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Quel est or qu'est-ce que + noun

What is the difference in meaning between using "quel est" and "qu'est-ce que(c'est que)" with a noun to ask a question? Are they both interchangeable. If not then what is the difference?

Just as an example, to translate "what is the answer?", would either be fine? When should you use on over the other?

December 29, 2017



No, they are not interchangeable. The problem is the two expressions refer to different ideas of meaning in French, but the two ideas are expressed exclusively by saying "WHAT" in English.

Simply put:

"Quel/Quelle est" literally means "Which is" and you use it when in your question you refer and infer to any number of possible options.

EX: Quel est ton numéro de téléphone? ("Which one is your telephone number?" - understand it like this: of ALL the telephone numbers in the world, WHICH ONE is exactly yours?)

"Qu'est-ce que" literally means "What is" and you use it when in your question there are no options, real or infered, you simply ask about ONE specific piece of information.

EX: Qu'est-ce que le téléphone? ("What is the telephone?" - literally, you ask WHAT is a telephone).

There may be much more complete explanations, but I've always understood the difference like this. Hope it helps.


Thanks for the reply. So you use "quel" with a noun when a choice is implied and "qu'est-ce que" with the noun for a definition. Would you also use the latter for anything that does not involve a selection? i.e If I wanted to ask for an explanation or identity?

"qu'est-ce que ces petits trous?" What are these little holes?


When I want to ask about the object of a verb (something that has an action done to it), I would use qu'est-ce que:

Qu'est-ce que vous faites ?
Qu'est-ce que tu manges ?
Qu'est-ce qu'il en pense ?

"What/what is it that..." you are doing, you are eating? What does he think about it?

These can also be written as:

Que faites-vous ?
Que manges-tu ?
Qu'en pense-t-il ?

For asking about a certain aspect about a noun, quel(les) is the correct choice. It helps to think of "quel" as "which" in English.

Quelle est la réponse ?
Quelles planètes sont chaudes ?
Quel sandwich préfères-tu ?

No doubt the native speakers will have additional nuances and details to add!


Hey !

Several information to answer ! (And I like to add some random notes)

No you can't use both. In that case, you use "Quelle est la réponse ?" (Quel+Gender)

First, "qu'est ce que.." and "que..." gives the same sentences, with a different form. Ex: " Qu'est ce que tu aimes manger ?" = "Qu'aimes-tu manger ?" ( What do you like to eat?) I'll use "Que..." below because it's easier to understand.

Second, we usually use "Que..." when preceded by a Verb. And "Quel..." when preceded by a noun. Ex: "Que FAIS-tu ?" ( What do you do?) Ex: "Quel LIVRE est-ce ? ( What book is it?) Ex: "Quel homme !" (What a man!)

But ! There are exceptions. Always! Everywhere!

When the verb is "[il/elle] est" (he/she is), we use "Quel..." instead of "Que..." to keep a "smooth" pronunciation. Otherwise you use the contraction "Qu'..." in front of vowels.

Ex: "Quel est ton nom ? (What is your name?) Ex: "Qu’achètes-tu ? ( What are you buying?) Ex: Qu'es-tu est train de faire ? (What are you doing?)

Obivously, "Qu'est-ce..." is another one exception, maybe we are looking for the smoothiest language in the world? (I do not know why we use this form)

Note: I do not talk about "Which" because it is not the same use: "Quel est ton numéro de téléphone ?" (What is your phone number?) "Lequel est ton numéro de téléphone ?" (Which one is your phone number?)

Hope you understand my English!

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