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I can see that everyone says for example "De qui parles-tu ?", i.e. "Of whom are you speaking?", which makes sense in English but seems a bit formal to say to your friend.

I was wondering if French had the same unwritten rules about formality. Like how in English you can say "Whom (who) are you speaking (talking) of (about)?"

In French, I don't think it would make sense to say "Qui parles-tu de ?" so with that, I'm assuming that you would always say "De qui parles-tu ?" even when speaking with a close friend.

Could someone clarify?

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    A basic rule to make it less formal is simply to put the pronom (je tu il / elle etc) before the verb. Then De qui parles-tu ? becomes De qui tu parles ?, As-tu fait ça ? becomes Tu as fait ça ? (more oral, the intonation counts a lot). You can also replace Qu'as-tu by Qu'est-ce que tu. – user20904 Jul 9 at 6:58
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    @jlliagre "tu" is familier or courant at best, never soutenu. Formal would obviously be "De qui parlez-vous?". – Based Jul 9 at 11:36
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    @PeterPaff You missed necessarily in my comment.The OP sentence uses a formal form, regardless of its tutoiement usage. Pierre, c'est quand que vous partez ? = registre familier à une personne qu'on vouvoie, mais Pierre, quand partiras-tu ? = registre soutenu à une personne qu'on tutoie. – jlliagre Jul 9 at 17:14
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    @PeterPaff you are conflating two separate issues. The ten commandments are expressed using tu, for example, but are by no means informal. While it is true that situations where the relationship between the speakers calls for vous tend to be formal situations, that is only a correlation (as jiliagre has said), and tu is not in itself informal... – user20927 Jul 11 at 8:02
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    A teacher may well start by telling you it is, to try to get across the basic idea, but that is how language teaching works - you start with something that may not be totally accurate but can be easily understood, then you refine it. Here you have a native speaker helping you refine it, and you won't listen... – user20927 Jul 11 at 8:02
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"De qui parles-tu ?" would be a perfectly normal thing to say to a close friend, even if some would notice the effort on the construction of the sentence. If you want to make it sound really casual, just don't invert the verb and the subject: "De qui tu parles ?". This is an extremely common thing to do in French.

Other examples of transformation from well-structured to casual if it can help:

  • Que manges-tu ? (What are you eating ?) => Tu manges quoi ? / Qu'est-ce que tu manges ?
  • Qui es-tu ? (Who are you ?) => T'es qui ? (careful, here we switch from well-mannered to extremely casual, it can be considered agressive with a wrong tone)
  • À quoi joues-tu ? (What are you playing to ?) => À quoi tu joues ? / Tu joues à quoi ?
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    No-one has mentioned tu parles de qui, but you do mention tu manges quoi in the answer above - does that mean there's a difference? – user20927 Jul 9 at 8:40
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    @Minty There isn't, "tu parles de qui?" would be the way I'd naturally phrase it in normal conversation – Eau qui dort Jul 9 at 9:08
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    @Patrice Also "Tu parles de qui?" – JB Chouinard Jul 9 at 17:07
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    Les trois derniers commentaires sont stupéfiants, quelqu'un qui n'est pas Québécois dit qu'il utiliserait naturellement « tu parles de qui », quelqu'un d'autre ajoute qu'on l'entend cependant au Québec, puis quelqu'un d'autre suggère... exactement la même chose ??? Il y avait une virgule entre « there isn't (a difference) » et « tu parles de qui ». – 0ne1 Jul 9 at 21:25
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    Both Qui est-tu? and T'est qui? sound somehow weird. They are conceivable in some sort of guessing game but not as a way to ask someone for their name. – WoJ Jul 10 at 12:49
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Basically, I would say there is two main things that will make your sentence "Formal" or "Casual":

1) Use of "vous" = formal, versus "tu" = casual.

2) Structure of the sentence itself: Proper subject-verb inversion is formal (i.e: Comment vas-tu?) leaving subject-verb with no inversion is casual (i.e: Comment tu vas?)

As a native (metropolitan) French speaker, I would absolutely never use the form "De qui parles-tu?". Instead: - if speaking to anyone I can use "tu" with, I would say "Tu parles de qui?" or "De qui tu parles?" - if speaking to a person I must use "vous" with, I would say "De qui parlez-vous?".

The form "De qui parles-tu" is not really used when talking because there is a contradiction between the high level of formality induced by the structure (subject-verb inversion) and the use of "Tu" which is informal.

As a side note, the famous sentence "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?" suffers the same contradiction : You wouldn't at the same time use "Vous" and a formal sentense structure if you're offering someone to have an intercourse with you...

Last but important, the ton of your voice is sometimes the only thing that indicates the difference between an affirmation and an informal question. For instance: - C'est ma soeur. --> She is my sister. - C'est ma soeur? --> Is she my sister? When spoken, the only difference between these 2 sentences lies in the fact that your voice goes high at the end if you want to make it a question.

Hope that helps. Dan.

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    I'm not sure I agree that vouvoiement and interrogative inversion are necessarily linked. T/V has to do with the relative social standing of the interlocutors (where T is a sign of solidarity and V of distance), while the different interrogative forms depends on the formality of the situation the conversation is taking place in. – Eau qui dort Jul 9 at 13:46
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    So you can easily imagine using vous and the uninverted order when asking your way to someone in a city (casual situation but social distance between strangers), while tu and inversion can coexist between near-equals in a formal situation (for example, a teacher giving a lecture and asking their assistant to do something with "pourrais-tu" or two journalists -colleagues- using formal inversion on a TV show but still addressing each other with tu) – Eau qui dort Jul 9 at 13:49
  • I agree with you @Eauquidort . Vouvoiement and formality are orthogonal, and I am a metropolitan French speaker. – Shautieh Jul 10 at 8:21
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"Of whom are you speaking?"

sounds indeed formal, if only because "whom" is used.

It attempts to stick to the French sentence "De qui parles-tu ?" which might also be translated to "Of whom do you speak?" but the word for word translation would be the broken "Of whom speak you?" There is then no point to try too hard to match English grammar and French one.

De qui parles-tu ?

is a correct literary form to ask this question. It is unlikely to be heard in a conversation because the subject-verb inversion has almost disappeared in spoken French. However, it might still be used by native French speakers in formal contexts, in the few cases where the tutoiement1 would also be used.

If the person who the question is directed to is not someone you would tutoyer, the still literary/formal form would be:

De qui parlez-vous ?

While quite rare in real life French, both of the previous questions are the most commonly found in written material.

In usual conversation, the subject-verb inversion is dropped so the question would be:

De qui tu parles ? or De qui vous parlez ?

De qui tu parles is also common in literature, just slightly less than the previous one.

A last simplification is to build the sentence as a regular subject-verb-complement one leading to:

Tu parles de qui ? or Vous parlez de qui ?

This last form is certainly the most common in relaxed colloquial conversation as it is the more natural to native French. It is slowly making it to books but still lagging behind the more formal variants. Here is a Google NGram graph of the various forms, with quoi used instead of qui as the former is more common.

enter image description here

So to answer to your question, French does have various grammatical constructions that make a sentence formal or colloquial, but they do not particularly match English ones. The examples you found are formal in both languages but that's more by accident than anything else.

You are right considering "Qui parles-tu de ?" as incorrect. The reason it is wrong is that the preposition "de" needs to be followed by something in French, unlike "of".

1 While the second person commonly used in formal French is the plural, even when speaking to a single person (vouvoiement), the tutoiement is not by itself turning a sentence to a standard or colloquial register. There are a few situations where the speech is formal but the tutoiement is nevertheless used because that's the way you address to a person. That person might be a child or someone belonging to your family, company, or club. That might even be God, a rare case where tu has survived in English ("Plus près de toi, mon Dieu" for "Nearer, My God, to Thee" or as Minty evoked in a comment "Tu ne tueras point" / "Thou shalt not kill").

2

Your assumption at the end of your question is correct. However, the form considered is somewhat formal and numerous are the speakers that will baulk at using it, prefering the colloquial "De qui tu parles ?" (ngram) ; in fact almost nobody uses that form in the second person singular. Nevertheless, it can be used and does not sound yet pedantic; in the second person plural you can use "De qui vous parlez ?", but "De qui parlez-vous ?" is preferable.

COMPLEMENT (to try to explain an interesting constatation made by user Shautieh, see comments)

If we consider the frequency of the same three forms from which the interrogation point has been removed (De qui tu parles,De qui parles-tu,Tu parles de qui) we see that the trend is reversed and that the formal one is by far the most used: ngram. This shows that when there are words added to the form, formality becomes preferable. Here are the most common words that can be found (ngram);

  • de, avec, ainsi, en, comme, donc, toujours,

We can then have more complicated questions beginning such as the following;

De qui parles-tu

  • de cette façon … ?
  • avec ton amie … ?
  • ainsi …?
  • en ces termes absurdes … ?
  • comme si tu le connaissais depuis toujours … ?
    etc.
  • Almost nobody in your social circle then. I know plenty of people who would use that form, and can see myself using it from time to time. – Shautieh Jul 10 at 8:24
  • @Shautieh I take a broader base than my immediate social circle. – LPH Jul 10 at 8:52
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    @Shautieh Avant de rendre le français « élégant » selon ta norme floue de ce qui est beau ou pas, on pourrait commencer tout d'abord par le parler tout court. C'est un site sur la langue française, pas sur la langue de Montaigne. Le désir de prescrire systématiquement une forme et un registre de langue relève d'une méconnaissance de sa diversité et de ses fonctions à mon avis. En plus ce n'est pas la vocation du site. – 0ne1 Jul 10 at 20:34
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    @suiiurisesse it's a website to explain French to English speaking people, where did you get the idea that it was okay to write only in French here? The diversity you are speaking about is what dissolves languages into creoles. No, thanks. – Shautieh Jul 11 at 9:38
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    @Shautieh It's a website to explain French to anyone; as a lot f people speak English the following rule has been made (help center) : Dois-je écrire en français ou en anglais ? Les deux langues sont admises. Nous encourageons à répondre en anglais aux questions posées en anglais, pour donner une meilleure chance au demandeur de comprendre la réponse, mais ce n'est pas une obligation. – LPH Jul 11 at 10:06
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It feels formal to you because you are doing a literal translation including maintaining the word order. To do that you are forcing the sentence not to end with a preposition (which despite bad English teachers admonitions is a natural way for ending a sentence) and using "whom" instead of "who". A more idiomatic English translation would be, "Who are you speaking of?" or, "Who are you talking about?"

While the distinction between "who" and "whom" is formally one of case and "whom" should be used for all direct objects, in many (most?) dialects of English including mine it is essentially extinct and "who" is used for all cases. The exception is fixed expressions, which has led to the tendency to see "whom" as a formal version of "who". It is similar to people viewing "thou" as more formal (it's used all over the bible!) than "you" when in fact when "thou" was last in common use it was informal (and singular) paralleling the T-V split in French and other languages.

In other words the feeling of formality is a result of your choice of English translation. As other answers have stated, in French the level of formality is controlled, among other things, by "tu" versus "vous", the former being only used to address a single person you are on informal terms with.

  • "Tu" is used in formal contexts to address a single person who is of inferior rank too. – Shautieh Jul 11 at 9:41

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