where it would sound odd - or even be incorrect - to use one form rather than the other?

Also, do the same rules apply if the person you are asking about is named? In English one can say "Where is Justin?" or "Justin is where?", but the latter form is only used rarely, in very specific situations. For example:

  • Where is Justin?
  • Justin is stuck in the chimney!
  • Justin is where?

How about in French? One can say "Où est Justin?", but what about "Justin est où?".

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It is a matter of register.

The most formal is:

Où est-il ?

It will be used in written French and formal situations, but of course nobody will blame you for using it in other situations, especially as a foreigner.

Then comes what is certainly the form most used in spoken French, where the pronoun-verb inversion has been dropped:

Où il est ?

Finally, there is the colloquial form when the intonation is used to mark the interrogation :

Il est où ?

While the two first forms are usually pronounced with two syllables [wɛ.til] and [wi.lɛ], the third one requires three syllables [i.lɛ.u]. The first one is sometimes dropped in colloquial spoken French leading to l'est où ?

When you want to specify the person, you might use several forms:

Où est Justin ? formal / standard
Justin est où ? colloquial

But not the middle form:

Où Justin est ? (should be Où Justin est-il ?)

Often, the name is added to the pronoun form, e.g.:

Où il est, Justin ?
Il est où, Justin ?
Justin, il est où ?

2

It's a matter of formality. "Où est-il ?" is traditionally "correct", I would use it in writing but not in a normal conversation (it sounds too formal). "Il est où ?" is the one I would normally use in a colloquial setting, but I wouldn't use it in formal writing.

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  1. It's not a matter of fitting a form to a context or a matter of register but a matter of personal preference, the modern trend being for the less educaded and also more and more for the educated to say "Il est où?". As well and on a similar level of colloquial speech French people use "Où il est?"; the traditional, irreproachable form remains however "Où est-il?".

Whether a form is odd or not is a matter of whom you are talking to; an open minded hearer would find no ground for criticizing the use of "Où est-il?" in any circumstance; it is a personal choice and a correct one. Similarly one should not be critized for using the other forms as, while they are not ideal forms, they are still widely used. However people in France as anywhere else are of all sorts and either one of the forms considered might occasionally be found unpleasant; I will not conclude by the (I think) American adage that says "You can't please everyone you've got to please yourself." but I'll suggest that maybe someone should try to know whom he/she is talking to, first, and so prepare him/herself to handle the two main forms in spoken French instead of limiting him/herself to the use of just one.

  1. Justin est OÙ? This is also possible in French, with a special emphasis on "où", there being quite a few variants of the emphatic intonations you can use and it being up to you to duplicate what you might have heard. However Justin must be somewhere as in the chimney or in the refrigerator!
  • I don't entirely agree with you. While I agree nobody should criticize the use of the interrrogative form "Où est-il", the systematic use of it will anyway sound more formal/scholar in everyday language. You might actually be praised for using it, meaning it's noticeable. On the other hand, using the affirmative form with an interrogation point could and should be criticized in a more formal (and especially written) context. – Laurent S. Oct 17 '18 at 13:46
  • @Laurent There are no disagreements between us; "Où est-il" will sound more formal and would displease at times and vice-versa; cf answer (either one of the forms). I do agree with the necessity of essentially "banning" the informal forms in so called serious writing; I simply overlooked the fact. However, I wouldn't advise anyone to use one form or an other with the aim of being praised or just so as to be accepted into a group; what I try explaining instead is that a personal sense of taste can be developed and preserved and not be sacrificed to arbitrary ideas. – LPH Oct 17 '18 at 15:04

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