Most of the question words, or interrogative pronouns, in Spanish seem to translate exactly the same way in English. For example, in the question, ”Cuándo es el examen?” meaning “When is the test?”, cuándo mean when. In certain cases, the question words qué or cuál can take on similar meanings, like what or which. We’ll show you some rules to help you decide which ”what” to use!
First, let’s review some important information about interrogative pronouns in Spanish. For example, did you know that all question words have an accent mark when you’re asking a question? That’s why you’ll see qué and cuál with accent marks in this explanation. Without the accent marks, it shows that you aren’t using them to ask a question, even though they’re pronounced the same with or without the accent mark. Pay attention to other similar question words in Spanish:
- ¿Quién? = who?
- ¿Por qué? = why?
- ¿Dónde? = where?
- ¿Cuándo? = when?
- ¿Cómo? = how?
Also, make sure you start your question with an inverted question mark! Spanish uses both question marks ¿? to start and end the sentence. If you think about it, it makes it easier to know that you’re about to ask a question!
When to use qué or cuál
There are a few rules you can practice to get the hang of using qué or cuál. Generally speaking, you may have heard that qué means what and cuál means which. However, it actually depends on the way both languages see the world. Which implies that there’s a closed set of information, so certain questions in Spanish use which because in that line of thought, it makes more sense. English, on the other hand, goes with what. Still confused? Here are some rules:
- Use qué with definitions.
- If you want to know what something is, you would say, ”¿Qué significa …?” Similarly, if you hear someone say a word in Spanish that you don’t know and you’re asking for a definition, you could say, ”¿Qué es …?”
- Use qué before nouns.
- If you’re trying to say what or which and a noun is the next word you’re about to say, you generally use qué. For example, ”¿Qué cine prefieres?” Is asking what movie theater you prefer. Since a noun comes after the question word, you want to use qué.
- Use cuál with the verb ser
- Any time you’re using the verb ser, you’re going to use cuál. This might seem unnatural to native English speakers, but it has less to do with the literal meaning of the question word and more about the grammatical rules of using them. The only time you use qué and a form of ser is for a definition. Any other time, you use cuál. For example, if I were to ask ”What is today’s date?” although I use what in English, I use cuál in Spanish because I’m using the verb ser. I would say, ”¿Cuál es la fecha de hoy?”
Of course, there are irregularities and more complicated rules, but these are the absolute basics! If you pay attention, you’ll notice these questions everywhere.