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Laura K. Lawless

What confusion: How to say "what" in French

By July 13, 2012

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French learners often have trouble deciding how to translate "what" into French. Should it be que or quoi, or maybe that pesky quel? Understanding the difference between these terms is critical to knowing how to use them correctly: "What" in French.
More: French mistakes and difficulties


July 13, 2012 at 12:50 pm
(1) Janet says:

Thanks to my newfound addiction to all things Jean Dujardin, I’ve been watching a lot of TV/Movies, etc. in French. You say that when it’s simply “what” you say “comment”. But when I’ve been watching the films/tv, I hear “De quoi” a lot for what simply seems to be “What?” Is that not really used?

July 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm
(2) LKL - French Guide says:

De quoi means “of/about/from what.” Or it might be in response to a verb or expression that needs the preposition de, like J’ai besoin de quelque chose.
De quoi ?

If you have examples, I can be more specific.

When you mean “what?” as in “I didn’t catch that, what did you say?” the French equivalent is comment?

July 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm
(3) Andre says:


Short answer: no really…at least not in polite society.

“De Quoi?” is pretty informal/slangish and quite likely a simple contraction of “De quoi parles-tu?” or “De quoi parlerz-vous?”. In essence the person is asking “About/Of what?” instead of “About/of what are you talking?”

‘Quoi?’, “Comment?” or “Pardon?” (and the last 2 are preferable) are a much better way of asking someone to repeat if you did not understand what was said…as indicated by Laura in her lesson.

July 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm
(4) Janet says:

Maybe I’m misunderstanding context. I was going to post a link to an ep of “Un Gars, Une Fille” which begins thusly:


“De quoi?”

“Il est ou?”

“De quoi?!”

Is it because, in this setting, they are informal?

July 16, 2012 at 8:18 am
(5) Andre says:

Ah I see.

Yes it’s becasue of the informal and somewhat popular/slangish French used in that Show.

Keep in mind that “Un gars, une fille” is about a couple somewhewre in Québec (Montréal if I recall correctly) and tend toward more of the everyday-slangish French you would find there as opposed to the French used at the workeplace or taught (even in Québec that’s the type of thing we do not teach to Second language learner). Not somethnig I recommand reusing.

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