4 Spanish Words and a Phrase You Can Use for 'What'

What is going on with 'what' in Spanish?

Man taking pictures of a Barcelona sunrise.
¡Qué vista de Barcelona! (What a view of Barcelona!). Artur Debat / Getty Images

You may have seen the word "what" translated into Spanish in various ways—common ways of translating "what" include qué, cuál, lo que, and cómo. It can be confusing, but it's important to know the differences in how each translation is used.

So, how do you say "what" in Spanish? To know which version you should be using, it is helpful to know how it's being used, particularly how it functions as a part of speech.

Key Takeaways: Using "What" in Spanish

  • To translate "what" to Spanish, you need first to determine how it is being used in a sentence. For example, is it acting as a pronoun or an adjective?
  • The most common translation of "what" is qué.
  • Cuál is sometimes used for "what" when implying a choice.

Qué as 'What'

Most of the time, especially in questions and exclamations, qué is a good translation for "what." Note the accent mark—qué and que have substantially different uses and can be thought of as different words, which means that using the accent mark when appropriate is essential.

Here are a few examples of how to say qué as "what:"

  • ¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
  • ¡Qué mujer! (What a woman!)
  • ¿Qué es la verdad? (What is the truth?)
  • ¿Qué es la ONU? (What is the U.N?)
  • ¿Qué pasa? (What's happening?)

Qué is also used in indirect questions, in which a question is raised within a statement. This is is most common after forms of saber (to know):

  • No sé qué hacer con mi vida. (I don't know what to do with my life.)
  • Quiero saber qué te preocupa. (I want to know what is bothering you.)
  • El niño sabe qué es. (The boy knows what it is.)
  • No me pregunta qué hago aquí. (Don't ask me what I'm doing.)

Cuál and Cuales for 'Which One(s)'

As a pronoun, cuál or cuáles is used to say "what" when it means "which one" or "which ones." In other words, cuál or cuáles suggests that there is a choice of some sort.

  • ¿Cuál prefieres? (What do you prefer? Which one do you prefer?)
  • ¿Cuáles prefieres? (What do you prefer? Which ones do you prefer?)
  • ¿Cuál vas a comprar? (What are you going to buy? Which one are you going to buy?)

Note how cuál can be made plural even though "what" can be either singular or plural, depending on the context. This means you have to consider which version of the word—cuál or cuáles—to use based on context.

Cuál can sometimes also be used as a pronoun in this way even when "which" wouldn't work in an English translation of the sentence. There's no clear rule for this, but the word choice will seem natural as you learn the language. Notice the difference between the phrases below:

  • ¿Cuál es el problema? (What is the problem?)
    • Literally: Which is the problem?
    • In other words, of the possible problems, which one is it?
  • ¿Cuál es su motivación? (What is her motive?)
    • Literally: Which is her motive?
    • Of the possible motivations, which one is it?
  • ¿Cuál es la diferencia entre un asteroide y un cometa? (What is the difference between an asteroid and a comet?)
    • Literally: Which is the difference between an asteroid and a comet?
    • Of the possible differences between an asteroid and comet, which one is it?

Qué or Cuál As an Adjective Meaning 'What' or 'Which'

As an adjective that appears before a noun to mean "what" or "which," qué is usually used, although cuál is employed in some regions or by some speakers. Qué is typically the safer choice, though; cuál may be considered substandard in some areas. For example:

  • ¿Qué manzana prefieres? (What/which apple do you prefer?)
  • ¿Qué camisas vas a comprar? (What/which shirts are you going to buy?)
  • Esta prueba tiene nueve preguntas para descubrir qué fruta describe tu personalidad. (This quiz has nine questions for finding out what/which fruit describes your personality.)

Lo Que, Meaning 'That Which'

Lo que can be translated as "what" when it means "that which." This is especially common when "what" is the subject of a statement in English. Although it would sound awkward, "what" could technically be replaced by "that which" in these examples:

  • Lo que me dijo es una mentira. (What she told me is a lie.)
    • Literally: That which she told me is a lie.
  • Lo que me enoja es su actitud hacia mi madre. (What makes me mad is his attitude toward my mother.)
    • Literally: That which makes me mad is his attitude toward my mother.
  • Veo lo que pasa. (I see what is happening.)
    • Literally: I see that which is happening.

Cómo Meaning 'What'

Cómo is seldom used to mean "what," except as an interjection expressing incredulity. In some areas, ¿cómo? is used to ask someone to say something over again, although in other areas it can be considered mildly rude. Take a look at how these translations differ:

  • ¡Cómo! No lo creo. (What! I don't believe it.)
  • ¡Cómo! No puede ser. (What! It can't be.)
  • ¿Cómo? (What?)
    • In other words, what did you say?
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Erichsen, Gerald. "4 Spanish Words and a Phrase You Can Use for 'What'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/saying-what-in-spanish-3079450. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). 4 Spanish Words and a Phrase You Can Use for 'What'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/saying-what-in-spanish-3079450 Erichsen, Gerald. "4 Spanish Words and a Phrase You Can Use for 'What'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/saying-what-in-spanish-3079450 (accessed June 1, 2023).