Cuál vs Qué: What’s the Difference?
Do you want to solve the eternal mystery of cuál vs qué?
Do you want to finally stop making mistakes and asking your Spanish-speaking friends ¿Qué es tu dirección? instead of ¿Cuál es tu dirección? because you always translate “what” in English into qué in Spanish.
When I teach a new intermediate group, I always wonder who is going to ask first about cuál vs qué. It’s definitely a topic that you have to study if you want to take your Spanish to the next level.
Today, I’ll show you three situations in which you’ll encounter the cuál vs qué dilemma, as well as the differences between Spanish from Spain and Spanish from Latin America as far as cuál vs qué is concerned.
You’ll be able to apply the rules in a short exercise, and I’ll tell you how to keep practicing after you finish reading. Let’s go!
The Confusing Aspect of “What” vs “Which”
You probably spent the first months of studying Spanish knowing that cuál means “which” and qué means “what,” right? But cuál vs qué is not always that simple.
Imagine you just met a new friend and you want to add him to your Whatsapp contacts and you want to know what his telephone number is. “What’s your number?”, you’d say in English. And in Spanish? ¿Qué es tu número? Actually, ¿cuál es tu número? is the correct question.
Why? I promise there’s an explanation. Although you might be surprised right now, don’t worry. I’ll guide you through the rules that govern this area of Spanish grammar, and you’ll see that it’s easier than you think.
Cuál vs Qué – Rules to Remember
Cuál vs qué is not difficult when you stop for a moment to analyze the uses of these two question words. I promise that after some time, you’ll use both of them correctly, in an automatic way.
I’m going to explain three situations in which we can talk about cuál vs qué. In each one of them, I’ll show you how to decide which one is the correct option. You’ll also get to know the grammar constructions that should be used in each of the situations.
1. Requesting Information
If you’re requesting information you have to ask yourself what you are asking about. Do you need a definition or are you asking for someone’s name?
Asking For a Meaning / Definition – ¿Qué es…?
It’s a question you ask many times when you start learning a language and need to know the meaning or definition.
¿Qué es “perro”?
What is “perro”?
¿Qué es “el subjuntivo”?
What is el subjuntivo?
You can even use this construction to ask philosophical questions such as ¿qué es la felicidad? (What is (the definition of) happiness?)
¿Qué es “redundancia” en Inglés?
What is “redundancia” in English? (What’s the meaning?)
¿Qué es el amor?
What is love? (Asking for a definition)
Asking for a name/identity – ¿Cuál es…?
To ask. “What is the typical music of Guatemala?”, you’ll say in Spanish ¿Cuál es la música típica de Guatemala? You’re not asking for a definition or meaning here, like in the previous case, but rather expecting a concrete name.
“What’s your name?” Don’t even think of translating it with qué! The correct question is ¿Cuál es tu nombre?
As you can see in both situations, when requesting information, cuál vs qué can be a problem if you keep translating “which” and “what” into English.
In the situation we’re talking about, both qué and cuál translate into “what.” Therefore, think twice. Do you need a definition (qué) or a name (cuál)?
2. Choosing an Element From a Group
You’re just about to go shopping for some delicious ingredients for lunch, and your friend is asking you, ¿Qué compraremos? (What are we going to buy?) Then, inside the shop, after your basket is almost full, you grab two types of juice and ask, ¿Cuál quieres? (Which do you want?).
What’s the difference?
Heterogeneous, Infinite Group – ¿Qué + verb?
The first group is heterogeneous, diverse in character and content, and infinite. You are in theory choosing from a group but the group is huge, there are endless possible options. It’s like an open question in an exam:
¿Qué comen los osos?
What do bears eat?
You’ll also use it with all kinds of verbs if there isn’t a clearly defined set of choices in front of you.
¿Qué hiciste el fin de semana?
What did you do on the weekend?
¿Qué quieres hacer?
What do you want to do?
What did you eat?
In all the above questions, the answer is difficult to guess since there are many possible options.
Homogeneous, Finite Group –¿Cuál + verb?
If you ask ¿Cuál quieres? (Which one do you want?), you are giving a specific set of options for the other person. In this case, translations work. If you feel like asking “which one” in English with a conjugated verb, you’ll always use cuál.
The other person knows the options because they see them or you mentioned them before.
Tengo tres panecitos diferentes. ¿Cuál quieres?
I have three different pastries. Which one do you want?
¿Cuál compramos? ¿Éste o aquel?
Which one do we buy? This one or that one?
If I told you in the previous point that you can compare questions with qué to open questions during an exam, the questions with cuál in this situation are like a multiple choice.
Now, remember that cuál has a plural form (cuáles), so if the answer would be more than one thing, you should ask cuáles instead of cuál.
¿Cuáles prefieres? ¿Estos o aquellos?
Which ones do you prefer? These or those?
Watch out! – ¿Cuál + noun?
Although most textbooks will tell you something totally opposite, you can also use cuál with a noun to ask somebody to choose an object.
It’s considered incorrect in Castellano but accepted in Latin America. You can read more in Diccionario panhispánico de dudas about this specific use.
So having a limited set of choices, for example in Mexico, you can ask:
¿Cuál helado quieres? El de fresa o de chocolate?
Which ice cream do you want? The strawberry or chocolate one?
Cuál de / Cuáles de
In Spanish, you can also use cuál de or cuáles de when talking about choices. The preposition de introduces the group from which you are going to make a choice.
¿Cuál de estas pinturas te gustó más?
Which one of these paintings did you like the most?
Watch out, because if you confuse cuál with qué here, you’ll be asking about something totally different. Look:
¿Qué de estas pinturas te gustó más?
What (aspect) of these paintings did you like the most?
So, you’re not asking somebody to make a choice but to tell you about certain characteristics inside the group.
3. Asking About Objects
This use is similar to the previous one, but you’ll use it to ask questions about objects. You’ll ask the other person not to choose one thing but to give more information about it.
Asking about unknown objects – ¿Qué + noun?
In Spain, as I mentioned before, the combination with a noun is only possible with qué. And we will use it to ask questions about objects we don’t know, or don’t see in front of us at the moment of speaking.
Therefore, you’ll ask:
¿Qué coche es mejor?
Which car is better?
¿Qué perfume huele mejor?
Which perfume smells better?
Asking about objects we know or see – ¿Cuál +verb?
You’re again at the supermarket asking the shop assistant about items that interest you, and both of you are looking at the products:
¿Cuál cuesta menos?
Which one costs less?
¿Cuál tiene menos calorías?
Which has fewer calories?
¿Cuál contiene menos azúcar?
Which contains less sugar?
Asking about objects we know or see in Latin América- ¿Cuál + noun?
Just as in the previous situation when we have to choose from a group, in Latin America, you can also use cuál + noun to ask more information about objects:
¿Cuál chocolate se ve más rico?
Which chocolate looks richer?
¿Cuáles playas son más limpias? ¿Las del sur o del norte?
Which beaches are the cleanest? The ones in the south or the north?
Cuál vs Qué Summary Chart
Do you want to see if you got it? Just remember:
|Meaning/Definition qué es||Name/Identity cuál es|
|Choosing an Element From a Group|
|Heterogeneous, infinite group qué + verb||Homogeneous, finite group cuál/cuáles + verb cuál/cuáles + noun (Latin Am.) cuál/cuáles de|
|Asking Information About Objects|
|Asking about unknown objects qué + noun||Asking about known objects cuál + verb cuál/cuáles + noun (Latin Am.)|
Check your knowledge with the following exercises:
¿Qué, cuál, or cuáles?
- ¿________ es tu pintor favorito?
- ¿________ tipo de libros prefieres?
- ¿________ es tu opinión sobre la película?
- ¿________ pasatiempos tienes?
- ¿________ es tu número de teléfono?
- ¿________ es un satélite?
- ¿________ de estos colores te gustan?
- ¿________ es su moto, aquella?
- ¿________ piensas sobre la comida peruana?
- ¿________ de estos cantantes es mejor?
- ¿________ transporte usas para ir a la escuela?
- ¿________ es el coche ideal?
- ¿________ son tus esculturas, estas o esas?
- ¿________ quieres hacer el fin de semana?
- ¿________ es la diferencia?
Click here for the translation of the questions and the answer key.
Congratulations, you just finished studying a challenging topic. If you want a more general summary of the rules, you can find it in our article, How to pamper yourself in Spanish.
Cuál vs qué can provoke headaches if you don’t know the rules and try to translate every sentence to English. But this is not the case for you anymore! Now, it’s time to practice and move your skills to the next level. Sign up for a free class and practice cuál vs qué with one of our professional native-speaking teachers from Guatemala.
Ready to learn more Spanish grammar? Check these out!
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- A Simple Guide to Spanish Sentence Structure and Order
- Learn to Use Voseo: Vos in Spanish
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- Master the Spanish Alphabet: Letters, Sounds, and Songs for Everyone
- How to Use the Verb ‘Soler’ in Spanish
- Qué, cuál (Lat. Am.)
- Qué, cuáles (Lat. Am.)
- Qué, cuál (Lat. Am.)
Did you get them right? Congratulations!
- What (who) is your favorite painter?
- What kind of books do you prefer?
- What is your opinion about the movie?
- What hobbies do you have?
- What is your phone number?
- What is a satellite?
- Which of these colors do you like?
- Which is your motorcycle, that one?
- What do you think about Peruvian food?
- Which of these singers is better?
- What transportation do you use to go to school?
- What is the ideal car?
- Which are your sculptures, these or those?
- What do you want to do on the weekend?
- What is the difference?
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