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 Forming questions - 1

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How to ask questions in French - 1

 

  Questions without any question word 

The forming of questions in French is fundamentally similar to the way we form questions in English. The basic principal is that the verb is placed before the subject, i.e. there is a subject / verb inversion.
   In written French, questions are usually formed by inverting subject and verb; but how this is done depends on the type of verb (with or without an auxiliary) and on whether the subject is a pronoun or a noun.
Note: in cases of inversion where the pronouns il(s) elle(s) or on follow a verb form ending in a vowel, French adds a linking -t- between the verb and the pronoun; for example va-t-il, not va-il, or  pense-t-elle, not pense-elle.
Particularly in spoken French, any question (all the types below) can alteratively be expressed by adding "Est-ce que" to the front of a statement. See Part  3 below.
► For questions with question words ( such as qui, quand, où ), continue to Interrogative pronouns adverbs & adjectives

1. Verbs with no auxiliary (single word verbs)

1.1.1. When the subject is a pronoun - with the verb être
In the simplest statements, and when the subject is a pronoun, English and French questions are formed in just the same way, as in this example :
Statement Question
Structure
subj > verb > complement
verb > subj.  > complement
English She is your sister Is she your sister?
French Elle est votre soeur. Est-elle votre soeur?
However that is where the direct similarities end.... notably because in English the verb to be is the only verb with which we can just invert subject and verb to form a question.

1.1.2. When the subject is a pronoun - Other verbs
 To make a question using any other English verb, we always need to use an auxiliary (as in do you like).  Here French is a bit simpler than English, and simple inversion is possible with all verbs when they are used with a pronoun subject and single-element tenses, i.e. tenses that do not require an auxiliary – which means most tenses in French (present, simple past, imperfect, future, etc).
Statement Question
subj > verb > complement
verb > subj.  > complement
Il aime votre soeur Aime-t- il votre soeur ?
Ils vivent à Londres. Vivent-ils à Londres
Vous voyez la voiture rouge. Voyez-vous la voiture rouge?
Vous irez à Paris demain. Irez-vous à Paris demain
and in the negative - note how the ne and pas are placed.
Il ne vient pas. Ne vient-il pas?
Il ne parlera pas en premier. Ne parlera-t-il pas en premier ?
In other words , and as long as the subject is a pronoun, in French we can ask Vivent-ils à Londres, though in English we can't ask Live they in London ? (You could in Shakespeare's time, but not in modern English!)

1.2.1. When the subject is a noun -  with être and other verbs
English:
  The same structure  verb to be  > subj.  > complement is possible in English, whether the subject is a pronoun or a noun. We can say Is she your sister?, but we can also ask Is Mary your sister? , or Is this girl your sister ?, or even Is this girl I'm showing you a photo of  your sister?  This is not possible in French.
French:
  Instead of placing the noun subject between the verb and the complement, French repeats the subject - firstly as a noun, then as a pronoun, on the structure:
subject noun > verb to be > subject pronoun   > complement
Statement Question
Subj noun > verb > complement
Subj. noun > verb > pron.  > complement
Jacques aime votre soeur Jacques aime-t- il votre soeur ?
Les Dupont vivent à Londres. Les Dupont vivent-ils à Londres
Le médecin a une voiture rouge. Le médecin a-t-il une voiture rouge?
Le chat dort dans un panier. Le chat dort-il dans un panier ?
Le chat dormira dans un panier. Le chat dormira-t-il dans un panier ?
or to translate the last example given above for English
Cette fille dont je vous montre une photo, est-ce votre soeur?  

2. Verbs with two elements (auxiliary / verb)

2.1. When English and French are alike
When the subject of the sentence is a pronoun, and in contexts where in both French and English the verb tense is formed with the use of an auxiliary (notably in the perfect or passé composé tense, or with modals) English and French questions are formed in just the same way, as in these examples :
Statement Question
Structure
Subj > v1 > v2 > object
V1 > subj.>  v2 > complement
English You have eaten an egg Have you eaten an egg ?
French Vous avez mangé un oeuf. Avez-vous mangé un oeuf ?
English They have seen the film Have they seen the film ?
French Ils ont vu le film. Ont-ils vu le film ?
English You should read this book Should you read this book ?
French Vous devriez lire ce livre. Devriez-vous lire ce livre ?
However if there is a direct or indirect pronoun object in the statement, such as lui or leur in French, this comes before the initial auxiliary – which is not the same as in English
French English
(IO) >  v1 > pron. > v2 > object v1 > subj. > v2 (v3) > (InOb) > object.
Lui avez-vous donné de l'argent? Have you given him some money ?
Vous a-t-il raconté sa vie? Did he tell you his life story?

2.2. More cases when English and French are NOT alike
Unfortunately for students, in most cases the question structures in English and in French will be different, for two reasons:
a) Unlike English, French does not allow simple inversion when the subject of a sentence is a noun, and
b) Most tenses in French are formed without an auxiliary, whereas in English we always use an auxiliary (do, did, has, was etc.) to create the interrogative form of a verb. However as in 1.2. above, instead of placing the noun subject between the verb and the complement, French doubles the subject - firstly as a noun, then as a pronoun, on the structure:
subject noun > v1  > subject pronoun  >  v2  >   object
In which v1 is an auxiliary or modal, and v2 the main verb (infinitive or past participle)
Statement Question
Subj noun > v1 > v2 > object
Subj. noun > v1 > pron. > v2 > object
Jacques a vu votre soeur Jacques a-t- il vu votre soeur ?
Les Dupont ont vécu à Londres. Les Dupont ont-ils vécu à Londres
Le médecin a eu une voiture rouge. Le médecin a-t-il eu une voiture rouge?
Le chat veut dormir dans un panier. Le chat veut-il dormir dans un panier ?
Le chat devra dormir dans un panier. Le chat devra-t-il dormir dans un panier ?
Compare these structures with English
French English
Subj. noun > v1 > pron. > v2 > object v1 > subj. > v2 (v3) > object.
Jacques a-t- il vu votre soeur ? Has Jacques seen your sister ?
Les Dupont ont-ils vécu à Londres Did the Duponts live in London?
Le médecin a-t-il eu une voiture rouge? Does the doctor have a red car?
Le chat veut-il dormir dans un panier ? Does the cat want to sleep in a basket?
Le chat devra-t-il dormir dans un panier ? Will the cat have to sleep in a basket

A few more examples
Examples:
1. Avez-vous  fini de manger?
   Have you finished eating ?
2. Voulez-vous danser avec moi ? ?
   Would you like to dance with me?.
3. Dois-je mettre tous les sacs dans la voiture ?
   Must I put all the bags in the car?
4. Est-il nécessaire d'aller à Londres ?
   Is it ne cessary to go to London ?
5. Savez-vous combien de temps cela va prendre?
   Do you know how long it will take ?
6. Lui avez-vous dit tout ce que vous savez ?
   Have you told him everything you know?
7. Les gendarmes vous ont-ils dit tout ce qu'ils savent ?
   Have the policemen told you everything they know know?
8. Les gendarmes ont-ils dit à linspecteur tout ce qu'ils savent ?
   Have the policemen told the inspector everything they know know?

3. Questions using Est-ce que....

Fortunately for students, French has another less complicated way of forming questions, which is the same in virtually all cases. It is just to add "Est-ce que" to the front of a statement. With "Est-ce que" in front of it, any statement becomes a negative. Here again are the examples above, but this time instead of the English translation.
Examples:
1. Avez-vous  fini de manger?
   Est-ce que vous avez fini de manger ?
2. Voulez-vous danser avec moi ? 
   Est-ce que vous voulez danser avec moi?.
3. Dois-je mettre tous les sacs dans la voiture ?
   Est-ce que je dois mettre tous les sacs dans la voiture?
4. Est-il nécessaire d'aller à Londres ?
   Est-ce qu'il est nécessaire d'aller à Londres ?
5. Savez-vous combien de temps cela va prendre?
   Est-ce que vous savez combien de temps cela va prendre?
6. Lui avez-vous dit tout ce que vous savez ?
   Est-ce que vous lui avez dit tout ce que vous savez ?
7. Les gendarmes vous ont-ils dit tout ce qu'ils savent ?
   Est-ce que les gendarmes vous ont dit tout ce qu'ils savent ?
8. Les gendarmes ont-ils dit à linspecteur tout ce qu'ils savent ?
   Est-ce que les gendarmes ont dit  à linspecteur tout ce qu'ils savent?
A question of style.
Question-forming with Est-ce que is very common in colloquial spoken French, less common in written French

► For questions with question words ( such as qui, quand, où ), continue to Interrogative pronouns adverbs & adjectives
►Return to French grammar index


► Continue with Interrogatives-2 : using question words
►Return to French grammar index



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