Learn About Spanish Interrogative Pronouns

Discover the Difference Between 'Qué' and 'Cuál' In Spanish

Que vs Cual
Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo. 

Qué and cuál are two words that can be confusing to people learning Spanish, because they can be translated as the same word into English, namely, "what." It is sometimes said that qué is closer to "what" in meaning, and cuál is closer to "which." But that rule isn't always true.

When to Use Accent Marks

The two words, when they have accents, are used as interrogative pronouns in questions to mean "what" or "which." Qué is the same in the singular and plural forms; the plural of cuál is cuáles.

Accented forms of these words appear only in exclamations and in questions, which includes an indirect question. The accented qué is found most often at the beginning of a sentence, although it sometimes follows de and other prepositions, especially in indirect questions. For example, ¿De qué color es la camisa? meaning, "What color is the shirt?" 

Without accents, normally que and cual are not being used as a question. Most often, they are connecting words or, technically speaking, relative pronouns, translated to mean "which" or "that." They can stand for either feminine or masculine objects as well as ideas or concepts. An example of this usage is a popular phrase, Creo que sí, meaning, "I think that is so."

Use Cases of Qué and Cuál When Asking Questions

There are a number of ways to ask questions using the words qué and cuál. A speaker can ask for a definition, like "What is this?", which uses qué. Or, you can ask for a choice selection from a group, "What looks better, this red blouse or this black one?", which uses cuál.

Qué Used for Definitions

A number of examples may help explain usage of qué asking for a definition: ¿Qué es una ciudad?, meaning, "What is a city?" Or, ¿Qué hace un presidente?, meaning, "What does a president do?" Or, ¿Qué significa "talanquera"?, asking, "What does "talanquera" mean?"

Qué Used Before Nouns 

Qué is usually the interrogative pronoun that is used right before nouns. For example, ¿Qué casa prefieres?, meaning, "Which house do you prefer?" Or, ¿Qué libro leíste?, asking, "Which book did you read?"

Cuál Used Before Forms of Ser 

Cuál is used before es and other forms of the verb ser, meaning "to be," when not seeking a definition. For example, ¿Cuál es tu número de teléfono?, meaning, "What is your phone number?" Or, ¿Cuál es tu problema?, meaning, "What is your problem?" Or, ¿Cuáles son las ciudades más grandes?, asking, "What are the biggest cities?"

Cuál Used to Make a Choice

Cuál is used to suggest or ask for a selection or choice from a group. For example, ¿Cuál miras?, meaning, "Which one are you looking at?" But, ¿Qué miras?, would be used to ask when you want to know, "What are you looking at?"

An example of the plural form of the interrogative pronoun used in making a choice would be, ¿Cuáles quieres?, meaning, "Which ones do you want?" But, ¿Qué quieres?, would be the proper way to ask, "What do you want?"

Qué as an Idiom

An idiom is an expression, word or phrase that has a figurative meaning traditionally understood by native speakers. For example, ¡Qué lástima! meaning, "What a shame!" Or, ¡Qué susto! meaning, "What a fright!" 

Some of the most common idiomatic expressions that are used daily in native Spanish speech are ¿Y qué? or ¿Y a mí qué?, both meaning, "So what?" Or, ¿Para qué? or ¿Por qué?, meaning, "Why?"

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Learn About Spanish Interrogative Pronouns." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/whats-what-in-interrogative-pronouns-3078142. Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Learn About Spanish Interrogative Pronouns. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/whats-what-in-interrogative-pronouns-3078142 Erichsen, Gerald. "Learn About Spanish Interrogative Pronouns." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/whats-what-in-interrogative-pronouns-3078142 (accessed June 2, 2023).