What is the difference between cuál vs qué?
- Cuál means which
- Qué means what
Now, sometimes this may not be as easy as it sounds, and using these little words might become a little tricky, leaving you as confused as a cat trying to catch a light.
Because sometimes, ‘which’ and ‘what’ work differently in Spanish than the way they do in English.
Just imagine you’re chatting with a native Spanish speaker, and you want to ask a specific question.
Choosing a word between ‘cuál vs qué’ based on how you use ‘which’ vs ‘what’ in English might lead to confusion, and we want to avoid that, right?
Understanding these subtleties in Spanish ensures your questions sound natural and are easy to understand for the other person.
One of my students, for example, used to say “Qué es tu nombre” instead of “Cuál es tu nombre”.
Not a very clear question for a Spanish speaker.
Well… you’ll understand by the end of this blog post.
We’ll go from understanding the basic differences between “cuál” and “qué”.
And then we’ll move on to explore real-life scenarios where these words come into play.
Let’s get started
What does “Cuál” mean?
“Cuál”, pronounced “KOO-AHL” is the Spanish word that adds depth and specificity to our questions.
Again, ‘cuál’ means “which”, and we also have a plural version for this word in Spanish:
- Cuáles (Pronounced as KOO-AH-LES)
In its essence, “cuál” or “cuáles” is used when we want to ask which one or which ones are from a specific set or range of options.
It’s like having a spotlight on a particular item in a collection, asking for its identity among others.
Here are some basic examples, and notice that some of these questions would be using what in the English translation:
- ¿Cuál es tu color favorito? (What is your favorite color?)
- ¿Cuál prefieres, el té o el café? (Which one do you prefer, tea or coffee?)
- ¿Cuáles son tus planes para el fin de semana? (What are your plans for the weekend?)
See why I told you to avoid using ‘cuál vs qué’ like you use them in English?
Notice how in these examples, “cuál” prompts for a specific answer within a range of possibilities.
It’s like pointing to different colors on a palette and asking someone to pick their favorite.
The key here is specificity – “cuál” thrives on details and choices.
While “cuál” seems straightforward, there are subtle variations. For instance, “cuáles” is used when asking about multiple choices.
- ¿Cuáles son tus películas favoritas? (What are your favorite movies?)
Additionally, “cuál” can also be followed by a noun, indicating a specific item or thing.
- ¿Cuál libro estás leyendo? (Which book are you reading?)
- ¿Cuál comida prefieres? ¿Colombiana o Peruana? (Which food do you prefere? Colombian or Peruvian?)
- ¿Cuál color deseas para tu nuevo auto? (which color do you want for your new car?)
What does “Qué” mean?
Yes, it means “what” as I said in the intro.
Now, I remember another Spanish student I had who would say ‘¿Qué?’ to require clarification every time she didn’t understand something in Spanish.
You know, something like:
Context: Hearing undecipherable sentences in Spanish.
My student: Uhhhh….¿qué?
Yes, that’s a correct use of ‘¿Qué?’, but for me that sounded a little rude.
Because for some cultures in Latin America, this might be perceived as a lack of good manners.
When I was growing up, for example, I can recall some memories of me requiring clarification from my mother saying: ‘¿Qué?’.
It would get me in trouble every time…
My mom would always start the disciplined ritual by quoting my mistake and then imposing the due respect I needed to show to her.
In Latin America, or at least in Colombia, showing respect for your parents requires calling your dad ‘señor’ and your mom ‘señora’.
So saying ‘¿Qué?’ is perceived as a very disrespectful expression towards them.
Mom would say something like this if I did it:
“¿’Qué’?…. ¡No!… ¡Señora!… Yo soy su mamá”. (‘What’?… No, Señora… I’m your mother. 🩴💥
I hope the emojis are clear enough to explain what happened right after the verbal correction 😅
But don’t get me wrong, even though Latinas moms are very firm, they’re sweet and loveable as well. 😌
‘¿Qué?’ To require clarification from people
Of course, it’s not the same when you talk to your parents than when you talk to people in general.
If that’s the case, then whenever you need clarification, try better with a:
Native speakers perceive this as a proper way to require the other person to repeat something they don’t understand, of course, always watching your tone.
See now why my student sounded a little rude to me every time she said ‘¿Qué?’.
‘¿Qué?’ for asking questions
‘¿Qué?’ might also work to make questions when you want to grasp the nature, identity, or characteristics of a person, place, thing, or idea.
- ¿Qué es esto? (What is this?)
- ¿Qué estudias en la universidad? (What are you studying at the university?)
- ¿Qué quieres para cenar? (What do you want for dinner)
In these examples, “qué” is asking for a description, an identity, or a preference.
It’s the word you use when you’re curious about the nature of something or someone.
Unlike “cuál,” which deals with choices, “qué” seeks to uncover the essence of what’s being asked about.
Cuál vs Qué: When to use each one of them?
You have no idea how many times I have explained the difference between “Cuál vs Qué” in Spanish.
Is there something wrong with students then?
The problem is that this is not just about knowing the definitions; it’s about applying this knowledge in real-life situations.
You might only learn to do that when you put your brain through real contexts, and when you actually train it to think in Spanish.
Otherwise, trying to make these differences from an analytical standpoint will only make you lose fluency in your speaking.
Let me give you some hints to always make the correct difference between ‘cuál vs qué’.
These hints won’t make you fluent, but they’ll point you in the right direction:
Use “Cuál” when:
- There are options or choices
- You need to ask for specific details
Just check out some examples:
- ¿Cuál es el mejor futbolista del mundo? (What’s the best soccer player in the world?)
- ¿Cuáles son las características del nuevo iphone? (What are the features of the new iPhone?)
- ¿Cuál es la capital de Francia? (What is the capital of France?)
- ¿Cuáles son los beneficios de hacer ejercicio regularmente? (What are the benefits of exercising regularly?)
- ¿Cuáles son las razones para aprender un nuevo idioma? (What are the reasons for learning a new language?)
- ¿Cuál es tu canción favorita de todos los tiempos? (What is your all-time favorite song?)
- ¿Cuáles son los ingredientes de esta receta? (What are the ingredients of this recipe?)
- ¿Cuáles son tus metas a corto plazo? (What are your short-term goals?)
- ¿Cuál es la mejor manera de aprender a cocinar? (What is the best way to learn how to cook?)
Use “Qué” when:
- Asking for definitions or descriptions
- Inquiring about general or open-ended information:
Let me throw some examples here:
- ¿Qué te gustaría hacer el fin de semana? (What would you like to do on the weekend?)
- ¿Qué opinas sobre este tema? (What do you think about this topic?)
- ¿Qué necesitas para terminar este proyecto? (What do you need to finish this project?)
- ¿Qué te parece este restaurante? (What do you think of this restaurant?)
- ¿Qué idiomas hablas? (What languages do you speak?)
- ¿Qué quieres ser cuando crezcas? (What do you want to be when you grow up?)
- ¿Qué te motivó a estudiar medicina? (What motivated you to study medicine?)
- ¿Qué te hizo reír tanto? (What made you laugh so much?)
- ¿Qué vas a hacer durante las vacaciones de verano? (What are you going to do during summer vacation?)
- ¿Qué consejo darías a alguien que quiere aprender un nuevo idioma? (What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn a new language?)
Common mistakes Spanish students make when facing Cuál vs Qué
Alright mis amigos!
Now that you know the theory, I want to point you to some common mistakes I’ve heard my students make.
Of course, the purpose isn’t to ridicule them or to say that students are dumb or anything.
The goal here is to let you know of the mistakes of English speakers (My students’ mother language is English) so that you can avoid them or correct yourself in case you make them.
Let’s get to it!
Using “Cuál” Instead of “Qué” for Definitions and Explanations
Remember, when seeking a definition or explanation, always use “qué.”
Think of it as asking ‘What is the nature of…?’ or ‘What does it mean?’
Never do this amigo or amiga:
- ¿Qué es el significado?
- ¿Qué es tu nombre?
- ¿Qué es tu favorito?
Instead of that, replace those phrases for:
- ¿Cuál es el significado? (what’s the meaning?)
- ¿Cuál es tu nombre?(What’s your name?)
- ¿Cuál es tu favorito?(What’s your favorite?)
Choosing “Qué” Over “Cuál” When Options Are Present
If there are specific options involved, opt for “cuál.”
Think of it as asking ‘Which one out of these?’ instead of just ‘What?’
These are mistakes:
- ¿Qué de estas películas te gustaría ver?
- ¿Qué de estos platos probaste primero?
Instead of that use:
- ¿Cuál de estas películas te gustaría ver? (Which of these movies would you like to see)
- ¿Cuál de estos platos probaste primero? (Which of these dishes did you try first?)
Using “Cuál” for general or open-ended questions:
For open-ended questions, you must always stick to “Qué”.
So if there is more than one option in a question, you shouldn’t go with “cuál”:
- ¿Cuál tipo de música te gusta? (Unless you have options in mind or you’re giving the other person options, this is a mistake).
- ¿Cuál opinas sobre la guerra en este momento?
- ¿Cuáles planes tienes para el futuro? (Unless there’s a list of plans in mind or somewhere in the conversation this would be a mistake).
These questions would sound better as:
- ¿Qué tipo de música te gusta? (What kind of music do you like?)
- ¿Qué opinas sobre la guerra en este momento?(What do you think about war right now?)
- ¿Qué planes tienes para el futuro? (What plans do you have for the future?)
In these examples, “qué” is used because the questions are not asking about a specific choice from a set of options but rather seeking general information or opinions.
Confusing “Cuál” and “Cuáles” in Plural Forms
This is very simple, but trust me my dear reader amigo or amiga, some students have fallen trap of confusing these two words to end up formulating questions incorrectly.
Just remember that “Cuál” is the singular for which in Spanish, and “Cuáles” is the plural version of it.
This means that if you’re asking about more than one thing, always say “Cuáles”.
Here are some mistakes examples:
- ¿Cuáles es tu carro?
- ¿Cuáles libro estás leyendo?
- ¿Cuáles es tu vuelo?
Here are the corrected phrases:
- ¿Cuál es tu carro? (What’s your car?)
- ¿Cuál libro estás leyendo? (What book are you reading?)
- ¿Cuál es tu vuelo? (What’s your flight?)
Instead of giving you a set of rules focused on when we use specific verbs, nouns, or adjectives, I wanted to present you with a little bit more context throughout this blog post, so that you have a better picture of the difference between ‘Cuál vs Qué’.
Remember that mastering these differences may help you sound more accurate when you speak Spanish, and that way give more fluency to your conversations.
However, here’s a little word of warning from a teacher who’s seen countless students struggling with these two little words:
Don’t take the grammar rules to heart because if you do, you’ll find out that native speakers break them in the blink of an eye leaving you feeling frustrated and confused.
To sum up, here’s your takeaway for the day:
- Use “Cuál” or the plural “Cuáles” when there are options or choices or when you need to ask for specific details.
- Use “Qué” when asking for definitions or descriptions or when inquiring about general or open-ended information.
So, as you go further on your Spanish language journey, remember:
It’s the context that paints the true picture of these words.
Through conversations, stories, and real-life interactions, you’ll find yourself naturally using “cuál” and “qué,” bringing your language skills to life.
Finally, let me ask you this:
Is there a specific useful tip you found to make the difference between ‘Cuál vs Qué’ easier?
Share that in the comments below.