As a Spanish learner, you may have been told that the difference between qué vs cuál is the same as the difference between ‘what’ and ‘which’ respectively in English. However, as you have progressed in your learning, you have likely discovered that this is rather simplistic and barely scratches the surface of how to use the words correctly.
Rather than think of qué and cuál as single words in isolation, you will understand how to use them better by learning how to use them in conjunction with verbs, nouns, and prepositions.
This means you have a few phrases to commit to memory. It’s going to take more effort than it did to learn the simplified definition above, but you’ll end up with a much more accurate understanding and ability. However, let’s be honest. If you are reading this piece, it’s because you’re a smart bilingual whose Spanish is already at an advanced stage and you are seeking areas for refinement.
Qué vs cuál – Know your options
To get a firmer handle on qué and cuál, you need to learn the six following phrases:
Any question that in English would begin with ‘what’ or ‘which’ can be translated with one of the above. Read on to discover how to choose the correct option.
This is a useful question phrase for the language learner but is not commonly used in day to day conversation. This is because beginning a sentence with ¿Qué es…? is the same as asking for the definition of something. Therefore, if you were to ask, ¿Qué es un tenedor? you will be shown a fork. On the other hand, asking ¿Qué es tu nombre? might cause confusion while your conversation partner tries to explain that his name is a selection of words used to identify him!
In short, use ¿Qué es…? when you want to ask what something means.
¿Qué es un barrio? = What is a neighbourhood?
¿Qué es una pelota? = What is a ball?
¿Qué es un bigote? = What is a moustache?
It is helpful to think of ¿Cuál es…? as the question phrase to use where there may be a range of answers. So on seeing several cars in a car park, it would be feasible to ask ¿Cuál es tu coche? or ´Which is your car?’
There are also less obvious situations such as when asking a person’s name. For example in English, it would be unusual in the extreme to ask of a person ‘Which is your name?’ (¿Cuál es tu nombre?) but in fact, it makes sense because while there are many thousands of names in the world, in day to day conversation, a person only identifies himself with one of them.
So, although you would not always translate ¿Cuál es…? as ‘Which is…’ you should always use it in Spanish where there appears to be some sort of choice however vague.
¿Cuál es tu ocupación? = What is your occupation?
¿Cuál es nuestro tren? = Which is our train?
¿Cuál es mi abrigo? = Which is my coat?
¿Cúal es la gran idea? = What’s the big idea?
If the item you are referring to is in the plural such as a pair of socks, you would use ¿Cuáles son…?.
¿Cuáles son sus calcetines? = Which are his socks?
¿Cuáles son las mejores películas de la década? = What are the best films of the decade?
This one is really straightforward and translates simply as ‘Which of (noun)’ as in ‘Which of these hikes is the easiest? (¿Cuál de estas caminatas es la más fácil?).
¿Cuál de las casas es el tuyo? = Which of the houses is yours?
¿Cuál de tus hermanos habla inglés? = Which of your siblings speaks English?
¿Cuál de mis sombreros quieres? = Which of my hats do you want?
If you are expecting an answer of more than one, you would use ¿Cuáles de…? as follows:
¿Cuáles de estas películas has visto? = Which of these films have you seen?
¿Cuáles de tus libros quieres vender? = Which of your books are you selling?
If you immediately follow a question word with a noun, the question word in Spanish has to be ¿Qué…? No ifs or buts.
Thus, such questions in English would look like the following:
Which film did you see?
Which coat will you wear?
Which ingredients should we buy?
In all of the above cases, you would begin with ¿Qué…? in the Spanish translation.
Therefore, in Spanish the above questions are:
¿Qué película viste? = Which film did you see?
¿Qué abrigo llevarás? = Which coat will you wear?
¿Qué ingredientes deberíamos comprar? = Which ingredients should we buy?
If you are asking what someone is doing, has done, will do; what someone wants, wanted, will want; what is happening, has happened and so on, you need ¿Qué (verb)…?
This is because the question invites one of a pretty much unlimited list of answers. In other words, you’re not asking about a small number of options.
¿Qué pasó después? = What happened next?
¿Qué vas a hacer esta tarde? = What are you doing this evening?
¿Qué quieres comer? = What do you want to eat?
To reiterate, the answers to these questions could range from a near infinite list of potential answers.
If your question invites the respondent to select from a limited number of choices which has previously been referred to, you need ¿Cuál (verb)…?
Hay cuatro pescados. ¿Cuál quieres? = There are four fish. Which do you want?
In the above example, the question refers back to the four fish mentioned previously. However, if you had not mentioned the fish before, you would use ¿Cual de…? as in ¿Cuál de los cuatro pescados quieres?
You might find it useful to think of ¿Cuál (verb)…? as ‘Which one…’
¿Cuál quieres? = Which (one) do you like?
¿Cuál has probado? = Which (one) have you tried?
¿Cuál debería llevar? = Which (ones) should I wear?
Just as gaining an understanding of the difference between para and por can give a huge boost to your confidence and fluency, learning how to correctly use qué and cuál will take your Spanish to the next level. As always, practice makes perfect. Have a go at writing down your own examples, say them to yourself, and use them whenever possible in conversation with other Spanish learners. You could even try your hand at on online quiz.