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Qu'est-ce que c'est... and Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça/cela ? = What is... / What's that?

There are several ways to ask something to be explained with What is that/this/it? in French.


1.

C'est quoi ?
What is it? / What is that? / What is this?

Qu'est-ce que c'est ?
What's that?  /  What's this?  /  What is it?

Literally "what is it that it is?", it is pronounced [kess kuh say].

Note that est-ce is simply c'est inverted.

You can use C'est quoi [chose] ? or Qu'est-ce que c'est [chose] ?

C'est quoi le Sacré Cœur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Cœur in Paris?

Qu'est-ce que c'est un stylo ?
What is a pen?

If you want to ask what something is by name, simply add the name of the thing after c'est quoi or qu'est-ce que c'est.
These are not the most elegant questions, but probably the most commonly used.

2.

Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ?
What is that?  /  What is this?

Qu'est-ce que c'est que cela ?
What is that?  /  What is this?

Literally what is it that it is that that? (quite a mouthful!), this is pronounced simply [kess kuh seksah] and [kess kuh sek sullah].
Note that ça is the shortened form of cela.
Cela 
is quite formal, so you'll hear ça used much more frequently.


You can also use Qu'est-ce que c'est que + [chose] :

Qu'est-ce que c'est que le Sacré Coeur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Coeur in Paris?

Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un stylo ?
What's a 'stylo' - pen?

If you want to ask what something is by name, simply replace ça/cela with the name of the thing.
Remember to contract que into qu' if followed with a vowel or silent h.

3.

Qu'est-ce que cela ?
What is this ?
What is that ?

This shorter form of the question is actually more formal in French, and will therefore require the more elegant cela.
You wouldn't say Qu'est-ce que ça ?.

You can also use Qu'est-ce que + [chose] :

Qu'est-ce que le Sacré Coeur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Coeur in Paris?

Qu'est-ce qu'un stylo ?
What's a 'stylo' - pen?

 

Once again, if you want to ask what something is by name, simply replace cela with the name of the thing.
Remember to contract que into qu' if followed with a vowel or silent h.

ATTENTION: 
When asking What is this/that? in the context of a choice, as in Which one is that?, you will then use Questions: Quel, quels, quelle, quelles = Which / what ?.

Learn more about these related French grammar topics

Examples and resources

Qu'est-ce que c'est un stylo ?
What is a pen?


Qu'est-ce que c'est que cela ?
What is that?  /  What is this?


C'est quoi ?
What is it? / What is that? / What is this?


Qu'est-ce que c'est ?
What's that?  /  What's this?  /  What is it?


C'est quoi le Sacré Cœur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Cœur in Paris?


Qu'est-ce que cela ?
What is this ?
What is that ?



Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ?
What is that?  /  What is this?


more formal


Qu'est-ce qu'un stylo ?
What's a 'stylo' - pen?


Qu'est-ce que le Sacré Coeur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Coeur in Paris?


Qu'est-ce que c'est que


Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un stylo ?
What's a 'stylo' - pen?


Qu'est-ce que c'est que le Sacré Coeur à Paris ?
What is the Sacré Coeur in Paris?


Q&A

Paul

Kwiziq community member

17 February 2018

3 replies

Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un stylo vs Qu'est-ce que c'est un stylo

The examples give both the options for un stylo but the Kwiz I just did only accepts Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un gendarme, and Qu'est-ce que c'est un gendarme is marked wrong. Is there something different between un gendarme and un stylo that mandates using Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

19 February 2018

19/02/18

Bonjour Paul !


It was indeed an omission on our part :)


Thanks to you, it's now been fixed!


Merci et à bientôt !

Nabeel

Kwiziq community member

12 March 2018

12/03/18

Same for me, hope you get a reply soon

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

23 March 2018

23/03/18

Bonjour Nabeel !


As mentioned above, it was a mistake on our part, which has now been fixed :)


Which case are you referring to ?


À bientôt !

Stewart

Kwiziq community member

29 January 2018

2 replies

Qu'est-ce que c'est un stylo ?

Two of the questions in this lesson are as follows: - Qu'est-ce que c'est un stylo ? Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un stylo ? Could you please explain why the 2nd question has 'qu' inserted before 'un stylo'.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

29 January 2018

29/01/18

Bonjour Stewart !

These are simply two ways to ask questions in French.
The second is actually more elegant and is explained as such:
"Qu'est-ce que c'est que/qu' + [thing]?"

I can't really justify the structure, all I can say is that it's literally very convoluted to an English ear : "What is it that it's that [a thing]?"

I hope that helps :)
Bonne journée !

Stewart

Kwiziq community member

29 January 2018

29/01/18

Thank you Aurélie, your answer is fine.

Terry

Kwiziq community member

16 January 2018

1 reply

When using « Qu’est-ce que c’est » is it appropriate to follow this statement with article?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

17 January 2018

17/01/18

See my reply to your previous answer. -- Chris.

Terry

Kwiziq community member

16 January 2018

2 replies

When using « Qu’est-ce qu » is it always followed by an article?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

17 January 2018

17/01/18

In asking "What is ...." kind of questions I can't think of an example where you wouldn't need either a definite or indefinite article in French.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Terry

Kwiziq community member

17 January 2018

17/01/18

Thanks. I think what I’m actually confused about but didn’t state it well, is when to use ...que c’est? And when to use only ...que? I.e. the difference between Qu’est-ce que...(le stylo)? and Qu’est-ce que c’est (le stylo)? I keep getting them incorrect and i find the explanation in the ‘explain this’ section to not be very clear/helpful.

Stuart

Kwiziq community member

15 December 2017

3 replies

Longer ways of saying things are less formal

Than shorter ways of saying things? Is that right? Qu’est ce que is more formal than qu’est-ce que c’est que?

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

15 December 2017

15/12/17

Bonjour Stuart !

In that case, it is indeed the case :)
I cannot think of any other example that contradicts that statement.

Bonne journée !

Chris

Kwiziq community member

16 December 2017

16/12/17

Well, I'll give it a try!

Anne est malade? (Less formal)
Anne est-elle malade? (More formal)

-- Chris.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

19 December 2017

19/12/17

Yes, that works too :)

Stuart

Kwiziq community member

4 December 2017

1 reply

The difference between the second two variants ...

Is the difference that, in number 1 ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est’ I would just point, whereas the ‘que’ is added if I refer to the object by name?

Chris

Kwiziq community member

4 December 2017

4/12/17

No, you can use either to point to a thing or to name one.

Qu'est-ce que c'est ça? -- Qu'est-ce que c'est cette boîte?
Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça? -- Q'est-ce que c'est que cette boîte?


-- Chris (not a native speaker).

April

Kwiziq community member

29 November 2017

3 replies

I do not understand the difference between qu"est -ce que c'est and qu'est- ce que c'est que. Help

Chris

Kwiziq community member

29 November 2017

29/11/17

They are synonyms. There is no difference in meaning. "Qu'est-ce que ce que ça" is, however, a bit less formal. Didn't you find the explanation given in the lesson helpful? I thought it addressed this issue rather well.

-- Chris (not a native speaker).

Karen

Kwiziq community member

12 January 2018

12/01/18

I don't understand either.

Cécile

Kwiziq language super star

10 April 2018

10/04/18

Hi April and Karen,


As Chris has already said, both structures mean the same , What's this?, What's that?


Maybe the problem is that the French use 'est-ce-que' an awful lot when asking questions. In spoken French this is the one you will hear most often as the inversion often sounds stilted and you need to recognise it at least.


If you find it difficult to use, you may consider the third way of asking questions which is the statement with the voice rising at the end :


C'est quoi ça? C'est quoi ce livre? (What's that? , What's this book?)


which means the same as,


Quest-ce -que c'est que ça?  Qu'est-ce-que c'est que ce livre ?


but is somewhat less elegant but fine in conversation.


Hope this helps!

Anish

Kwiziq community member

28 May 2017

4 replies

Is it more appropriate to say use Qu'est-ce que c'est que in spoken form?

...and Qu'est-ce que c'est is appropriate written form. What did we mean by more formal?

Max

Kwiziq community member

28 May 2017

28/05/17

In today's French, I often hear "Qu'est-ce?" - such as on TV5MONDE or podcats. I'm old school and prefer the longer older form. But I am not a native speaker.

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

1 June 2017

1/06/17

Bonjour Anish (and Max) !

Max, I find it weird that you heard "Qu'est-ce" on its own, as it's very old-fashioned and antiquated...

The nuance is between "Qu'est-ce que + thing" vs "Qu'est-ce que c'est que + thing" to express "What is + thing":
"Qu'est-ce que la Tour Eiffel ?"
vs
"Qu'est-ce que *c'est que* la Tour Eiffel ?"

The first one is more formal as it's simply the inverted form (always considered more elegant), whereas the second one is more colloquial, and will be more used in everyday speech.
I would actually add that the most common way to ask this in colloquial speech would be a third option:
"C'est quoi, la Tour Eiffel ?"

I hope that's helpful!
À bientôt !

Anish

Kwiziq community member

1 June 2017

1/06/17

Dear Aurélie / Max, thank you for the answers. Is it right to use "Qu'est-ce que *c'est que* la Tour Eiffel?" in written form or is it only restricted to colloquial speech.
Regards
Anish

Aurélie

Kwiziq language super star

6 June 2017

6/06/17

Bonjour Anish !

It's not considered very elegant to use it in wirtten form: we'll prefer the "qu'est-ce que" option :)

Bonne journée !

Anish

Kwiziq community member

28 May 2017

2 replies

When do we use Cela?

When you say Cela is a formal version, does it mean it is used often in written form?

Ron

Kwiziq community member

31 May 2017

31/05/17

Ce = this/that .. Ce pain =this bread/that bread Ca = that/this ... Veux-tu ça ? = Do you want that ?
Ceci/cela = this/that (here, not really defined) Ceci est un chien = "this thing here" is a dog/ "this" is a dog. Cela me va bien = "it" suits me well ("this thing" suits me well)
Celui/Celle = this/that one (among others, yes masculine/feminine forms) Voici mes frères, celui qui a un chapeau s'appelle Danny (Here are my brothers, the one with a hat is named Danny) Les plus résistantes sont celles qui ont le plus de volonté (The most resistant are the ones that have most will "among women")
"Ca" and "Cela" can be exchanged one for another, used for something undefined, here or there... the english "it" Usually "ce"/"cet" is used with a noun, to precise it (this thing), note that the feminine version might be "cette" "Ceci" is used for something undefined right here, close to the speaker "Celui/celle" for a precision among a group, as to distinguish it.
Also, take a look at this:
Ce chien-ci --> this dog
Ce chien-là --> that dog

Anish

Kwiziq community member

1 June 2017

1/06/17

Thank you Ron.

Denis

Kwiziq community member

20 April 2017

1 reply

Why is C'est Quoi correct?

I am getting very confused as to which form of "what" I should be using. Please explain.

Ron

Kwiziq community member

20 April 2017

20/04/17

1. questions about people: qui, qui est-ce qui, qui est-ce que
2. questions about things: qu'est-ce qui, que, qu'est-ce que, quoi

Hope this helps !
Getting that for you now.