“Cuál” vs. “qué” in Spanish: what’s the difference?

“Cuál” vs. “qué” in Spanish: what’s the difference?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated February 27, 2023

Both cuál and qué translate to variations of “what” in Spanish. Generally, the question word cuál is used when there’s a specific set of choices or when the answer is short, like a name. The question word qué is used when we expect a long explanation, like a definition. Of course, these are general rules, and specific uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish may differ depending on the context. Here’s an easy tip to keep in mind: 

  • Long answer = qué (think of a “long” queue)
  • Short answer = cuál 

Is it perfect? No, but it will help you keep things straight as we dig deeper into the concrete uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish. Speaking of which, let’s dig in!

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The literal translation

Let’s start with the literal, direct translation of each word:

  • qué = what?
  • cuál = which? 

Though these literal translations can help in some contexts, they aren’t consistent enough to rely on as a strict rule. 

If you’re learning Spanish as an English speaker, it’s best not to translate cuál or qué directly into English. There are many instances in which the Spanish usage is different from the “what” and “which” we use in English. 

For example, the question “What is your name?” in Spanish uses cuál: ¿Cuál es tú nombre? As you can see, it’s best not to get stuck on a literal translation. Instead, get familiar with the common Spanish phrases that use qué and cuál. Thankfully, there are a lot of them!.

When to use “qué” in Spanish

Qué typically shows up in questions with open-ended answers. It’s also used when the question asks you to choose from any option in the world.

Meaning or definition

When you ask for meaning, definition or explanation of something, you’ll ask with the following structure: qué + ser (to be). For example:

  • ¿Qué es un “chavorruco?” (What is a “chavorruco?”)
  • ¿Qué son estos? (What are these?)

You can also use qué + ser to wax philosophical:

  • ¿Qué es la vida? (What is life?)
  • ¿Qué es el amor? (What is love?)

Selecting from an infinite or heterogeneous group

When you ask someone to choose but don’t give them preselected options, use “qué. The options are infinite:

  • ¿Qué quieres hacer? (What do you want to do?
  • ¿Qué prefieres leer? (What do you prefer to read?)

We also use qué when selecting from a heterogenous group, or a group of distinctly different objects. For example:

  • ¿Qué vas a comprar, un reloj o un libro? (What are you going to buy, a watch or a book?)
  • ¿Para la boda, qué me pongo, un traje o un vestido? (For the wedding, what do I wear, a suit or a dress?)

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When to use “cuál” in Spanish

When using cuál, we’re often trying to figure out the name of something or someone. The answers to cuál questions tend to be closed and specific. 

The person asking a cuál question usually knows the general outline of what they’re talking about, but not the specific word or name. For example:

  • ¿Cuál es el nombre del amigo de Big Bird en Plaza Sésamo en México? (What’s the name of Big Bird’s friend in Sesame Street in Mexico?) It’s Abelardo Montoya, by the way, and he is green.

Personal information

Questions about personal information often use ¿Cuál es…?:

  • ¿Cuál es tú apellido? (What is your last name?)
  • ¿Cuál es el edificio donde vives? (Which is the building where you live?)

Choosing from a finite or homogenous group

Use cuál to choose from a group that is finite. In other words, when the respondent is given a closed set of options:

  • ¿Cuál quieres? ¿El barato o el bueno? (Which one do you want? The cheap one or the good one?)

This also applies in cases where there’s a homogenous group of similar things:

  • ¿Cuál pastel te gusta más? Chocolate or vainilla? (Which cake do you like more? Chocolate or vanilla?)

What’s the difference between “cuál” vs. “qué” in Spanish?

Usually, when you misuse cuál vs. qué, it won’t change the meaning. 

One exception lies in the questions “cuál de” and “qué de,” to which there are completely different meanings and responses.

Cuál de:

  • ¿Cuál de estos libros te gustan? (Which of these books do you like?)
  • Me gustan los de la historia. (I like history books.)

Qué de:

  • ¿Qué de estos libros te gustan? (What about these books do you like?)
  • Me gustan los personajes y las imágenes vívidas. (I like the characters and the vivid imagery.)

This chart will help you keep track of the different uses of cuál vs. qué in Spanish.

Meaning/Definitionqué es
The name of somethingcuál es
Personal informationcuál es
Choosing from a closed groupcuál + verbcuál + noun
Choosing from an infinite groupqué + verb
Choosing from objects in front of youcuál + nouncuál + verb
Choosing from objects not in front of youqué + noun

Say what about cuál vs. qué in Spanish?

So, if you want specific information like a name, use cuál. If you’re asking a more open-ended question, use qué

Of course, that’s a general suggestion and things tend to get more granular than that. But here’s good news: If you make a mistake between the two, a native speaker will still (probably) understand you. 

¿Qué esperas? (What are you waiting for?) Get out there and practice cuál vs. qué in Spanish!

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.


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