comme/comment/combien

What’s the difference between comme, comment and combien?

The words comme, comment and combien all look very similar, but actually have different grammatical functions and therefore different meanings. Read on to learn the difference between comme, comment and combien, then put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Clara joue de la flûte comme une professionnelle. Elle sait comment créer de jolies mélodies.

Depuis combien d’années joue-t-elle de la flûte ? Depuis six ans.

comme

Comme can be an adverb or a conjunction (linking word). It has different meanings:

  • Comme can have a temporal meaning when referring to two simultaneous past actions, similar to the English words as, when or while. It is followed by a verb in the imparfait or plus-que-parfait.
    We can replace comme with alors que or au moment où.
    Example:
    Comme Éric se rendait chez sa tante, sa voiture tomba en panne.As Éric was on his way to his aunt’s house, his car broke down.

    The two actions occurred simultaneously.

  • Comme can express a reason, similar to the English words as, since or because. The verb that follows can be conjugated in any tense.
    In this context, we can replace comme with parce que.
    Example:
    Comme j’étais en retard, j’ai appelé un taxi.As I was running late, I called a taxi.
  • Comme can also be used to make comparisons, similar to like or as in English.
    Example:
    À l’école, la petite Charlotte se sent comme un poisson dans l’eau.Little Charlotte feels like she’s in her element at school.
  • Comme can be used to give emphasis to a statement.
    Example:
    Comme je suis heureuse !I’m so happy!

comment

Comment is an adverb that expresses manner; it asks or explains how:

  • in direct questions
    Example:
    Comment allez-vous ?How are you?
  • in indirect questions
    Example:
    Je me demande comment il a fait pour remporter le premier prix.I asked myself how he managed to win first prize.
  • in exclamations to demonstrate surprise or outrage
    Example:
    Comment ?! Ce n’est pas possible !How?! That’s not possible!

Info

We use comment ? in a similar way to pardon? to ask for repetition. This is handy when you’ve missed something in a conversation!

Example:
Comment ? Je n’ai pas bien entendu.Pardon? I didn’t quite hear.

Comment ? is more polite than quoi ?

combien

Combien is an adverb that expresses quantity; it asks how much or how many:

  • in direct questions
    Example:
    Combien coûte un kilo de cerises ?How much does a kilo of cherries cost?
  • in indirect questions
    Example:
    Gilles ne sait pas combien de temps la construction de cette maison lui prendra.Gilles doesn’t know how much time it will take to build his house.

Check out some other confusing word pairs in French with our pages on il y a/depuis and cours/classe.