Spanish question words such as quién, cuándo, and dónde translate simply and smoothly between English and Spanish, not so for qué vs cuál.
Understandably, qué and cuál are challenging because their English equivalents ‘what’ and ‘which’ aren’t straightforward either.
Should you ask:
What book are you reading?
Which book are you reading?
Just like English, Spanish switches between these two questions words in not so obvious ways.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about qué vs cuál including how to ask questions about options and how to ask questions about definitions.
An overview of qué vs cuál
If you want to learn how to use qué and cuál properly in Spanish, you first need to stop thinking of these two Spanish questions words as the translation of ‘what?’ and ‘which?’.
You’ll likely end up going around in circles if you try to directly translate these English question words. And, you may even spend unnecessary time thinking about the correct use of ‘what?’ and ‘which?’ in English.
Instead, you’ll be much better off if you think of qué and cuál in phrase combinations with either a verb, noun, or preposition.
What this means is you now have more things memorise. But, the good news is there are only 6 phrases you need to know.
Moreover, any question that you could possibly want to ask in Spanish based around options or definitions could fit into one of these 6 question phrases.
The 6 phrases are:
In the last few examples, ‘(verbo)’ represents a conjugated verb and ‘(sustantivo)’ represents any Spanish noun you may want to use in your question.
Now, instead of translating ‘what?’ and ‘which?’, you simply need to choose between one of the above question phrases.
Note we see students in our Spanish classes making the most mistakes with the second and fourth constructions (I’ll explain why in the relevant sections below).
Let’s look at each question phrase in more detail.
Question phrase 1 – ¿Qué es…?
The first thing you should ask yourself: are you looking for the definition of a word or phrase?
If you are, you’ll need this first question phrase.
Think of ¿Qué es…? as asking “What is the definition of…?”.
English: What is (the definition of) a country?
Espanõl: ¿Qué es un país?
English: What is (the definition of) a family name?
Español: ¿Qué es un apellido?
English: What is (the definition of) a sentence?
Español: ¿Qué es una oración?
If you think the answer to your question would be in a dictionary then start your question with ¿Qué es…?.
Question phrase 2 – ¿Cuál es…?
If your question isn’t related to the definition of an idea or concept but instead could have a variety of answers, you may need this second question phrase.
In fact, ¿Cuál es…? should to be one of your go-to questions for asking about anything where more than one answer is possible.
Furthermore, you still need this construction even when it feels like there is only one answer such as asking someone’s name.
For example, this is not correct:
English: What is your name?
¿Qué es tu nombre? ⊗
If you want to ask someone’s name using a construction where you need to decide between qué vs cuál, you must use cuál.
English: What is your name?
Español: ¿Cuál es tu nombre?
Of course, you can also ask someone’s name using a reflexive verb in combination with cómo.
As I mentioned earlier, we see a lot of Spanish students making mistakes with this construction. This is because:
- It is really tempting to translate “What is…?” to ¿Qué es…?.
- There are many questions in English that start with “What is…?” that you can answer with a number of possible options.
Here are some more examples:
English: What is your favourite color?
Español: ¿Cuál es tu color favorito?
English: What is the plan this weekend?
Español: ¿Cuál es el plan este fin de semana?
In addition to ¿Cuál es…?, you can also ask about plural options using ¿Cuáles son…?. For example,
English: Which are your shoes?
Español: ¿Cuáles son tus zapatos?
English: What are your favourite memories of the trip?
Español: ¿Cuáles son tus recuerdos favoritos del viaje?
Note in these last two examples we have a ‘what’ and a ‘which’ in English becoming cuáles in Spanish.
Question phrase 3 – ¿Cuál de…?
This third question phrase is a lot more obvious than the previous two and is much easier to translate between English and Spanish.
You use ¿Cuál de…? when you want to ask “which of … (these options) …?”.
English: Which of your siblings is the tallest?
Español: ¿Cuál de tus hermanos es el más alto?
English: Which of these paintings do you prefer?
Español: ¿Cuál de estas pinturas prefieres?
English: Which of the cars is yours?
Español: ¿Cuál de los coches es el tuyo?
If you are expecting the question to have more than one answer, you can also use this structure with cuáles as follows:
English: Which of your friends know Spanish?
Español: ¿Cuáles de tus amigos saben español?
English: Which of your cousins went to your wedding?
Español: ¿Cuáles de tus primas fueron a tu boda?
Note that with these last two examples the conjugated verbs match cuáles in plural form (ellos / ellas).
Question phrase 4 – ¿Qué (sustantivo)…?
This fourth phrase seems to present more troubles than the rest.
In English, you might ask questions like:
Which book do you prefer?
Which option do you want?
Which restaurant has the best food?
All of these questions need to have a qué in Spanish.
The rule is: if you immediately follow a question word with a noun, the question word in Spanish should be qué.
This is why it is much better to think of ¿Qué (sustantivo)…? than trying to directly translate ‘which?’.
The English questions above in Spanish are:
English: Which book do you prefer?
Español: ¿Qué libro prefieres?
English: Which option do you want?
Español: ¿Qué opción quieres?
English: Which restaurant has the best food?
Español: ¿Qué restaurante tiene la mejor comida?
Question phrase 5 – ¿Qué (verbo)…?
You need this question phrase whenever you want to follow a question word by a conjugated verb and there isn’t a discrete set of choices in front of you.
If you want to ask about what happened, what someone wants, what someone does, or what someone wants to do, etc., you’ll need this phrase.
The choice between this phrase and the last phrase in Spanish is much closer to the consideration you have to make when deciding between ‘what’ and ‘which’ in English.
If there is a big range of options, go with ¿Qué (verbo)…?.
English: What did you do on the weekend?
Español: ¿Qué hiciste el fin de semana?
English: What do you want to do this afternoon?
Español: ¿Qué quieres hacer esta tarde?
English: What did you have for breakfast?
Español: ¿Qué has desayunado?
As you can see, the answers to these questions could range from a whole list of possible answers, none of which could be a discrete choice of 1, 2, or 3.
Question phrase 6 – ¿Cuál (verbo)…?
In contrast to the previous phrase, if you have a small set of things to choose from, and you know from context what you are choosing, then you will need this last phrase.
Context matters here! In other words, you can only use this question phrase if linked to a previous statement.
Going back to a previous phrase, imagine you have 3 books to offer someone, you could ask which book they want using question phrase 3 as follows:
English: Which of these three books do you want?
Español: ¿Cuál de estos tres libros quieres?
Or, you can use this last question phrase 6 by first stating something about the range of books, and then asking a question related to choice. For example:
English: I have three books. Which (one) do you want?
Español: Tengo tres libros. ¿Cuál quieres?
As you can see from this example the best translation of ¿Cuál (verbo)…? is “which [one] (conjugated verb)…?”.
With this last phrase, try to always think “which one?”. For example, “which one do I want?”, “which one is best”, “which ones do we need?”.
Here are some more Spanish examples:
English: There are two movies on at the cinema tonight. Which (one) would you prefer to watch?
Español: Hay dos películas en el cine esta noche. ¿Cuál prefieres ver?
English: I don’t know if I want to make vegetable soup or fish soup for dinner. Which (one) do you feel like?
Español: No sé si quiero hacer sopa de verduras o sopa de pescado para la cena. ¿Cuál te apetece?
English: We have four desserts left. Which (ones) haven’t you tried?
Español: Nos quedan cuatro postres. ¿Cuáles no has probado?
The choice between ‘what’ and ‘which’ sometimes makes for a fun discussion in English. In contrast, the rules for qué vs cuál are more simply defined in Spanish by the above set of phrases.
It might take a little getting used to, but if you remember the phrases from this post, you will be able to avoid any mistakes with qué vs cuál.
I suggest you take one phrase from the post and use as often as you can, then come back, choose another, and go again.
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How else can you use qué vs cuál in a Spanish question?