Understand:
'Qu'est-ce que'

It would be a lot easier to just say quoi like we already do in the questions without inversion, or even que like we do in the questions with inversion. But the former is too informal, the latter too formal. The French like complexity and needed something between the two and invented the infamous qu’est-ce que. You used it without understand it? That’s exaclty as it should be. But for those who are too curious and can’t help it, time to debunk qu’est-ce que.

1. The question with ‘QUOI’

The best way to understand qu’est-ce que… is to know the 3 types of questions you can use in French. You’ll see soon why it makes sense.

So the first one, and the easiest, is the informal way of asking a question. It looks like an affirmative sentence but with a question mark at the end.

– C’est quoi?  → What is it?

So quoi is just added after the verb as its direct object.

 

2. The question with ‘QUE’

Inside a question with inversion, que means quoi. As you may know, quoi is not a very subtile nor elegant word in French. It looks rather colloquial if not familiar. Even asking just quoi?’ when you didn’t understand something and ask somebody to repeat can be frowned upon. It would be much better to say ‘comment?’ just to avoid the ugly quoi. That’s why, inside a formal question, quoi becomes que or qu’ when it comes before a vowel.

– Qu’est-ce?  → What is it?

So quoi is just added after the verb as its direct object. That is the more formal way of asking a question. Be careful, because in this example, ‘Qu’est-ce? looks so snobby that it probably would be said with an ironic tone. 

 

3. The question with ‘Qu’est-ce que’

Here we are with qu’est-ce que… As you can see the first que is the formal quoi as it followed with an inversion ‘est-ce?‘ So you may understand it like this:

           [Qu’est-ce] + que

But it would not make any sense. It would like saying quoi quoi or ‘what what‘ in English. So how looking at it like this:

           [Qu’est] + [ce que]

 
What do you think? Better? Hum… well.
Actually it is a lot better once you know “ce que” means ‘what’. So ‘what what’ again?
Eheh, no. The other what. I don’t understand ‘what’ you say. 

That’s it. That ‘what’! Look at this sentence :

– Je ne comprends pas ‘ce que’ tu dis. → I don’t understand what you say.

Here ce que means la chose que: “Je ne comprends pas la chose que tu dis.”

So if we come back to qu’est-ce qu’, that means we have:

           Qu’est ce que = Quoi est la chose que

Remember that the second que is a relative pronoun not an interrogative one.

Check the article on que and its meanings if you’re not sure about it.

So if we take the same example as before, here would be the 3 ways to ask the same question:

– C’est quoi ?

– Qu’est-ce ?

– Qu’est-ce que c’est ?

Which we could grammaticaly translate like this:

– Quoi est la chose que c’est?

Beautiful right? Err…

Congratulations! Now you can dormir sur tes deux oreilles (sleep well) and worry no more about qu’est-ce que c’est as it has revealed all of its secrets!