Most of the question words, or interrogative pronouns, in Spanish seem to translate exactly the same way in English. For example, in the question, ”When is the exam?” meaning “When is the test?”, when mean when. In certain cases, the question words what or which can take on similar meanings, like que 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 what and which 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:
- Who? = who?
- Why? = why?
- Where? = where?
- When? = when?
- How? = 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 what or which
There are a few rules you can practice to get the hang of using what or which. Generally speaking, you may have heard that what means que and which 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 que. Still confused? Here are some rules:
- use what with definitions.
- If you want to know what something is, you would say, ”What does it mean…?” 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 what before nouns.
- If you're trying to say que or which and a noun is the next word you're about to say, you generally use what. For example, "Which cinema do you prefer?" Is asking what movie theater you prefer. Since a noun comes after the question word, you want to use what.
- use which with the verb be
- Any time you're using the verb to be, you're going to use which. 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 what and a form of be is for a definition. Any other time, you use which. For example, if I were to ask ”What is today's date?” although I use que en español, I use which in Spanish because I'm using the verb be. I would say, "What is today's date?"
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.