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So what's the big deal...? We all know that quoi is the French word for what, right?

Well... yes and no.

The French for what is generally quoi when either:
(a) it's "in situ"-- basically, in a question that keeps its "normal sentence word order":

tu fais quoi demain?
what are you doing tomorrow?
il veut quoi, Jean?
what does Jean want?
qui fait quoi?
who's doing what?

Remember that in everyday spoken French, this type of "in situ" question is generally the most common way of asking a question. In English, you can also form in situ questions such as "you're doing WHAT?", but these are normally to express surprise, sarcasm etc. In spoken French, they're often just a normal, neutral way of asking a question.

(b) it's the object of a preposition (avec, de...), either in situ or not:

tu parles de quoi?
de quoi tu parles?
what are you talking about?
je ne sais pas de quoi il parle
I don't know what he's talking about
un livre sur quoi?
a book about what?
ils vont payer avec quoi?
what are they going to pay with?

However, there are places where quoi isn't possible:

  • if quoi is not in situ (so mainly, a question where either inversion or est-ce que is used);
  • and is not the object of a preposition.

In such cases, que is used. This generally means that what is either the object of the verb, with inversion or est-ce que:

que fais-tu?
qu'est-ce que tu fais?
what are you doing?

Or, it means that what is the subject of the verb. In this case, the formula becomes qu'est-ce qui:

qu'est-ce qui pue là?
what stinks round here?, ="what's that smell?"

what meaning the thing that(s)... (relative clauses)

When what is essentially a synonym of "the thing(s) that", it is generally translated by either ce qui or ce que in French. In these cases, we're generally dealing with relative clauses, not questions. If it's the subject of the verb in the relative clause, then ce qui:

ce qui importe le plus, c'est...
what matters most is...

If it's the object, then use ce que:

Je ne comprends pas ce qu'il a dit
I don't understand what he said
Je ne sais pas ce que font les enfants
I don't know what the children are doing
Ce que tu as dit m'a vraiment énervé
What you said really annoyed me

Now in fact, there are some other possibilities, although they're rarer. This is because the phrase meaning the thing that, which introduces the relative clause, could itself be an object of a preposition:

penser à... = to think about...
ce à quoi tu penses
what you're thinking about

avoir besoin de... = to need...
ce de quoi/dont j'ai besoin
what I need

The expression ce dont often replaces ce de quoi (and literally means the thing about which, =the thing of which etc).

In very informal speech, you will sometimes hear sentences such as ce que j'ai besoin. However, this construction is generally considered non-standard and would be avoided in more formal speech and writing.

que / quoi as the object of an infinitive

Finally, as an extra complication, both que and quoi can be the object of an infinitive: so either quoi faire? or que faire? is possible (although the former is may be a bit more informal).

Which all goes to show that in life and languages, it's often the simple little things that turn out to be complicated...

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(This article has been updated from the original posted yesterday. Thank you to one of our members for spotting a typo in my original.)
French is quite complicated i just cant work it out i am really 8 but i cant bget through but i said that i was 38
It's not just French -- all languages are complicated things!

The best thing is to not worry about too many of the complications to start with. You can go a long way by learning a good number of words of French and a few rules to allow you to put those words together into a sentence.

Some of the explanation that I gave above goes into some complicated detail. But that's partly because it's explaining some quite complicated type sof sentence.
It would be a little boring in my view if it was easy, learning a language should be a challenge.

I'm going to Vendee in about 8 weeks so some of the posts are really useful reminders

a tout a l'heure!!
hi, I agree with you, french is very difficult and french people make many mistakes too :-(. But, if I can reassure you, I have many problems with english, I think this language is worth than french, I guess the only advantage is that there is no conjugation!!! I learn to speak italian too, and it's so much easier! some people say that english is one of the easiest language of the world.....i don't agree with that!!! so, are you reassured? ;-)
(i'm sorry for the faults, I hope u'll understand :-) )
imorte or importe??
"importe", and also "enervé"
Thanks should have spotted these typos-- now corrected. First accent on énervé is OK, though.
Yes, sorry :D shame on me

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