1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: French
  4. >
  5. "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ?…


"Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça ?" What even is this sentence?

It seems so overly complicated for just "What is it/this/that?" Could someone please break it down for me? Do people ever actually say that?

December 9, 2012



OK, let's go:

"what is this" would be directly tranlated in "quoi est ça?" which is not correct.

To ask that question, French people often say "c'est quoi, ça?" (not correct but very common in informal conversations).

The simplest and more correct way to ask the question is : "qu'est-ce?", where "qu'" stands for "que/quoi" (what) and "ce" is a short version of "ceci/cela" (this/that). Please note that in questions, the verb is switched with the subject.

"Qu'est-ce QUE C'EST QUE çA" is the emphatic, colloquial version of the same thing. I dare a translation: what is this that this is that ? - Ugly, I know.


Probably no one's paying attention to this three-year-old page anymore, but here's a comment, in case anyone stumbles upon it in their search results, as I did.

I think what we English speakers really have trouble with is that the "que ça" at the end lacks a verb, though it seems to need one. But I find this Wiktionary entry helpful:


5. Links two noun phrases in apposition forming a clause without a (finite) verb, such that the complement acts as predicate.

  • 1874, Barbey d'Aurevilly, 'Le Bonheur dans le crime', Les Diaboliques :

    —Quelle grande bête, avec tout son esprit, que votre marquise, pour vous avoir dit pareille chose ! — fit la duchesse […].
    'What a beast your marquess is, for all her spirit, for having told you such a thing!' said the duchess.

  • 1918, Jean Giradoux, Simon le pathétique :

    —Quelle belle fleur que la rose ! dit-elle soudain, alors qu'aucune rose n'était en vue […].
    'What a beautiful flower the rose is!' she said suddenly, though no rose was in sight.

In English, we would generally use a verb to render this form of expression, whereas French can use "que" with no verb.

Notably, if we use inversion to translate Wiktionary's two example sentences into appropriately antiquated English prose, we get:

  • What a beast is your marquess...!
  • What a beautiful flower is the rose!

However, we do also have the option of a verbless appositional structure in English, but again with nothing to render the "que":

  • What a beast, your marquess...!
  • What a beautiful flower, the rose!

With the above in mind, then, for the sake of getting at the mechanics of "qu'est-ce que c'est que ça" through English, I'd propose the following more-or-less literal translations:

  • What is it that it is, is that?
  • What is it that it is, that?

The second possibility is very similar to Sitesurf's translation (but with a comma to signal the pause that's necessary in English), though in both I've used "it" in place of "this" for "ce", because it's often used to translate "ce", and because it strikes me as more natural in English here, albeit a little less literal of a translation.

The first possibility is notable for what seems to be an extra-redundant verb as the second-last word, making the translation rather weird from the standpoint of modern English. However, with a slight adjustment of pronoun choice, while maintaining the same number of both verbs and pronouns, we get the following couple of possibilities:

  • What is it that is what is that?
  • What is it that is what that is?

In fact these latter two possibilities actually even capture the literal sense of the French better, if not the precise mechanics, with a natural emphasis, in both, on the final "that".

More simply, we might have instead:

  • What is it, is that?
  • What is it, that?

Or, with the same adjustment as before:

  • What is what is that?
  • What is what that is?

And after coming up with all of the above it finally strikes me that without the antiquated English inversion we can even have, in place of my first and fifth suggestions:

  • What is it that it is that is?
  • What is it that is?

However, these two cheat a bit, because with the final "that" representing the demonstrative "ça", they actually imply an extra relative pronoun, which, when added in, makes them:

  • What is it that it is that that is?
  • What is it that that is?

I think that about covers it. I think that that about covers it. I think that that is what is what it about covers. I think that that is what it is that is about what it covers.



"Qu'est-ce que c'est" is what we learned at school to ask that question. And I always thought that was more formal than the inversion one. But it is actually the other way around? And is "Qu'est-ce que c'est" alright??


The more formal (you recognize formal questions when you get an inversion Verb-Subject pronoun) is "qu'est-ce ?".

"qu'est-ce que c'est ?" is less formal, but the standard way of asking question, in speech and in writing, unless you use a more wordy expression like: "quel est cet object ?" or "quelle est cette chose ?"


At University, I was taught that this is a set phrase which is more akin to 'What the hell!?' or 'What on earth...?'

Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.