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Quoi

£14.95

“Quoi” is the most ubiquitous, versatile and frequently used word in conventional French. Its meanings range from “What?!” in its exclamatory role, through questions like “Quoi de neuf?”, “What’s new?” via very public statements such as “Il n’y a pas de quoi, madame”, “It’s a pleasure, madam” (or “You’re welcome, madam”), right up to really quite sophisticated expressions such as “Quoi qu’il en soit”, “Be that as it may”… and hundreds more. So useful is this little word that I can think of no other on the subject of which it would be possible to devote a whole book. So, “Et puis quoi encore?!” – “Whatever next?!”

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“Quoi” is the most ubiquitous, versatile and frequently used word in conventional French. Its meanings range from “What?!” in its exclamatory role, through questions like “Quoi de neuf?”, “What’s new?” via very public statements such as “Il n’y a pas de quoi, madame”, “It’s a pleasure, madam” (or “You’re welcome, madam”), right up to really quite sophisticated expressions such as “Quoi qu’il en soit”, “Be that as it may”… and hundreds more. So useful is this little word that I can think of no other on the subject of which it would be possible to devote a whole book. So, “Et puis quoi encore?!” – “Whatever next?!”

 

A Broad Guide to Quoi

I had barely put the finishing touches to my last book, “How to Pass for a Frog with their Top 201 Favourite Words and Phrases” when I was forcibly struck by the number of times in it I had used the word “quoi”.  It not only, quite rightly, had an entry of its own, but it also featured in so many examples that I had used to illustrate the use of other very popular words and phrases.

Indeed, at one point in the book I say “there are so many more uses of “quoi” that, if pushed, I could write a short book on this word alone”.  Well, something or somebody must have pushed me, because I have!

Mind you, it was not my wife.  When I outlined my idea for this book, despite being a fluent French speaker herself, she replied: “but you barely ever use the word!”  Within five minutes and dozens of examples of the way I and my Frog friends employ it in conversation, she relented and, dare I say it, apologised!  I was right, she said; we use it all the time!

So, how do we use “quoi” in conversation?  Well, since this is the subject of this little book, I am not going to give away all my secrets here and now – I want you to read on!  But, and to whet your whistle, “quoi”, here are just a few illustrative examples.

Actually, I have already given you one in that last sentence, for the Frogs love to add “quoi” to almost anything in just the same way that English speakers often add “like” to their sentences.  “Quoi” normally comes at the end of a sentence (though it can come elsewhere):

“Vraiment, il est con, quoi

ie Really, he is stupid, like.

Or …

“J’ai un cousin qui habite au milieu de nulle part, dans un bled, quoi

ie I have a cousin who lives in the back of beyond, in a god-forsaken hole, so to speak

Or…

“J’habite à Neuilly et je travaille près de l’Étoile.  C’est le train-train quotidien, quoi

ie I live in Neuilly (a somewhat up-market suburb of Paris) and I work near Étoile (a central-Paris metro station).  It is the daily grind, so to speak.

In these three examples, “quoi”, apart from “like”, means “so to speak” and is a truncated way of saying “pour ainsi dire”.  But you rarely hear that expression: it is almost always “quoi”.

But this colloquial use of the word is a million miles removed from this very polite employment of “quoi”:

“Merci bien, jeune home, vous êtes très gentil”

Il n’y a pas de quoi, madame.  Passez un bon weekend”

ie Thank you very much young man, you are very kind.

Don’t mention it, madam.  Have a good weekend.

Note in this example my use of “merci bien” for “thank you very much”.  You might expect to hear “merci beaucoup” rather than “merci bien”: after all, beaucoup is an adjective, whereas bien is an adverb.  However, “bien” is often used adjectivally.  Anyway, you have to be careful with “beaucoup”.  Coming from the mouth of a Brit whose French accent is not necessarily perfect, it might sound to a Frog like “beau cul” which means “beautiful arse!”  So, be careful, “faites gaffe!”  Anyway, “beaucoup” is an over-used adjective; “bien” makes a nice change.

But “revenons à nos moutons!”, (let us get back to the subject!)  “Il n’y a pas de quoi” is one of three different ways the Frogs have of saying “don’t mention it”, “it’s a pleasure” or some such.  The other two are:

  • de rien” and …
  • je vous en prie”.

Of the three choices, “de rien” is perhaps the most frequently encountered, but all three are in widespread use.  Try always to use one of these “formules de politesse”: French people are extraordinarily polite in my experience and they appreciate the reciprocity.

However, if you tack a verb infinitive ie a French verb ending in “…er”, “…ir” or “…re” and the equivalent of our “to…” whatever, on the end of “il n’y a pas de quoi” you will have something altogether different.  For example:

“Je voudrais signer cette lettre mais il n’y a pas de quoi écrire, monsieur”

ie I would like to sign this letter but there is nothing to write with, or…

“Ça te fait mal au genou, je sais, chérie, mais vraiment il n’y a pas de quoi pleurer

ie Your knee is hurting, I know, darling, but really, there is nothing to cry about, or…

“Tu n’as pas fermé la porte à clé?  Il n’y a pas de quoi s’inquiéter.  Gilles rentre dans dix minutes”

ie You have not locked the door?  There is nothing to worry about.  Gilles is coming home in ten minutes time.

Note here my use of “dans” in this example.  Try not to confuse “dans” and “en”.  The former means when someone does something or when something happens: “Le train arrivera dans cinq minutes”, the train will arrive in five minutes.  But “en” is used to describe how long it will take to do something or other: “Je le ferai en dix minutes”. It will take me ten minutes to do it.  Or …

“Ton frère a mangé deux barbes-à-papa à la fête?  Il n’y a pas de quoi s’étonner, tu sais.  Parfois il en mange trois!”

ie Your brother ate two candy floss at the fair?  There is nothing astonishing about that.  Sometimes he eats three!

Finally, by way of introduction to this utterly ubiquitous little word, consider this:

Quoi de neuf?” (or Quoi de nouveau?)

ie What’s new?

“Bonjour Stéphane, quoi de neuf?”

“Pas grand-chose”

ie Hello Stéphane, what’s new?

Not a lot.

Already you can see, I hope, how versatile “quoi” really is.  But here I am only “scratching the surface”, “quoi!”  (Incidentally, “to scratch the surface” is an example of what the grammar boys call a “locution”, that is to say a word or phrase which has an idiomatic nature.  We will meet lots of these in the course of this book.  Often they are not easily translated into another language.  The closest you will get in French to “scratching the surface” is “effleurer le problème”).

In the pages and sections that follow, you will get a comprehensive account, not only of how “quoi” is used in conversation, but also of how it can be used in written communication.  So, “allez-y, quoi!”

But before we kick off, one final introductory remark.

Our word is very frequently encountered indeed in conversational French.  Often this is “familier” ie colloquial and occasionally “argotique”, ie slang.

But it also features in much relatively formal, grammatically correct conversation, too, depending on circumstances – who, when, where and what you and others may want or need to say.

Colloquial French is often ungrammatical and Frogs often make howling errors when they are supposed to get their grammar right.  Nowadays, young people learn very little grammar at school (nor do we, incidentally); and the modern fashion for texting is playing havoc with their ability to speak or write error-free French.  So do not worry when you, too, make mistakes with your French, for you are in good company.  Everyone does these days, including yours truly!

So, just get out there and use your French.  Speak as much as possible – and do not be shy, the English disease.  Half the time when you are wrong, the Frogs do not know it; the other half of the time, they don’t much care!

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