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Asking Yes or No Questions in French

By Tommy Carlton

Without questions, it is very difficult to communicate with anyone else. Basic yes or no questions can be very easy to use, yet a very powerful tool to enhance your beginnings into learning French.

Types of Questions

What is a question? In simple terms, a question is a statement that requests a response from someone else. In any language, there are two main types of questions, yes or no questions, which ask for verification or denial of a statement, and information-seeking questions, which ask for a specific type of information in response. In this article, we will cover the first type of question, and how to form those questions in French. There are two main ways to do this, using the phrase "est-ce que" and using inversion.

Using the Phrase "est-ce que"

The easiest way to ask a yes or no question in French is with the phrase "est-ce que." It literally translates to "Is it that" and goes back to our basic definition of a yes or no question, asking for the verification or denial of a question. The same phrase works in English, though it sounds a bit awkward. Take "You like seeing horror movies" and change it to "Is it [true] that you like seeing horror movies?" Though awkward, the question demands a yes or a no for a response. French works the same way, and this is a very common question pattern. The only other thing to remember is that que changes to qu' before a vowel sound. Here are some examples:

Tu vas souvent au ciné. (You often go to the movies.) Add est-ce que...

Est-ce que tu vas souvent au ciné? (Do you often go to the movies?)

Elle parle italien. (She speaks Italian.) Add est-ce que...

Est-ce qu'elle parle italien? (Does she speak Italian?)

As you can see, it is very simple to form questions in this pattern. This pattern is often used with speech, and is considered the more casual form of questions.

Using Inversion

The other pattern used to form questions in English is called inversion. With this pattern, you must recognize the subject and the verb of the sentence, and reverse their order. In between the reversed subject and verb, you place a dash. Here are some basic examples:

Vous parlez français. (You speak French.) becomes...

Parlez-vous français? (Do you speak French?)

Tu aimes l'histoire. (You like history.) becomes...

Aimes-tu l'histoire? (Do you like history?)

The rest of the sentence remains the same, making the change easy to use with basic sentences. There is one additional rule with this form, involving only those sentences whose subjects are il, elle, or on. In that case, you add a dash, a t, and another dash in between the reversed subject and verb, instead of just a dash. For example...

Il mange une pizza. (He's eating a pizza.)

Mange-t-il une pizza? (Is he eating a pizza?)

This is done entirely for pronunciation, as the t sound makes it much easier to flow between the verb and the vowel at the beginning of the subjects il, elle, and on. It is not used with ils or elles because their verbs tend to end in a "t" already, making the additional "t" unnecessary.

The final part to inversion comes with verbs that have multiple parts. For example, in the passé composé, you have two parts to the verb, such as "vous avez dit." In compound verbs, you also have multiple verbs, such as "tu aimes nager." In cases like this, you only reverse the order of the first verb, or first part of the verb, and leave the rest as they are. Thus, "vous avez dit..." becomes "avez-vous dit...?" and "tu aimes nager" becomes "aimes-tu nager?" This is very similar to the English pattern of "You [do] understand" becoming "Do you understand?"

Inversion is more of a formal question pattern, though it is still used quite often, primarily in writing. It is also used for its brevity, as it does not require any additional words, so it is often seen in places where space is a concern, such as on a cell phone.