French Grammar Guide for non-francophones


An Overview of Interrogation in French

In French, questions are formed by use of the expression Est-ce que, subject-verb inversion (e.g.: Qui es-tu?) or simply using declarative word order with rising intonation (represented by a question mark). All are found in both written French and spoken French (though inversion is somewhat less common when speaking). Let's consider each of these possibilities in turn.

Simple rising intonation

Intonation is pitch (highs and lows of the voice). This is, of course, a feature of spoken French. We mention it though since it is represented in writing by simply using the same order as a declarative sentence followed by a question mark, e.g.:

  • Tu parles français?

However, it is fairly rare to form a question through intonation alone if the sentence begins with a "question" word (qui, que, quand, and comment). In such cases, you need to form the question with one of the methods described below.

Est-ce que ...?

Another easy way of forming a question in French is to begin a sentence with Est-ce que, e.g.:

  • Est-ce que tu parles français?
  • Quand est-ce qu'elle arrive?

As with intonation, the word order following Est-ce que is the same as in a declarative ("statement") sentence. When using Est-ce que, make sure the hyphen goes between the first two parts (Est-ce).

Subject-verb inversion

The third way to form a question in French is to reverse the order of the subject and the verb, e.g.:

  • Vient-elle demain?
  • Parle-t-il le français?
  • Que fais-tu?

As you can see in the second example, when the verb ends in a vowel (like the "e" of Parle), you need to add -t- between the verb and the subject. This helps with the pronounciation.

When using inversion with the passé composé, make sure the auxiliary (avoir or être) comes first, e.g.:

  • Est-il parti?
  • A-t-elle lu l'histoire?

Don't forget to add the -t- when using the verb avoir (as in the second example above).

Finally, when the subject is a noun, you should begin with the noun, followed by subject-verb inversion with the appropriate pronoun, e.g.:

  • Paula, va-t-elle déménager à Toronto?
  • Tes amis vont-ils se joindre à nous?

Inversion in negative sentences

When you use inversion in a negative sentence, make sure that the "pas" comes after the inverted subject, not after the last verb, e.g.:

  • Ne vas-tu pas venir?
  • Ne peut-il pas nous voir?

Subject-verb inversion with je

Only a small number of verbs allow subject inversion with je. These  are: être, avoir, pouvoir, devoir, savoir, for ex.:

  • Que sais-je?
  • Où suis-je?
  • Ai-je bien compris?

When pouvoir is used, the actual form is puis, not the usual peux, e.g.:

  • Puis-je vous aider?
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