Previously on Spectrum Monkey we learnt that “qué” means what
and that “que” (without an accent) means that.
This serves as a timely reminder as to the importance of accents within the Spanish language and how they change the meaning of a word entirely.
This time we’re going to look at the different ways that we should express “what” in Spanish, depending if we’re asking a question, answering a question or expressing other things such as exclamation. Qué
“Qué” is certainly the most common translation for what.
It functions in a number of ways: as an interrogative pronoun, an exclamatory adjective whereby it can sometimes mean how
as well as what
and at times even functions as an adverb. Let’s see a few examples using “qué”.
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“¿Qué hora es?” ||What time is it? |
|“¿Sabes qué hora es?” ||Do you know what the time is? |
|“¿Qué está pasando contigo?” ||What’s going on with you? |
|“Qué lástima” ||What a pity |
|“¡Qué maravilloso!” ||How wonderful! |
|“¿Puedes preguntar qué tan hambriento están?” ||Can you ask how hungry they are? |
Remember: “Qué” is also used in some idiomatic constructions too, such as “Por qué?” (why?)
By and large “qué” is considered a question word or used to express exclamation. Lo que
As we touched upon in the introduction, “que” means that
, paying close attention that there is no accent over the letter e. When we precede que
with the neuter pronoun lo
to create “lo que”, then combined they change to mean what.
However, this is a different type of what
to “qué”. Let’s explain what we mean by this.
“Lo que” more accurately means “(the thing) which” or “(the thing) that”, but in English this can sometimes be expressed with the word what
. For instance: “The thing that we really like is…”, could be written in English as “What we really like is…”.
Remember: The use of the neuter pronoun lo
helps us describe a thing or abstract concept.
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“Esa cerveza era justo lo que necesitaba” ||That beer was just what I needed |
|“Lo que falta son algunas instrucciones claras” ||What is missing are some clear instructions |
|“Eso es lo que piensas” ||That is what you think |
Notice that in the above English examples the word what
could be replaced with either “(the thing) that” or “(the thing) which”, although typically these phrases scan much better using what
. Cuál / Cualés
“Cuál” or “Cualés” (when referencing things in the plural) means which
or which one(s).
They function as integrative pronouns.
However, rather like with the construction “lo que” both “cuál” and “cuáles” can also translate to mean what
. For instance, in English we can ask “Which do you prefer?” or “What do you prefer?”. Arguably, the first instance would be deemed more correct if we’re referring to a choice rather than seeking a description, but what
is commonly used in place of which
in English. Let’s see some more examples of when “cuál” or “cuáles” can be used in place of either what
|Spanish ||Meaning |
|“¿Cuál es tu nombre?” ||What is your name? |
|“¿Cuáles prefieres?” ||What / Which (ones) do you prefer? |
|“¿Cuál es el problema?” ||What / Which (one) is the problem? |
Note that when we use the cuál as a pronoun, as in the last few examples, it implies that there is a choice. Thus, it can translate to mean which one(s)
not just which.
Knowing when you use “qué” or “cuál(es)” to express what
can be tricky. Generally speaking, if you’re asking which
but directly before a noun, then it is best to use “qué”. For instance: “¿Qué libros?” (which / what books?).
Although this may be somewhat dependant on which part of the Spanish speaking world you find yourself in.
When preceding a verb you may use either “qué” or “cuál(es)” to express the word what.
It is better to use “qué” when asking for a definition, but “cuál(es)” tends to be used when clarifying a choice. Even asking one's name implies a choice from all the possible names, thus we use “cuál” even though in English we ask “what is your name?” not “which is your name?”
Beyond questions that are clear choices, if in doubt whether to use “qué” or “cuál(es)”, it is probably best to favour “qué”. Cómo
Finally, we come to “cómo” meaning how.
We have covered this recently in POST #57, in our look at different ways to say excuse me.
There we learnt that we can use the word “¿Cómo?” idiomatically when asking someone to clarify what they have said. Therefore in this instance it can translate to mean what?.
“¿Cómo? ¿Podrías repetir eso?” (What? Could you repeat that?) Conclusion | En conclusión
Certainly, the difference between which
might seem like a trivial difference at times in English, particularly as they appear to be interchangeable. But at least knowing the difference between what
as an integrative question word and the other forms, is still an important grammatical concept to understand. As with most things is will come down to practice and experience, but a good grasp of why we use different forms in difference situations is indeed half the battle.