Today, we are going to talk about a Spanish grammar issue that can cause many quebraderos de cabeza (headaches): when to use qué (what) and when to use cuál (which).
These are two words that Spanish learners often confuse since they don’t always directly translate from English. Stay with me until the end to also discover how to avoid common mistakes most English speakers make (are you making them too?), and to play a little guessing game with me… ¿Cuál palabra adivinarás? ¿Qué palabra no sabrás? (Which word will you guess? What word won't you know?)
Antes que nada (first of all), as an English native speaker, you need to stop thinking of these two Spanish question words as the translation of “What” and “Which”.
Estas dos palabras (these two words) can be confusing to Spanish students because they are often translated as the same word but, unlike English, they are not interchangeable in Spanish.
La buena noticia es (the good news is) that the easiest way to learn to differentiate these two words is by phrases or chunks which, by the way, are part of the method we use in our videos and in our academy.
Now let’s look at some examples:
Phrase 1: ¿Qué es…?
If you think the answer to your question would be in a dictionary, then start your question with ¿Qué es…? (What is..?)
- ¿Qué es una manzana? (What is an apple?)
- ¿Qué es Marruecos? (What is Morocco?)
- ¿Qué es esto? (What is this?)
Phrase 2: ¿Cuál es..?
If you have a question —about anything— and you think that more than one answer is possible, then you should use ¿Cuál es..?, which may be loosely translated as “Which..?”
- ¿Cuál es tu nombre? (What is your name?)
- ¿Cuál es tu número de teléfono? (What is your phone number?)
- ¿Cuáles son tus películas favoritas? (Which are your favorite movies?)
Do you see the difference with “qué” and how you won’t find the answers to these questions in a dictionary?
Side note: The plural of cuál is cuáles, while qué is the same in both the singular and plural.
Phrase 3: ¿Cuál de…?
It is used when you want to ask Which of… (these options)? It’s much easier to translate between English and Spanish following the formula ¿Cuál + preposition de?
- ¿Cuál de estos libros te gusta más? (Which one of these books do you like the most?)
- ¿Cuál de los dos prefieres? (Which one of the two do you prefer?)
- ¿Cuál de ellas te gusta más? (Which one do you like more?)
I’ve given you three rules already now, but chances are you’ll still forget them while speaking. So, like I said before, the easiest way to make sure you always get these right is… learning them by heart as a fixed word combination (or chunk)!
For example, “which one of the two” will ALWAYS be “cuál de los dos” in Spanish, never “qué de los dos”. Therefore, you can just learn the whole chunk by heart… and you’ll be able to say it without having to think about any rules!
Learning chunks in general is the fastest way to speak Spanish without translating in your head and without thinking about grammar all the time. If you’d like to learn more about this method, I suggest you sign up for the Spanish chunking training on our website, where we demonstrate how it works in more detail!
Phrase 4: Qué + Verb
If you want to ask what someone wants, wants to do, does or ask about what happened, you’ll need Qué + Verb (What + Verb):
- ¿Qué pasó anoche? (What happened last night?)
- ¿Qué comiste en la cena de navidad? (What did you eat for Christmas dinner?)
Phrase 5: ¿Cuál..?
It is used if you have to choose a few things and you know from context what you are choosing. Oh! You can only use this question phrase if linked to a previous statement:
- Tengo 3 blusas. ¿Cuál de estas quieres que te preste? (I have three shirts. Which of these do you want me to lend you?)
- De los idiomas que hablas, ¿cuál te gusta más? (Of the languages you speak, which one do you like the most?)
Summary and Practice
Now a quick recap of everything you just learned, and we’ll do it with a game!
¿Listo para jugar? (Ready to play?) Fill in the blanks and share your answers in the comments!
En sus marcas, listos, ¡fuera! (Ready, set, go!)
¿_______ día es hoy? (What day is it today?)
¿_______ es tu libro favorito? (Which is your favorite book?)
¿______ quieres?¿Este o ése? (Which one do you want? This one or that one?)
¿_______ quieres para comer? (What do you want to eat?)
¿_______ es más rápido? ¿La luz o el sonido? (Which is faster? Light or sound?)
¿_______ día es la reunión? (What day is the meeting?)
¿_______ película vas a ver? (Which movie are you going to watch?)
¿______ ciudad es más grande: Ciudad de México o Madrid? (Which city is bigger? Mexico City or Madrid?)
¿_______ es la capital de Alemania? (Which is the capital of Germany?)
¿_______ color te gusta más? (Which color do you like more?)
FREE Spanish Chunking Training
¡Muy bien! ¿Cuál fue tu puntuación? (What was your score?) ¿Era la que esperabas? (Was it the one you expected?) Let me know in the comments!
Also, like I said before, if you want to automatically say “qué” or “cuál” correctly in the right context without having to think about rules, the fastest way is by just memorizing them correctly in a chunk (word combination) from the very beginning!
And of course, learning with chunks doesn’t only work for qué and cuál… in our Academy, we teach Spanish entirely through chunks. If you’d like to learn more about how to do it, I suggest you sign up for the free Spanish training we have on our website where we demonstrate it with some Spanish dialogues.