What in Spanish
In the section on Spanish Questions Words, you learned all the important question-asking words in Spanish, like who? what? when? where? and why?
- ¿quién? ¿qué? ¿cuándo? ¿dónde? ¿por qué?
One question word that you may have learned during the lesson but forgotten by the time you made it to this lesson is cual. The question ¿cuál? means which?
Cual is a useful word in Spanish … and not simply to ask questions. At the moment, though, we’re going to take a look at what makes the question ¿qué? different from the question ¿cuál? The two question words are used more interchangeably than you might think.
When to use What in Spanish
For most questions, when you want to know;
- what something is (e.g., a definition),
- what someone is doing,
- or what time it is,
...you will use ¿qué?
The word ¿qué? can sometimes mean which? This is because, even if you want to ask which? you cannot use the word ¿cuál? when a noun immediately follows. In these cases, the word ¿qué? takes on the meaning of which?
¿Qué plato de comida te gusta más?
Which dish do you like most?
¿Qué automóvil estás manejando hoy?
Which car are you driving today?
¿Qué camisa le prestaste a tu amigo?
Which shirt did you lend to your friend?
¿Qué vino prefieres, un tinto o un blanco?
Which wine do you prefer, a red or a white?
Because grammatical rules are often bent or broken in usage, you may still hear native speakers using the word ¿cuál? in these circumstances.
Using What in Spanish for exclamations
Lastly, the word qué is used in a variety of exclamations. These exclamations are difficult to translate precisely into English, but you will notice that qué can take on the meaning of how as well as what. Some common exclamations include:
What a pity!
How neat! How pretty!
What a shame!
When to Use ¿Cuál?
Usually, ¿cuál? means Which? Basically, you should use ¿cuál? whenever there is a choice for the person who is going to answer. However, as you have just seen, you cannot use ¿cuál? before a noun. You must use ¿qué? instead.
Nevertheless, that still leaves plenty of opportunities to use ¿cuál? There are many questions where a verb rather than a noun follows the question word. Remember that ¿cuál? will becomes ¿cuáles? when the word to which it refers is plural.
¿Cuál? can also mean What? in certain circumstances. When you are asking for information, such as a person’s name, telephone number, address, or a date, you will use ¿cuál? rather than ¿qué?
The most common instances of this use of ¿cuál? are:
¿Cuál es tu nombre?
What is your name?
¿Cuál es la fecha hoy?
What is the date today?
¿Cuál es tu número telefónico?
What is your telephone number?
¿Cuál es la dirección?
What is the address?
Using ¿Cómo? to ask What?
Imagine that you have been conversing with your new Spanish-speaking friend, but he or she just said something that you completely missed. You want to ask, What? Instead, you ask:
¿Cómo? is the polite way of asking What? when you want someone to repeat what they have just said. (You may wish to add, What did you say? or ¿Qué dijiste?)
¿Cómo? can also mean what? in other contexts.
What is your name? - (Literally: how are you called?)
What is the word for this?- (Literally: how does one say this?)
What is she like? - (Literally: What sort of person is she?)
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