Inversion vs "Est-ce que" for questions with interrogative adverbs and pronouns

Hello everyone,

I wonder if it is possible to ask questions written below both in inversion and after "est-ce que":

"Why is she reading?": "Pourquoi lit elle?" - "Pourquoi est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"How is she reading?": "Comment lit elle?" - "Comment est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"When does she read?": "Quand lit elle?" - "Quand est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"How much does she read?": "Combien lit elle?" - "Combien est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"Which one is she reading"?: "Lequel lit elle?" - "Lequel est-ce qu'elle lit?"

I am thankful in advance.

April 14, 2019


Yes, it is possible. Both in the partial and total interrogative sentences, you can have 3 expressions:

1) the rising intonation

For example:

  • Il fait froid? (total interrogative sentence)

  • Où tu vas? / Tu vas où? (partial interrogative sentence)

2) the inversion of the subject: it is used especially in the formal language. To avoid the encounter of two vowels it is added an euphonic t: Reste-t-elle à Paris?

For example:

  • Fait-il froid? (remember to use -) (total interrogative sentence)

  • Quand y vas-tu? (partial interrogative sentence)

3) the group est-ce que + subject + verb

For example:

  • Est-ce qu'il fait froid? (total interrogative sentence)

  • Comment est-ce que tu y vas? (partial interrogative sentence)

Why is she reading?": "Pourquoi lit-elle?" - "Pourquoi est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"How is she reading?": "Comment lit-elle?" - "Comment est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"When does she read?": "Quand lit-elle?" - "Quand est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"How much does she read?": "Combien lit-elle?" - "Combien est-ce qu'elle lit?"

"Which one is she reading"?: "Lequel lit-elle?" - "Lequel est-ce qu'elle lit?"

Seems ok to me :)

April 14, 2019

You should not use "est-ce que" after "pourquoi, comment, combien, lequel" or any other interrogative of 2 syllables or more.

"Est-ce que" is reserved for "qui" and "que" and only tolerated after "où" and "quand" because they have one syllable.

April 14, 2019

This is not what is written in my grammar book. I checked to be sure.

The adverbs où, quand, comment, combien, pourquoi are able to accept the form est-ce que. It's written that est-ce que is placed always after the interrogative adverbs. And as examples:

  • Où est-ce que tu vas?

  • Quand est-ce que tu y vas?

  • Puorquoi est-ce que tu y vas?

  • A' quelle heure est-ce tu pars?

  • Puorquoi est-ce que tu pleures?

  • Il y a deux modèles: lequel est-ce que vous essayez?

April 14, 2019

I don't deny what Sitesurf is saying : these sentences you found in the grammar book are quite useless. That means that you can say the same thing in a simpler way. But just so you know, they correspond to an usage : I myself employ them very often in my daily-life (in France, Paris). Maybe they sound "akward and ugly "in other french-speaking countries/regions but not for me.

April 18, 2019

So the sentences that mysmallworld found in the grammar book are "quite useless", but you use them very often in your daily life?

April 18, 2019

You're right, "useless" was a weird thing to say. I'm not so good in english, that's why. I just took back the term used by Sitesurf down there : "useless awkward and ugly". I imagine that is sounds like that because the sentence end up to be unnecessarily long.

I just remarked that adding to the fact that these sentences are grammaticaly correct, they can be used in daily life ^^'

April 21, 2019

These additions are useless, awkward and ugly. I will come back to you when I have located my sources... ;-)

April 14, 2019

I don't know why you would say that but I am just explaining myself, that's all. :)

April 14, 2019

I eventually found the sources explaining why "est-ce que" should be avoided after other interrogatives than "qui" and "que".

You will note below that the examples cover "quand, à qui and où" which means that, by default, all interrogatives of 2+ syllables are totally excluded.


Extract [III. 2.]: On évitera d'associer cette locution à l'adverbe, au pronom ou à l'adjectif interrogatif. On doit dire : Quand partirez-vous ? et non Quand est-ce que vous partirez ? À qui dois-je m'adresser ? et non À qui est-ce que je dois m'adresser ?


Extract [IV. 5.]: Que sert à former la locution interrogative directe Est-ce que, qui peut se substituer à l'inversion du sujet. Est-ce qu'il pleut ? On évitera d'associer cette locution à un pronom ou à un adverbe interrogatif : on dira ainsi Que veux-tu ? Où vas-tu ? À qui parles-tu ? plutôt que Qu'est-ce que tu veux ? Où est-ce que tu vas ? À qui est-ce que tu parles ?

April 15, 2019

Sorry if I reply here but there is no more space.

Anyway, thank you for the informations and the links!

As I previously said, I was only referring to my grammar book for the preparation of the DELF exam (Niveaux de grammaire): all the examples are written there. But I, myself, wasn't aware of this rule. So I believe it may be a new grammar rule/revision. That, I don't know.

Again, thank you :)

April 15, 2019

Interesting. Sitesurf, please let me know if I'm following you correctly.

I finally got to section "Complex Inversion or use of «est-ce que» ?" (pg 652) thru to section, "Compulsory inversion" (pg 653) in L'Huillier.


"With interrogative adverbs, either the verb-pronoun inversion or complex inversion should be used in formal French (emphasis mine)".

This section goes on to list exceptions used in informal, and very informal conversation - too many/too long to list.


I think this summarizes to:

  • Où, comment, combien, and quand - either simple or complex inversion

I.e.: * « Où est Monsieur le Ministre ? » (simple inversion) * « Où M. le Ministre est-il en ce moment ? » (complex inversion)

  • Pourquoi - only complex (Pourquoi manges-tu)


"In principle, « est-ce que » can be used with all interrogative adverbs, except if the result is not satisfactory to the ear. (e.g. the rhythm of the question is awkward, or the same sound is repeated at the end of the sentence). Compare:

  • Quand est-ce que le train part?


  • ?Comment est-ce que votre tante va?
  • ?Où est-ce que mon parapluie est?
  • ?Combien est-ce que ce tableau vaut?

I assume that to the native French ear, the lower three sentences are awkward, and therefore shouldn't be used.

(And now my brain hurts! Time for a walk around the neighborhood....)

April 14, 2019

The best you can do with "pourquoi, comment, combien, à quelle heure, avec qui... etc." is to use a simple formula, and with "où" and "quand" as well:

  • Où est M. le Ministre ?
  • Quand part le train ?
  • Comment va votre tante ?
  • Où est mon parapluie ?
  • Combien vaut ce tableau ?

If you don't like them, please use the informal, statement-like questions:

  • M. le Ministre est où ?
  • Le train part quand ?
  • Votre tante va comment ?
  • Mon parapluie est où ?
  • Ce tableau vaut combien ?

And please reserve "est-ce que" for "qui" and "que".

To my French ear, your last examples sound unnecessarily wordy, awkward and the sound of them is just ugly. On top of that, please refer to my latest answer to @mysmallworld above which confirms that they should not be used.

April 15, 2019

Thanks, Sitesurf, for your explanations. Very informative! Maybe, you can make some changes in the Routines 3 topic (explanations). The following is taken directly from there:

Pourquoi est-ce que tu es triste ? You’ve seen already that questions in French can begin with est‑ce que (for example, Est‑ce que vous voyagez ensemble ?). Question words like quand and pourquoi can also come before est‑ce que ! Just remember that the verb comes after the person with est‑ce que, like in a normal sentence.

Pourquoi est‑ce que tu te réveilles tard ? why are you waking up late

Why are you waking up late?

Quand est‑ce que vous allez à Paris ? When are you going to Paris?

Avec qui est‑ce que tu sors ? With whom are you going out? / Who are you going out with?

April 15, 2019

At this moment, I am unable to make any change to the new Tree but I am aware of about 40 incorrect sentences with "pourquoi/comment/avec qui" and a bunch of others with "quand/où" that need to be flagged to the Duolingo experts who wrote them.

April 16, 2019

I've read your other post here, very helpful. Tnx.

April 15, 2019

Sitesurf, I have seen the Académie française reference that forbids this. But I am wondering why some of the very popular English-based French learning sites teach it anyway?

For example:

Another place that shows this usage is the Collins e-book "Collins easy learning Complete French" (which one has to buy to access). It doesn't just list one-syllable words, but also words like "pourquoi".

And a bunch of other places mention this usage, but their examples are only single-syllable interrogative words.

I'm confused!

May 26, 2019

I know and, frankly, the logic of it is probably too much for my tiny brain.

Usually, French grammar written by foreigners tends to be lenient, less prescriptivist than the Académie Française and making learning easy and simple (easier and simpler), as well as "modern" (French as the French people speak it - by the way, which French people?).

With 3 ways of asking questions, depending on the register of speech, French is already complex. On top of it, you may consider spoken French (street French) as another language altogether because it is fickle and changes with every social circle and generation.

My logic is that 3 forms allow learners to identify the context in which they will use them, thereby keeping full control on what they are saying.

  • I am writing an application for a job: I use formal or standard French
  • I am visiting France and need information: I use standard or informal French
  • I am a teenager in a summer camp with a bunch of French teens: I start with informal French then I mimic what the others say.

In either case, to avoid traps and possible mistakes, and to make sure you will be understood, you should use short and simple sentences: why on earth would you need to add unnecessary words?

To me, it is just common sense that "pourquoi tu y vas ?" or "tu y vas comment ?" are much more efficient and productive than "pourquoi est-ce que tu y vas ?" or "comment est-ce que tu y vas ?".
"Pourquoi" and "comment" (or à quelle heure, à quel endroit, lequel, etc. for that matter) are sufficient to warn your counterparts that a question is coming.

Why would you add "est-ce que"?
Why then wouldn't you add "Je demande" in the beginning?

May 27, 2019

By the way, I just ran into the Tips for "Routine 3" (new French tree): and it promotes using "Pourquoi est‑ce que", and implies you can use any "question word" in this position. So, it seems like Duo needs to be consistent here.

June 22, 2019

@mysmallworld -- Thanks for introducing me to the difference between total and partial interrogative sentences. Makes complete sense - but I'd never hear of the term. Very cool!

April 14, 2019

No worries, I've seen this distinction only in my French book.

Total interrogative and partial interrogative sentences are the closest translation I could make.

Practically, the total interrogative sentence is characterized by the answers yes (oui), no (non) or maybe (peut-être). The latter is used to express doubts. Whereas the partial interrogative sentence focused on the request of information of an element of the sentence (subject, place, time, etc). It is introduced by an interrogative adverb, an adjective or an interrogative pronoun :)

April 14, 2019

I found similar info in my copy of L'Huillier's 'French Grammar'. I hadn't waded into that portion of the book yet, so it was fun to discover the terms there.

Merci! J'adore apprendre!

April 14, 2019

If it is in English it would be better to refer to the terms you'll find there :)

In any case, I'm glad I was of help :)

Étudie bien et bonne chance!

April 14, 2019

In English grammar, the terminology is open(-ended) versus closed(-ended) questions.

April 15, 2019

Thanks for all clever replies which are all appreciated :)

April 14, 2019
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