If I asked you to tell me how to say “how important is it?” or “how cold is it?” in French, what would you say?
If you’re tempted to say something with combien or comment, then keep watching as I introduce you to à quel point.
Allez, c’est parti ! Keep reading or watch the video below.
You probably know that combien means both how much and how many in French, such as
Combien coûte ce stylo s’il vous plaît ? – How much does this pen cost?
But if you’ve ever tried to say something like how important is it, you might have run into trouble.
The answer is
À quel point est-ce que c’est important ?
And of course, the parts I want you to focus on here is the expression à quel point and the position of important.
Unlike in English, where we’d put how and important next to each other, you can’t do that in French.
So now you’ve got the big picture, let’s go a little bit deeper to understand how to decide between combien and à quel point, because there’s quite a lot of nuance.
La régle générale
As a general rule, if what you want to say includes how many or how much you’re going to want to choose combien in French.
Je sais pas combien de fois j’ai appelé. – I don’t know how many times I called.
On a besoin de combien de farine pour faire ce gâteau ? – How much flour do we
need to make this cake?
Contrast that with in English where if you want to say how plus any other adverb or adjective, you should opt for à quel point en français.
Il a senti à quel point tu étais triste. – He felt how sad you were.
Je me demande à quel point l’eau est froide. – I wonder how cold the water is.
À quel point
Another way to remember à quel point, because I know it’s going to be new for a lot people reading, is to use the translations to what extent or the extent to which.
Let’s translate those last French examples again,
Il a senti à quel point tu étais triste. – He felt to what extent you were sad, or he felt the extent to which you were sad.
Je me demande à quel point l’eau est froide. – I wonder to what extent the water is cold, or I wonder the extent
to which the water is cold.
Now, clearly these expressions are more formal and sound a bit odd out loud, but they are grammatically correct, and I like using them because it creates a separation between combien and à quel point.
For me, when I have one distinct translation for each, I have clarity and can then use them with confidence.
So I hope everything is fairly straightforward so far, because now there’s a little nuance I need to tell you about.
And this is why, for me, it’s important to have that separation in certain cases.
The nuance of combien and à quel point
How much and to what extent are synonymous. They share the same meaning, and therefore their French counterparts, combien and à quel point, are also synonymous.
And we can see this confirmed on WordReference for the third definition of combien.
Now, this can obviously be good news because it saves you thinking time, right?
Yes, but also no.
Yes, because going directly from French to English often works perfectly, such as for the sentence “you know how much I love you“. Here, we can say combien because it’s how much in English,
but we can also say à quel point because to what extent fits here too “Vous savez combien je vous aime.” or “à quel point je vous aime.”
I never thought about how much it hurt. – J’ai jamais pensé à combien/a quel point ça faisait mal.
So yes, combien and à quel point can be interchangeable.
And I love breaking down French grammar for you to make it easier.
But at the end of the day, languages are living things that evolve based on many, many factors.
As a result, just because something is grammatically correct doesn’t mean it sounds right or nice to the native’s ear.
For example, to go again with the previous example:
J’ai jamais pensé å combien ça faisait mal.
I know from exposure and trying out this sentence on natives that their intuition tells them that this sounds weird and off and that à quel point is a much better choice.
Combien de temps
The classic combien de temps can mean how much time. Like:
On a combien de temps ? – How much time do we have?
No problem there.
But in extremely common usage, it would translate to how long.
Ça fait combien de temps que tu apprends le français ?
We don’t say “how much time have you been learning French?” we say
How long have you been learning French?
How fast in French
Equally, for English phrases like “how fast were you driving?”
Although grammatically, you could use à quel point with the adverb vite and get
À quel point est-ce que tu conduisais vite ?
far and away, the most accepted correct translation is
À quelle vitesse est-ce que tu conduisais ?
At which speed were you driving? if we were to translate it word for word.
How often in French
And for something like “how often do you exercise?” as far as I understand it, à quel point doesn’t work at all on any level.
You have to say
À quelle fréquence est-ce que tu fais du sport ?
or just ask the question in a completely different way.
So to recap
- combien can be thought of as how many or how much.
- À quel point can be thought of as how plus adverb or adjective, and sometimes how much making it interchangeable in this instance with combien.
- Even if grammatically, you can use combien or à quel point when translating something from English that doesn’t mean that’s how a French person would say it.
So the moral of this story is as it is a lot of the time in my lessons, go ahead and use grammatical rules and logic that I give you pour vous faire comprendre (to make yourself understood).
That is the first goal of any interaction or any time you use French, whether or not it’s the most naturally French way of saying it or not.
Most of the time you’re going to be right, even if you’re translating, because English and French are more alike than you think. And then with time and exposure, by asking questions in person and online and just daring to try new sentencesand judging reactions from natives whether it’s out loud or in a comment, you’ll sound more and more like a native every day but you have to keep trying it
takes a long time.
I know I teach in English but that doesn’t mean you can’t leave me comments and messages en français.
Every sentence is an opportunity to improve and importantly find your gaps, find where you’re lackin.
With that said: laissez-moi un commentaire ci-dessous avec deux phrases: Une contenant combien et une contenant à quel point.
Otherwise check out this lesson on all the meanings of Toujours in everyday French.
Merci beaucoup for having read this lesson!