Language level: I try to make all of my lessons easily adaptable to different levels, but this is geared more towards beginners.
Grade level: 7th grade through university level.
Don’t forget the difference between “demander quelque chose” (to ask something) and “poser une question” (to ask a question).
Note: This lesson does not include the various uses of QUE, QUEL, LEQUEL or QUOI.
I. Affirmative Questions
A. Oui or Non ?
The simplest way for beginners to ask a Yes or No question is to use a statement with intonation. We do this in Enlish–you just bring your voice up at the end. In French, you don’t need to use the verb “to do” for questions, but you can use it in your English translation. You can use “est-ce que/qu'” in front of your subject–in which case it’s automatically a quesion, and you don’t need to use intonation–but you don’t have to use it. “Est-ce que” does not have it’s own distinct translation.
1. Tu as un frère. –You have a brother. // Tu as un frère ? –(literally: You have a brother?) –Do you have a brother?
2. Est-ce que tu as un frère ?
B. Qui, Quand, Où, Pourquoi, Combien (de), etc.
For Interogative Adverbs and Pronouns (questions words) (like Who? When? Where?) there are two basic formulas–the question word usually goes at the beginning or at the end.
1. Question word at beginning.
Inversion (verb then subject) and Est-ce que are sometimes harder for beginners and inversion is more formal in some cases, so putting the question words at the end might be easier. There are however some basic questions which you’ll often see in inversion–like “Parlez-vous français ?” for example. If you prefer the question words at the beginning, just be sure to put est-ce que/qu’ after them if you’d like to keep the subject + verb word order (see a. below).
a. With est-ce que/qu’: question word + est-ce que/qu’ + subject + verb
(1) Quand est-ce qu’il part ? (When does he leave?)
(2) Où est-ce qu’elle travaille ? (Where does she work?)
(3) Comment est-ce que tu t’appelles ? (What is your name?)
b. Without est-ce que/qu’: question word + verb + subject
When using inversion and subject pronouns, you use a “-” between them (1)(2). When two vowels come together, you use “-t-” between them (this has no special translation)(3). You do not use a dash between the verb and an article or proper noun/name (4)(5)(6).
(1) Quand part-il ? –When does he leave?
(2) Comment t’appelles-tu ? –What is your name?
(3) Quand arrive-t-il ? –When does he arrive?
(4) Qui est Sophie ? –Who is Sophie?
(5) Où sont les toilettes ? –Where are the bathrooms?
(6) Combien coûte le billet ? –How much does the ticket cost?
Note: Comment va Marc ? –How is Mark (doing)? // Comment est Marc ? –What is Mark like?
c. “Il y a” (there is/there are) — two ways. Obviously this is not a question word, but it is a popular way to ask “Is/Are there…?” The expression contains the verb (a = avoir).
(1) Il y a un examen aujourd’hui ? –There’s an exam today?/Is there an exam today?
(2) Y a-t-il un examen aujourd’hui ? –Is there an exam today?
(3) Combien d’étudiants y a-t-il ? –How many students are there?
2. Question word at end.
This is usually easier for beginners, as you keep the subject + verb word order, and you don’t have to worry about “est-ce que.”
A lot of French speakers use this informal way of asking questions, unless it’s a question you’d normally find in inversion.
a. Quand: Tu pars quand ? (He leaves when?/When does he leave?) / Il arrive quand ? (He arrives when?/ When does he arrive?)
b. Où: Tu es d’où ? (Where are you from?) / Il travaille où ? (Where does he work?)
c. Combien (de): Tu as combien de frères ? –How many brothers do you have?
(1) You need the preposition de to connect to the noun.
(2) Note: Tu en as combien ? –How many do you have? (en = of what we’re talking about)
II. Negative Questions
A. Basic negative: your negative statement done with intonation at the end is the easiest way to ask questions in the negative. (Use si to answer yes to contradict a negative question: Tu n’a pas de frères ? –Si, j’ai deux frères.)
1. Tu n’as pas de frère(s). –You don’t have a brother/brothers?
2. Vous ne mangez pas, Monsieur Dubois ? –You aren’t eating, Mr. Dubois?
3. Il n’y a pas de pain ? –There is no bread?/There isn’t any bread?
B. Inversion in the negative: this can be more complicated to beginners. The basic formula is to put your ne…pas around both the verb and the subject, which are inverted.
1. Ne mangez-vous pas ? –You aren’t eating?
2. N’y a-t-il pas de pain ? –There is no bread?/There isn’t any bread?