This is from https://www.fun-mooc.fr/ A2 level chapter 4.8. The question is to select two alternate ways of asking "Combien de timbres vous voulez acheter ?"

The options are

  1. Combien voulez-vous acheter de timbres ?

  2. Combien est-ce que vous voulez acheter de timbres ?

  3. Est-ce que vous voulez acheter combien de timbres ?

  4. Est-ce que voulez-vous acheter combien de timbres ?

Only the first two are listed as correct. Why are the latter two incorrect?

New contributor
Borun Chowdhury is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Do want you buy how much stamps? – jlliagre Dec 5 at 22:09

When an interrogative word like combien is used alongside est-ce que, they always combine together and the interrogative word doesn't stay where it would be in a declarative sentence:

  • Tu viens [à pied].
  • Tu viens [comment] ?
  • [Comment] tu viens [∅] ?
  • [Comment] viens-tu [∅] ?
  • [Comment] est-ce que tu viens [∅] ?

But never:

  • *Est-ce que tu viens [comment] ? (the asterisk at the beginning of the sentence indicates it's not grammatical)

or:

  • *Tu viens [comment] est-ce que ?

You can think of it like est-ce que dragging the question word to the beginning of the sentence. The third and fourth answers violated this rule, which is the reason why they weren't correct.

Furthermore, est-ce que can never be used with inversion, making the fourth answer doubly wrong:

  • *[Comment] est-ce que viens-tu [∅] ?

Extended comment over word order in interrogatives and the est-ce que particule

There's a handful of question words that don't exist in the formal language and can't be put at the beginning of a question. In those cases, they can't be used with est-ce que at all:

  • Elle est [grande comment] ? (How tall is she?)
  • *[Grande comment] elle est ?
  • *[Grande comment] est-ce qu'elle est ?
  • *[Grande comment] est-elle ?

With combien de X, things are a bit more complicated because the question word can be either combien alone, in which case the de X part stays in situ, or the whole combien de X phrase:

  • Vous voulez acheter {[cinq] timbres}.
  • Vous voulez acheter {[combien] de timbres} ?
  • [Combien] vous voulez acheter {[∅] de timbres} ?
  • [Combien] voulez-vous acheter {[∅] de timbres} ?
  • [Combien] est-ce que vous voulez acheter {[∅] de timbres} ?
  • {Combien de timbres} vous voulez acheter {∅} ?
  • {Combien de timbres} voulez-vous acheter {∅} ?
  • {Combien de timbres} est-ce que vous voulez acheter {∅} ?

As you can notice, est-ce que always goes after the whole interrogative word or phrase. It can't split it, so the sentence below is incorrect:

  • *{Combien} est-ce que {de timbres} vous voulez acheter {∅} ?

There are three ways to form a question in French: putting the subject after the verb (“Es-tu là ? Où vas-tu ? D'où viens-tu ?”), “est-ce que” (“Est-ce que tu es là ? Où est-ce que tu vas ? D'où est-ce que tu viens”), and the informal way of using the affirmative syntax with a rising tone at the end of the sentence (“Tu es là ? Tu vas où ? Tu viens d'où ?”).

With the first two ways, if there is a question word like , quand, combien, comment, pourquoi, quel(le)(s), etc. then this question word must come at the beginning of the sentence. The only thing you can have before the question word is a preposition. Thus:

Combien voulez-vous acheter de timbres ? — Je veux acheter trois timbres.
Combien est-ce que vous voulez acheter de timbres ? — Je veux acheter trois timbres.
De combien de timbres avez-vous besoin ? — J'ai besoin de trois timbres.
De combien de timbres est-ce que vous avez besoin ? — J'ai besoin de trois timbres.

If the question doesn't start with a question word, it's a yes/no question. You can't turn it into an open-ended question mid-way.

Voulez-vous acheter des timbres ? — Oui.
Est-ce que vous voulez acheter des timbres ? — Oui.

There is one exception: in informal spoken French, you can form a question by using the normal affirmative syntax, and indicate that it's a question by using a rising tone. In this case, we normally put the question word at the same place that the answer would go.

Vous voulez acheter combien de timbres ? — Je veux acheter trois timbres.
Vous avez besoin de combien de timbres ? — J'ai besoin de trois timbres.

Even in this case, it's also possible to put the question word at the beginning.

Combien de timbres vous voulez acheter ? — Je veux acheter trois timbres.
De combien de timbres vous avez besoin ? — J'ai besoin de trois timbres.

Your Answer

Borun Chowdhury is a new contributor. Be nice, and check out our Code of Conduct.

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.