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Qué vs. Cuál

Notebook, glasses, a key, and a coffee mug

By Nelson Navarrete

Throughout my years of teaching Spanish, I have often been approached with the question “When do I use ‘¿Qué?’ and when ‘¿Cuál?’ ?”. I would like to bring some light to those that are still struggling with this dilemma.

First, you will notice that most dictionaries will tell you ‘¿Qué?’ is “What?” and ‘¿Cuál?’ is “Which?”, and here is where the confusion might start because most assume these words are to be treated exactly the same way as their English counterparts. While this is normally the case, there are a few situations in which they work in a slightly different way. Let’s look at these interrogative words separately first, and then compare their use in situations where English speakers often find them conflicting.

‘¿Qué?’ is used as “What?” except in questions that require the use of the verb ‘ser’. For example:

¿Qué quieres comer esta noche? - What do you want to eat tonight?

¿Qué has estado haciendo últimamente? - What have you been doing lately?

¿Qué compró tu tía en el mercado? - What did your aunt buy in the market?

‘¿Cuál?’ for the most part is used as “Which?” or “Which one?” except in questions that require the use of the verb ‘ser’. It is important to mention that ‘¿Cuál?’ pluralizes as ‘¿Cuáles?’ meaning “Which (with plural nouns)?” or “Which ones?”. For example:

Sólo tenemos dos pastelitos, uno de chocolate y uno de fresa. ¿Cuál quieres? - We only have two cupcakes, a chocolate one and a strawberry one. Which one do you want?

¿Cuáles zapatos te pusiste para ir a la fiesta?* - Which shoes did you wear (did you put on) to go to the party?*

*Note: In many places, people would rather use ‘¿Qué?’ in this question. There is a tendency to use ‘¿Qué?’ when the interrogative word is used as an adjective, and a noun is placed between the interrogative word and the verb. For example: ¿Qué zapatos te pusiste para ir a la fiesta?

These uses are going to change in questions that use the verb ‘ser’ immediately after the interrogative pronoun, and follow the format “What is/are ...?”. The interrogative pronoun ‘¿Cuál?’ is used in personal and general information questions, and ‘¿Qué?’ is used in definition questions. Let’s look at the table below to discuss this further.

What is/are....? with the verb ‘ser’

¿Qué?

¿Cuál?

Definition

Personal information 

¿Qué es eso? - What is that?

¿Qué es ‘omóplato’? - What is “scapula”?

¿Qué es el amor? - What is love?

¿Cuál es tu nombre? - What is your name?

¿Cuál es tu apellido? - What is your last name?

¿Cuál es tu dirección? - What is your address?

¿Cuáles son tus pasatiempos? - What are your hobbies?

Exceptions

¿Qué?’ Is also used when a question includes a noun between the interrogative word and the verb ‘ser’, even if it is a general information question. For example:

¿Qué hora es? - What time is it?

¿Qué día es hoy? - What day is today?

General information 

¿Cuál es la capital de Nueva York?

What is New York’s capital?

¿Cuál es la moneda de Francia?

What is the currency in France?


We hope this article helped you gain a better understanding of ‘¿Qué?’ and ‘¿Cuál?’, but remember, it is important to practice what we learn in order to internalize it. So, go out there and interrogate as many people as you can!

Nelson Navarrete is a Spanish Language Instructor at Berges NYC.