Journal of Linguistics

What's ‘what’ in French questions 1

a1 University of York


The analysis of French ‘what’ questions poses a number of difficulties. These questions exhibit numerous peculiarities, especially when they involve a subject wh-phrase. It is argued that the anomalous paradigm derives from three independent factors. The first is linked to the general status of matrix subject wh-phrases and the position they occupy at the interface levels. The second relates to the status of que ‘what’ as a phonological clitic. The third is argued to derive from the difference between strong quoi ‘what’ and weak que with respect to specificity. Once the interaction of these factors is taken into account, the unusual paradigm is completely explained.

(Received May 24 1999)
(Revised June 25 2000)

c1 Author's address: Department of Language and Linguistic Science, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, U.K. E-mail:


1 This paper owes much to comments and suggestions by David Adger and Anthony Warner as well as by JL referees. Particular thanks to Paul Hirschbühler for discussion and critical examples. Thanks also to the numerous other French speakers who provided judgements.