'Est-ce que': the Beginning of an Informal French Question

'Est-ce que' turns any statement into a question

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Est-ce que, pronounced "es keu," literally means "Is it that..." But it is never translated like that nor is it ever translated at all. Let's just call it a convenience of everyday French, an interrogatory phrase that easily turns a statement into a question.

This is how it works: Rather than providing information, the device est-ce que simply changes any statement into a question. It is a slightly informal construction; the more formal or polite way to ask questions is with inversion, which involves inverting the normal pronoun/noun + verb order.

But in everyday spoken French, est-ce que is far more common, and easier, because it does the inverting for you: Est-ce que is the inversion of c'est que. (Note that a hyphen is required between ce and est when they are inverted to est-ce.) The word order of the original sentence stays exactly the same; you just add the already inverted phrase est-ce que to the front of the sentence. This simple structure works best for yes/no questions. For example:

  •    Tu travailles. / Est-ce que tu travailles ? > You work. / Do you work?
  •    Paulette l'a trouvé. / Est-ce que Paulette l'a trouvé ? > Paulette found it. / Did Paulette find it?
  •    Vous n'avez pas faim. / Est-ce que vous n'avez pas faim ? > You aren't hungry. / Aren't you hungry? OR Are you not hungry?

Note that que must contract when it follows a word beginning with a vowel:

  •    Elle est arrivée. / Est-ce qu'elle est arrivée ? > She has arrived. / Has she arrived?
  •    Il y a des problèmes. / Est-ce qu'il y a des problèmes ? > There are problems. / Are there problems?
  •    Anny vient avec nous. / Est-ce qu'Anny vient avec nous ? > Anny is coming with us. > Is Anny coming with us?

To ask questions that ask for information like "who," "what," "where," "when," "why" and "how," place an interrogative pronoun, adverb or adjective before est-ce que.

For example:

   Qui est-ce que vous avez vu ? > Whom did you see?

   Quand est-ce que tu vas partir ? > When are you going to leave?

   Quel livre est-ce qu'il veut ? > Which book does he want?

Remember that est-ce que is the inversion of c'est que, meaning literally, "It is that." That's why a hyphen is required between est and ce: c'est = ce + est which are inverted to est-ce.

Depending on their place in the sentence, the variations qu'est-ce qui and qui est-ce qui are also useful, but understanding them requires further discussion of interrogative pronouns. For now, here's a summary.

SUMMARY OF FRENCH INTERROGATIVE PRONOUNS

 Subject of question   Object of question   After preposition
 
People   qui
qui est-ce qui
qui
qui est-ce que
qui
 
Things   qu'est-ce quique
qu'est-ce que
quoi


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